Amy Chua's deft, but troubling Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance -- and How They Fall
Though the title fails to convey it, the argument of Amy Chua's new book, recently published in paperback, is arrestingly simple: Every “hyperpower” – a term she uses to describe globally-dominant civilizations at different points in world history – “was, at least by the standards of its time, extraordinarily pluralistic and tolerant during its rise to preeminence.”
Chua is quick to add that words like "pluralistic" and "tolerant" are not quite synonymous with what we might term “multicultural.” Instead, she says, they mean eschewing the often mythical allure of unity and “letting very different kinds of people live, work, and prosper in your society – even if only for instrumental or strategic reasons.” Conquered or minority peoples within an empire do not necessarily enjoy social equality, nor do they necessarily have political rights. But they are not summarily enslaved, destroyed, or forced to change their cultural or religious customs, and may in fact become quite wealthy and even powerful.
Using this standard, Chua identifies the ancient Persian and Roman empires, the medieval Tang Dynasty of China and the sprawling Mongol dominions, and the seventeenth century Dutch and nineteenth British empires as achieving hyperpower status. But her case studies also include
The flip side of her argument is that the fall of every hyperpower was accompanied by a rising tide of religious, cultural, political or other intolerance that hastened the end of global supremacy. The Romans, perhaps as a result of Christianity, proved unable to absorb those considered "barbarians." The British, for their part, could see their way to granting political autonomy to Canadians and Australians in the aftermath of the American Revolution, but their racism brutally blinded them to the claims of Indians and Kenyans, who, at least initially, were disposed to become legitimate British citizens. Hyperpower contenders like Mughal
It’s not hard to see at the outset how all this applies to all the current hyperpower, the
Chua writes with grace and even charm, managing to maintain an impressive degree of focus amid a sprawling narrative. Inevitably, this is history at 30,000 feet, and it virtually invites objections, large and small (American slavery clearly does not loom large in her imagination). Sometimes, her distinctions seem arbitrary – it’s not at all clear that the Dutch, whose power was never uncontested, really qualify as a hyperpower, or why, despite her disqualification by way of insularity, the Aztecs do not. It’s hard to dispute that the Inquisition proved to be a self-inflicted wound to the Spanish, but its empire only grew for decades after its imposition in 1492. Nor is it entirely evident that tolerance was an effect, rather than a cause, of other more decisive developments within these powers.
The biggest single problem with the book, though, is that it elides a crucial question: whether the sclerotic intolerance she laments is itself a product of tolerance. A multicultural approach to empire has the great advantage of pragmatism and flexibility, but the “glue” she repeatedly invokes can also be a solvent. As Chua herself notes of the speed to which the
Still, there’s lots to think about here. Few people actually reading this book would favor embracing the retrograde tactics of the Minutemen patrolling the