Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Review - Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance--and Why They Fall

I just finished reading Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance--and Why They Fall by Amy Chua. It was a enjoyable read and thought provoking. I am still digesting her central thesis but it has some merit.

A description of the book reads:

Historians have debated the rise and fall of empires for centuries. To date, however, no one has studied the far rarer phenomenon of hyperpowers—those few societies that amassed such extraordinary military and economic might that they essentially dominated the world.Now, in this sweeping history of globally dominant empires, bestselling author Amy Chua explains how hyperpowers rise and why they fall. In a series of brilliantly focused chapters, Chua examines history’s hyperpowers—Persia, Rome, Tang China, the Mongols, the Dutch, the British, and the United States—and reveals the reasons behind their success, as well as the roots of their ultimate demise. Chua’s unprecedented study reveals a fascinating historical pattern. For all their differences, she argues, every one of these world-dominant powers was, at least by the standards of its time, extraordinarily pluralistic and tolerant. Each one succeeded by harnessing the skills and energies of individuals from very different backgrounds, and by attracting and exploiting highly talented groups that were excluded in other societies. Thus Rome allowed Africans, Spaniards, and Gauls alike to rise to the highest echelons of power, while the “barbarian” Mongols conquered their vast domains only because they practiced an ethnic and religious tolerance unheard of in their time.

The basic premise of this book is that hyperpowers arise when they practice tolerance. This tends to attract the best and brightest from nations which are more repressive to the nation which is or will become the hyperpower. The Persians, Romans, Mongols, Dutch, British, and Americans all did this and thrived. She furthers this by pointing out that a loss of this tolerance ultimately leads to the fall from hyperpower status.

The histories that Chue lays out are simple to follow. Unfortunately, she sometimes gets facts wrong. She claims for example that all the cities in Italy stayed loyal to Rome while Hannibal laid waste to the Italian countryside. Anyone who has studied the Second Punic War knows that is false. Also, she follows many other historians who think that Rome's embrace of Christianity (and the subsequent intolerance that followed) lead to the Roman fall. I think that Rome went into decline while it was still tolerant (the plague that depopulated Italy under Marcus Aurelius is what I think was the ultimate killing blow which started the downward spiral) and Christianity may have only hastened the end.

Despite this, the book provokes thought and Chue appears to be on to something. This book is geared towards reflection on how America achieved hyperpower status and how such status might be lost. What is less clear is how the changes in the modern world might make these arguments less relevant. America remains (despite what immigration policies are enacted) the most tolerant nation in history and it is hard to see that changing anytime soon. Others factors may bring about American decline while America remains incredibly tolerant.

This is a book worth perusing. Chue may not be 100% right but she has good ideed which are worth pondering.

5 comments:

Jean-Fran├žois said...

I would not describe the current USA as 'tolerant'.

For example, any visitor to the US is treated like a criminal and there's a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the need for the immigration workforce.

In contrast, I'm under the impression that almost everybody was welcomed before the first world war era (with very crude background check) and could restart their life in the new world. Tales of the long line of immigrants disembarking from huge boats are far from the actual repressive police state the US is quickly becoming. I think it's that kind of tolerant immigration approach that is described in the book in the building phase on an empire. It gave the US the power it's still largely enjoying today.

That kind of welcoming spirit is long dead.

M said...

If by tolerant, you mean the borders are wide open and any one can enter no questions asked, you are right, the USA is less tolerant than it was but still more tolerant than most of the world.

That was not what I meant by tolerance. I was talking about freedom of belief, freedom of association, freedom to speak up and protest, freedom to innovate and start new business, etc. The USA still has most the world beat hands down. People may quibble about any of those statements but they very fact they can argue them with me proves my point.

Albatross said...

I'm inclined to agree with JF. As a European (alien) who arrived in the US a couple of years ago, I was extremely disappointed by the myth of American tolerance verses the reality of intolerance (not only towards ‘aliens’, but towards each other).

Of course, America has always attracted people that come from countries that are or were more intolerant so, comparatively speaking, many of the immigrants actually did and do find greater tolerance.

Sadly, I feel that because Americans have to keep reaffirming their belief that they are the greatest country on earth (and if they don't they are automatically accused of being unpatriotic) they fail to examine themselves honestly (for such a great country, they are a deeply insecure and easily paranoid people).

The result is that there is a huge disparity between what Americans believe about themselves and the view the rest of the world has of them.

Americans are generally speaking, ignorant, intolerant and judgemental of other nations and other peoples. I think this helps justify their need to 'convert' the globe to American ideals, which they tell themselves are better than anyone else's ideals.

Interestingly in my experience, all large countries - Russia, China and the USA seem to be much more inward looking than smaller nations such as in Europe which tend to look outwards and are therefore possibly more 'open' to foreign influences. The US tends to look at foreign influence as a bad (or even dangerous) thing, whereas many smaller nations are more curious about foreign ideas.

It's all relative, but I'd disagree with M's point that America is the most tolerant nation on earth, ever.

Francine said...

I completely disagree with the notion of a League of Democracies and agree with this reviewer’s view that democracies wouldn’t necessarily clamour together against other nations. It simply isn't true to say that democracies tend to side with each other as do autocracies. For example, America was (and in some cases, continues to be) on better terms with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan etc, than it is with many European countries. I also, am strongly opposed to the idea of a divided world, where smaller developing nations are encouraged to 'take sides' with more over-bearingly large countries. For many such countries, being caught in the crossfire is usually far more dangerous than it is for the dominant powers. Secondly, by creating an 'us and them' ideology, a more polarised, intolerant and aggressive world will emerge at a time when we must come together over hugely important issues such as climate change. Would it be nice if, for a change, America could go through an era without seeing enemies all over the place?

M said...

"I'm inclined to agree with JF. As a European (alien) who arrived in the US a couple of years ago, I was extremely disappointed by the myth of American tolerance verses the reality of intolerance (not only towards ‘aliens’, but towards each other)."

I think you are confusing tolerance with a joyful embrace. Americans will tolerate just about anything as long as it is legal but that does not mean they will love everything. I never claimed Americans loved every nuance the world throws at them but we remain the most culturally diverse place on Earth. Which is, of course, a result of tolerance...