Day of Empire (By Amy Chua)

Tolerant, We Stand

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Reviewed by James F. Hoge Jr.
Sunday, January 6, 2008


How Hyperpowers Rise To Global Dominance -- And Why They Fall

By Amy Chua

Doubleday. 396 pp. $27.95

Call 'em the Magnificent Seven. There have been many great powers in history but only seven that Amy Chua describes in Day of Empire as hyperpowers, those that have dominated not only their immediate surroundings but all the known world of their time: Persia, Rome, China, the Mongols, the Dutch, the British and the United States.

Chua finds they all achieved dominance by similar means, then succumbed to similar ills. The lone exception to this pattern of decline has been America, and that may be only a matter of time. Chua, a Yale law professor, worries that America may now be slipping off the top perch for the same reasons that its predecessors did: Once "a magnet for the world's most energetic and enterprising" people "of all ethnicities and backgrounds," she says, the United States seems to be tipping toward intolerance and "xenophobic backlash."

Of course, a hyperpower has to rise before it can topple. For starters, an ambitious climber must amass formidable military capabilities. However, might alone will not do. The coercive resources of a single state have never been enough to dominate the known worlds of ancient history or the larger ones of the modern era. To prevail over time, Chua argues, a hyperpower must add to its capabilities the strengths and talents of those it conquers, much as illiterate Mongol rulers embraced Chinese art, music and drama in the 13th century, and as the Dutch Republic took in refugees from religious persecution across Europe from 1492 to 1715.

Mind you, tolerance did not fully supplant coercion in any of the past hyperpowers. Brutality accompanied conquest and stood in ready reserve to suppress those who were immune to enticements. But in Chua's view the key resource for reaching hyperpower status has been human capital. The Magnificent Seven all obtained the acquiescence, even the support, of diverse peoples stretched over vast territories through what Chua calls "strategic tolerance." They accepted the customs and religious practices of the defeated; they recruited the best and the brightest of their new subjects for government and military service, sharing the riches and other benefits of empire.

This co-opting of human resources is what, to Chua, separates true hyperpowers from other imperial entities, such as the Ming and Mughal empires and medieval Spain. In one small but illuminating example, she notes that at the zenith of China's Tang dynasty in 713 -- "the most magnificent cultural flowering that China would ever see" -- the emperor received a delegation of Arab ambassadors and waived the requirement for them to perform a ceremonial kowtow. Roughly 1,000 years later, by contrast, China's Manchu rulers made the opposite decision, turning away an English envoy because he refused to prostrate himself. The Manchus were less tolerant than the Tang, and far less successful as a result.

Chua charts each hyperpower's decline from the point when its leaders stopped embracing diversity and started repressing part of the population in the name of racial purity or religious orthodoxy. At that moment, she says, the crucial "glue" of an overarching political identity disappeared, and otherwise manageable disputes became mortal.

"If the history of hyperpowers has shown anything, it is the danger of xenophobic backlash," she writes. "Time and again, past world-dominant powers have fallen precisely when their core groups turned intolerant, reasserting their 'true' or 'pure' identity and adopting exclusionary policies toward 'unassimilable' groups. From this point of view, attempts to demonize immigrants or to attribute America's success to 'Anglo-Protestant' virtues is not only misleading (neither the atomic bomb nor Silicon Valley was particularly 'Anglo-Protestant' in origin) but dangerous."

Chua acknowledges, however, that American predominance differs in some respects from traditional empires that gobbled up territory. The hegemony of the United States, emanating from victories in World War II and the Cold War, has depended on devising an international system that benefits others as well as itself. At this time in history, American leadership is needed to make the system work. But Chua sees that leadership crippled by the rise of protectionism and nativism in the United States, along with an over-reliance on military responses to danger. Rather than depending on force of arms, she contends, America needs to strengthen its "soft power" appeal; otherwise, fear of U.S. intentions will only grow from what is already a worrisome base of anti-Americanism.

Day of Empire follows Chua's bestselling World on Fire, which maintained that the export of democracy does not initially bring international nonviolence but instead excites ethnic hostility and regional instability. In her new book, she notes that, inside its borders, the United States "has over time proven uniquely successful in creating an ethnically and religiously neutral political identity capable of uniting as Americans individuals of all backgrounds from every corner of the world." But outside its borders, she says, "there is no political glue binding the United States to the billions of people who live under its shadow."

One might argue that Chua relies too heavily on "strategic tolerance" to explain the rise and fall of hyperpowers. Military and administrative excellence are key to the complex processes of creation and destruction, as is the growth over time of corruption. So, too, are the ambitions of those conquered -- not all of which are generated by the behavior of their rulers.

But the thesis of Day of Empire, like the thrust of her previous book, is provocative. Chua's lively writing makes her case studies interesting in themselves. And her convincing presentation of their relevance to the contemporary scene adds meaning to this timely warning. *

James F. Hoge Jr. is editor of Foreign Affairs.

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