Wednesday, June 16, 2010


A review of Amy Chua’s Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance—And Why They Fall (2007)

(Rating 5 of 5)

In short, the secret ingredient to a power turning into a great ‘hyperpower’ is tolerance. Not that being tolerant makes a nation a great power but it was essential to these already established powers to become the predominant power of their day, or as Chua defines it a ‘hyperpower.’ More then a superpower, hyperpowers are completely dominant in their sphere of the world with no rivals. To become a hyperpower, a nation must become tolerant as a prerequisite, and pulling away from that tolerance is what causes the hyperpower to crack.

Now the word ‘tolerance’ is something that must be taken relatively. Relative to the world and civilizations around them during the hyperpowers’ time period, and how the each hyperpower allows for social mobility and meritocracy.

“Finally, the concept is relative tolerance. In the race for world dominance, what matters most is not whether a society is tolerant according to some absolute, timeless standard, but whether it is more tolerant than its competitors. Because tolerance is a relative matter, even the tolerated groups may be subject to harshly inequitable treatment. Russian Jews in the late nineteenth century found America a haven compared to the pogroms they were fleeing, but were still subjected to anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish quotas in the United States.

I am not arguing that tolerance is a sufficient condition for world dominance. No matter how tolerant, the Kingdom of Bhutan is unlikely ever to become a global hegemon. It is always a confluence of additional factors—geography, population, natural resources, and leadership, to name just a few—that leads to the rare emergence of a world-dominant power. Pure luck plays a part, too. Even in the most propitious circumstances, a society’s ability to achieve and maintain global dominance will also depend, for example, on the state of the competition.” p.xxiv

With each case she briefly exams the history of the particular hyperpower, comparing it with the other powers that existed during its time, and following each case from their inception to the moment they rise to become a hyperpower, and there eventual downfall. Chua examines what made these powers different from others and what was their great undoing. Moreover, the continuing theme is each of these powers is they are more tolerant than their rivals are. Some of the civilizations she discuses are as follows:

· The Achaemenid Persian Empire was, as Chua describes, was the world’s first real hyperpower. Crushing its opponents Assyria, Babylonia, and Egypt, Persia was far more powerful than anyone they came across. The Persians allowed the subjects to worship their local gods; even the King of Persia would pay homage to local gods in their own lands. This increased the King’s image and legitimacy with his own subjects. Even Alexander who brought that empire down would emulate that strategy.

(Persian Empire at its height, green is Greece that is not a part of that empire.)

· Ancient Rome, during the period known as the High Empire, is also sighted for its tolerance of its subjects, not only allowing local populations to worship their own gods but even extending their citizenship and their very definition of what a ‘Roman’ was. Rome was able to create a since of unity throughout their empire which allowed them to maintain their hold on such a large area.

(The Roman Empire)

· The Tang Empire of Ancient China, how the Emperor Gaozu allowed for the Han Chinese and ‘barbarians’ such as the Turks to intermix and marry and have it be socially acceptable. This allowed for a more inclusive empire and one that is far easier to govern.

(Tang Empire)

· The Mongol Empire broke down traditional clans into military units that would show loyalty to the army unit that they use to show with male blood ties. Genghis Kahn himself would recruit people into his army who had skills they lacked, regardless of that individuals background.

(Mongol Empire)

· The Dutch World Empire, Holland in becoming a refuge for victims of religious persecution, allowed the very tiny place to assume a huge brain trust. With almost all smart and talented people from various groups, they were able to build a massive colonial empire. Although they were nowhere near as nice to their colonial subjects as they were the people at home.

(Dutch World Empire)

· The British Empire mimicked much of what the Dutch did to achieve success. This was accomplished in part because of the overthrow of King James II and replacing him with King William III* who was also the Prince of Orange and Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic. Great Britain, much larger than tiny Holland would assume Dutch policies and create for itself an empire to which the sun would not set.

(The British Empire)

· And of course, the United States of America is the modern hyperpower. The United States attracted immigrants from all over Europe, American society allowed for a great deal of social mobility, allowing people such Alexander Hamilton to go from bastard immigrant to Secretary of the Treasury.

(The United States of America)

Now any student of history knows many of these ‘tolerant’ nations were not really that ‘tolerant’ as we would now define it. However as previously stated what matters is relative tolerance. In addition, through most of those examples tolerance was something that involved. The United States today is attractive place for people all over the world; that might not have been the case when we practiced legalized segregation.

The book also deals with what went wrong with the hyperpowers, often how turning away from their more tolerant traditions either caused or hastened their downfall. Chua also deals with some potential future hyperpowers, discussing some of their strengths and drawbacks. Whether any of these ‘potential powers’ will one day be able to challenge the United States remains to be seen.

Throughout the work, Chua also discusses her own life, family history, and relates her experiences to the material creating are very flowing narrative that intellectual but nevertheless is easy to understand. The book is very enjoyable and informative.

*Technically, Queen Mary II as well but it was really more William.

{Video is from Amy Chua at a conference explaining this book}

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