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.