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American Exceptionalism


Chris Bertram reminds us that contemporary discussions of American imperialism miss out on the fact that the United States has historically been a very successful imperial power. It’s not as if we just pulled 37 new states out of our collective ass The conquest and colonization of the West was so extraordinarily successful that modern Americans simply don’t think of it as a conquest in the same way that we think of Russian expansion, Chinese expansion, or European colonialism.

This reminded me of why I have an aversion to Fareed Zakaria. Zakaria is, of course, a prominent public intellectual. Like many prominent public intellectuals, he received his Ph.D. from Harvard. He turned his dissertation into From Wealth to Power, which is a study of the effect of weak executive power on colonial expansion. He concludes that weak executive power in the US in the second half of the nineteenth century precluded the United States from seeking colonies in the same manner as other great powers.

And that, my friends, is absurd. It doesn’t even pass the laugh test. As long as you posit that America’s expansion into the West wasn’t colonialism, it sounds like a great, nuanced, interesting thesis. Similarly, if you posit that pigs are vegetables, you’ll wonder why vegetarians don’t eat bacon. The argument doesn’t even have face validity (and Zakaria deals with the problem in the book only in passing), and yet he managed to defend it as a dissertation and get it published. I once assigned the book to a group of undergraduates, and even they were genuinely flummoxed at the gaping blind space in the center of the book’s argument.

I haven’t read any of Zakaria’s other books, so I can’t comment on them. I have found his columns well-written and occasionally insightful. And yes, there is an element of academic bitterness here; I wish I could have written and published such a crappy dissertation. Nevertheless, I will always find myself suspicious of his work.

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