Book Review – Chua, Day of Empire
Chua, Amy, Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Power and Why They Fall (2007 Hrdbk, 2008 ppbk. 396 pp.)
A paperback of this title was kindly provided by the publisher for review.
Warning: 9,000+ words ahead!
While drafting a 2006 chicagoboyz review of Yale Law Professor Amy Chua’s World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (2003), I was very impressed with the value of the concepts she introduced and her superior writing style. I had heard of her more recent book but the pace of the past few years had largely halted my book reviewing.
So I’m late to the game with Day of Empire (DOE). The publication of the paperback version of the book triggered one of Amazon.com’s oft-fatal “As someone who has purchased or rated X, you might like to know that Y has just been published …” notices in my In-Box. Based on World on Fire and Amazon’s summary blurb of the more recent book, it seemed well worth reading. I’ve purposely avoided reading any reviews of the book by other writers.
In World on Fire, Professor Chua introduced the concept of market-dominant minorities … influential groups who are resistant to change (including democratic change) that may affect their economic status in developing nations.
The concept could also be used to describe Israel and America’s impact at a regional and global level (respectively) … i.e., nations that influence the pace and direction of disruptive change for a skeptical (when not actively resistant) world.
Quoting Professor Chua in her previous book:
This book is about a phenomenon – pervasive outside the West yet rarely acknowledged, indeed often viewed as taboo – that turns free market democracy into an engine of ethnic conflagration. The phenomenon I refer to is that of market-dominant minorities: ethnic minorities who, for widely varying reasons, tend under market conditions to dominate economically, often to a startling extent, the “indigenous” majorities around them.
Day of Empire is Professor Chua’s “big picture” history book exploring a different kind of dominance … that of the largest powers across the last 2,500 years of world history. Joining the flood of recent books on American imperialism and America’s future on the world stage, Day of Empire looks at the country’s dominant role in the world by matching its story against that of history’s other “hyperpowers.” (orig. hyperpuissance – the French neologism/slur).
Is there a common reason why hyperpowers arise? Do they share a pattern in their fall from the pinnacle?
Professor Chua believes she has found some answers to those questions. Her central thesis is that all hyperpowers in human history have displayed social tolerance as a necessary (though not entirely sufficient) cause of their rise and dominance. Periods of subsequent social intolerance have been instrumental in their fall. In some cases, such tolerance (too little, too late or too much, too soon) can actually hasten a hyperpower’s demise. If true, the implications for post-Cold War America warrant discussion.
In her words (p. xxi):
For all their enormous differences, every single world hyperpower in history – ever society that could even arguably be described as having achieved global hegemony – was, at least by the standards of its time, extraordinarily pluralistic and tolerant during its rise to pre-eminence. Indeed, in every case tolerance was indispensible to the achievement of hegemony. Just as strikingly, the decline of empire has repeatedly coincided with intolerance, xenophobia, and calls for racial, religious, or ethnic “purity.” But here’s the catch: It was also tolerance that sowed the seeds of decline. In virtually every case, tolerance eventually hit a tipping point, triggering conflict, hatred, and violence.
A word on approach: “big picture” histories for the general reader necessarily have a “drive-by” feel since only a limited number of citations and references appear in end notes. The author can rarely inform us of what was read but not used. Much must be left out or over-generalized to keep the book length within reason.
A review of such a book ends up being a “drive-by of a drive-by.” I’ve tried to accommodate that reality by first glossing the book’s contents with minimal commentary, then picking a few examples of where I think the author’s “drive-by” was less than successful, and finally by addressing the bigger themes and hypotheses of the book directly. When I hit 18 pages of reading notes, the phrase “exhaustive review” kept coming to mind. Time to focus. I’m not entirely happy with the results but I am happy to chat separately about details of any given section of this book with other readers of Day of Empire. Apologies offered where apologies are owed.
In tandem with her thesis about the role of tolerance in the emergence and subsequent fall of hyperpowers, the author notes that successful hyperpowers must have some kind of “glue” that successfully binds the governing and the governed. If not co-operation and participation, then hyperpowers at least require acquiescence from the people they control.
The author sets the stage with an introductory chapter that defines “hyperpower” for purposes of her book. She also establishes the criteria of “tolerance” that we can identify in past periods, attempting to avoid anachronistic standards of who and what should be tolerated. In order to build as wide a study set of hyperpowers as possible, avoiding “selection bias,” Chua is generous in defining, and including, historical examples of hyperpowers.
What follows, as indicated by the table of contents below, is a book organized in a temporal sequence from the pre-modern and Enlightenment hyperpowers through to the modern era. Germany and Japan are used as case studies of modern intolerant societies that didn’t quite cut it. “What not to do,” as it were. A chapter looks at China, the EU, and India and discusses whether they have the potential to be hyperpowers in future. Professor Chua concludes with what her hypothesis means for America and her recommendations for American immigration, economic and foreign policy.
Table of Contents
Part I The Tolerance of Barbarians
c.1 First Hegemon (Achaemenid Persia)
c.2 Tolerance in Rome’s High Empire
c.3 China’s Golden Age (Tang)
c.4 Great Mongol Empire
Part 2 “Enlightening of Tolerance”
c.5 The Purification of Medieval Spain
c.6 The Dutch World Empire
c.7 Tolerance and Intolerance in the East (Ming/Ottoman/Mughal)
c.8 The British Empire
Part 3 The Future of World Dominance
c.9 The American Hyperpower
c.10 The Rise and Fall of Axis Powers (Germany/Japan)
c.11 The Challengers (Main Rivals of the US Today – China, EU, India)
c.12 The Day of Empire (Lessons of the Past for the 21st Century)
Terms of Art
First off, the key terms used in DOE.
A hyperpower’s power:
- clearly surpasses that of all its known contemporary rivals.
- Is not clearly inferior in economic/military strength to any other power on the planet, known to it or not.
- projects power over so immense an area of the globe and over so immense a population that it breaks the bounds of mere local or even regional pre-eminence.
For Chua, the kicker is always whether a power had formidable rivals of roughly comparable might. Louis XIV’s France, the Hapsburg Empire, and the United States during the Cold War thus don’t qualify.
Tolerance, for the author’s purposes, does not mean the modern, human-rights sense of the word. Nor political or cultural equality amongst subjects.
… tolerance simply means letting very different kinds of people live, work, and prosper in your society – even if only for instrumental or strategic reasons. To define the term a little more formally, tolerance in this book will refer to the degree of freedom with which individuals or groups of different ethnic, religious, racial, linguistic, or other backgrounds are permitted to coexist, participate, and rise in society. … Tolerance in this sense does not imply respect. … They key 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. … I am not arguing that tolerance is a sufficient condition for world dominance … Rather, I am arguing that tolerance is a necessary condition for world dominance. Conversely, I am also arguing that intolerance is starkly associated with the decline of hyperpowers. Here, however, separating cause from effect is more problematic. It is often difficult to say whether intolerance leads to decline, or whether intolerance is a by-product of decline. In most cases, both propositions are probably true.
Hyperpowers – The Early Years
The first power examined by the author is Achaemenid Persia [550-330 BCE] … the culture which gave the Greeks such a headache during the Classical period.
The Persians complemented a formidable army with respect for the religious beliefs of conquered parties (including their predecessors, the Babylonians). The extent of their empire, and the wealth and cosmopolitan nature of their capital cities, was unprecedented. In the course of expansion to the shores of the Mediterranean, they assembled an army and navy of diverse ethnic origins drawn from the peoples of the region. Though they co-opted the ruling elites of their empire through the use of satrapy, they engendered limited loyalty from their subjects. When Alexander the Great defeated Persian armies in a series of major battles, the entire empire simply converted to Greek suzerainty and after Alexander’s death into three smaller kingships.
The next hyperpower discussed is Rome’s Western Empire [~700 BCE – 476 CE]. Chua takes the unusual step of restricting her evaluation of the Roman Empire to the imperial period of the so-called “good emperors” – the Spanish-based Nervan-Antonian dynasty [96 - 192 CE] clique that began with Trajan and continued through Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. Rome established a large, wealthy and cosmopolitan city that included a wide array of religious and ethnic groups. Its wealth was staggering and reflected wholesale adoption of many influences from earlier Mediterranean cultures, most notably the Greeks and Egyptians. Its empire stretched from Scotland south to Morocco, east to the Euphrates and north to Romania. Subsequently, the adoption of Christianity set the Roman Empire on a collision course with the religious beliefs of many of its subjects. The empire was subjected to increasing assault or rebellion by pagan or heretic ethnic groups, culminating with the Vandal sacking of Rome … and the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476AD. The eastern empire (though surviving until 1453 CE as a rump in Constantinople) was never to achieve the expanse and dominance of the empire of the early imperial period.
Next up is the Tang Empire [690 – 907 CE] which established itself after a period of turmoil in China and set about creating a tolerant capital city in Chang’an with active participation of western peoples and strong ties along the Silk Road that exposed China to a number of peoples and technologies. Prosperity and economic development in China was substantial. A series of poor rulers reduced toleration for foreign ideas and religious pluralism. The relegation of western defense to non-Chinese generals and troops left the Tang open to external threat and the eventual decay and split of the country.
Through a period of intense consolidation, Temujin (known to us a Genghis Khan) welded together a confederation of Mongol tribes that were to dominate Asian history in one form another for several centuries as the Mongol Empire [~1215 – 1368 CE]. Through a “yield or die” military philosophy, the Khan was able to acquire the military engineering talent from the Chinese to tackle fortified cities in eastern and southern China. It was left to Genghis’ sons and relatives to move their military hordes west to Russia, southwest into the Middle East (and eventually India), and south into China. It took several generations for the Mongols to complete their conquest of China. An invasion of Japan was only halted by a typhoon, and the invasion of Europe was halted by the death of a Khan (Ogodei in 1241) which required a gathering in east Asia for the selection of his replacement. The Mongols were notable for their religious and cultural tolerance in the operation and maintenance of their empire. Religious leaders were given imperial protection and were invited as guests to extended religious debates.
As illiterates themselves, the bureaucratic hierarchy of the Mongols was populated by skilled people from many different ethnic backgrounds. Because the Mongols military success did not evolve out of an agricultural society, their adoption of settled ways and prosperity required changes to their culture. Some khans were more pleasure-loving than others. Some were more willing to adopt the habits and traditions of their subjects (e.g. Chinese and Islamic). Eventually there was an imperial struggle to maintain Mongol identity through setting aside certain benefits and powers only for Mongols. The grievances of the subject peoples were to lead to the overthrow and expulsion of Mongol rule.
Hyperpower in the Age of Enlightenment
The medieval Spaniards of the 16th and 17th centuries certainly seemed to warrant inclusion amongst the hyperpowers of history. Along with the Portuguese, they dominated vast stretches of the Americas and Asia. The Pacific was virtually a Spanish lake for two centuries. Vast quantities of gold, silver, and gems were extracted from New World mines and a series of far-flung outposts across southeast Asia were linked continuously by annual galleon voyages from the Far East to Acapulco. Unfortunately, the successful reconquest of Spain from the Moors in the late 15th century had kicked off a period of substantial religious and cultural intolerance by the Spanish royalty. The Reformation sweeping Europe gave an additional religious basis for traditional warfare and antagonism against rival kingdoms. While Spain was afloat in money from its dominions, its domestic economy and its mercantile foundation were essentially bankrupt. Its attempted suppression of rebellion and heresy in the Netherlands and England were famously unsuccessful … and famously blood-thirsty. By 1600, the Spanish capacity to control the oceans of the world was limited, and by the 18th century it had little or no ability to limit the expansion and success of its Dutch, French, and English rivals. An inability to follow other European countries into the Industrial Revolution and deploy capital and technology to its far-flung colonies brought an end to its hyperpower status.
Chapter 6 outlines the amazing story of how the 17th century Dutch came to dominate the south Asian trade routes and establish colonies in the Caribbean, South Africa, and southeast Asia. Breakthroughs in banking, manufacture and shipbuilding were supported and accelerated by a tolerant urban environment, filled with people escaping religious persecution in other parts of Europe. Antwerp and then Amsterdam became the economic inheritors of the northern Italian city-state trading republics such as Venice, Genoa, and Florence, who were cut out of the profitable Asian trade network. The establishment of the Dutch East India and Dutch West India Company provided a model of investment and insurance for the transport of high-value, low-weight products … the foods, spices, silks and precious objects once controlled by the Silk Road trade. The result of this mixture of cultural tolerance with economic innovation was an unprecedented explosion in per capita wealth. The Dutch, through circumstances of geography, were able to hold off the attacks from Spanish and French land armies and trounce their naval competitors, including the up-and-coming English. Ironically, it was the invasion of England (1687) by William of Orange in support of Protestant factions that was to lead to a drop-off in Dutch wealth and influence. William was to bring many of his best soldiers, naval architects, bureaucrats, and bankers to London … and the tools of the stock market and the limited company were quickly to establish London as the new centre of oceanic trade.
In Chapter 7, the author takes a modest detour to look at roughly contemporaneous empires in the East that might have aspired to hyperpower status: the Ottoman empire, the Ming dynasty, and the Mughal Empire of India. These were substantial empires stretching across centuries and over vast areas. After initial military successes, often over different ethnicities than the conquering culture, an immediate choice had to be made between confrontation and accommodation with differing religions and ethnic groups. All three were to take advantage of trading, military, and bureaucratic talents amongst their “captive” peoples. All three were subject to the vagaries of dynastic politics. Tolerant or intolerant rulers could exacerbate tensions amongst the elite or with their subjects. And, as related by Chua, all three were to reach a point of stagnation that left them vulnerable to external forces. For the Ottomans, it was the turmoil of WW1, for the Ming it was the appearance of the Manchu, and for the Mughals, it was to be the British and French who were to take advantage.
With Chapter 8, DOE returns to England … more secure from continental invasion than the Dutch, now irrevocably a Protestant nation after the expulsion of the Stewarts after the Glorious Revolution. It became a haven for Protestants after the expulsion of the Huguenots from France and other parts of Europe. After almost four hundreds years’ absence, Jews were allowed to return to England under Cromwell, and moreso after William of Orange’s kingship. England was also at the sweet spot of scientific and technological development (Newton’s Principia was published in 1687) leading to the Industrial Revolution. With a large agricultural hinterland, and large supplies of high quality coal, England was able to leverage its relative tolerance for the skilled of every ethnic and religious background into rapid economic and military growth. Professor Chua’s description of the rise and fall of the British Empire will be more familiar to general readers than earlier hyperpowers, if only for the fact that Day of Empire is written in English for a developed world that largely speaks English because of Britain’s imperial appetites.
America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, southern Africa, India, Singapore, Hong Kong. All British colonies or outposts. Great Britain was to dominate the world’s oceans for roughly two centuries. The author recounts the rapid (and unprecedentedly large) migrations to North America, south Africa, and Australasia supported by the tolerance for immigrants, first from the United Kingdom, then from northern Europe, then from southern and eastern Europe, and finally from Asia.
Great Britain had initial success in the 18th century taking advantage disintegrating powers in North America, South Africa and India. But its domestic tolerance in the 19th century was not to be duplicated in its non-white colonies. Great Britain in the mid-19th century was to push vigorously into Africa and east Asia in ways that were to highlight the practical limits of its wealth, demography, and the application of force.
A substantial portion of the chapter on Britain’s imperial rise and fall is dominated by the struggles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to accommodate the Indian elites. They wanted to be treated on a equal standing with the white colonies in North America and Australasia which had largely been given some substantial form of self-governance by the third quarter of the century. Set against the background of the Indian Mutiny, the removal of the East India Company from Indian governance, and the decisions made about investment in the industrialization of India, the story of Great Britain’s rule and eventual departure from India makes sad reading.
According to Professor Chua, the British Empire’s limited tolerance toward its non-white subjects was also a determinant in its success as a hyperpower. After WW2, the British departed their colonial outposts … in some case rapidly, in other cases at a more measured pace. The colonies themselves were often left to their own devices.
The story of the United States and the modern condition of “hyperpower” is set out in Part 3 of DOE, and kicks off with chapter 9 on the history of the United States’ growth from a cluster of seaboard colonies to global dominance.
The English colonies of the New World were often a refuge from the religious controversies of the Old. Dissenters from the Church of England were noteworthy participants in early colonies. The settlers, however, were often intolerant of religious diversity and there was a tendency for each colony to establish official Churches and encourage people to leave if they didn’t like it. As the 17th century shifted to the 18th century, and the demand for skilled labour in the colonies became crucial, economic issues trumped sectarian purity. The influence of Enlightenment thinking (and the local religious variations of the Great Awakening) led to a loosening of prejudices about religious belief. Immigrants from northern Europe (largely Protestant) began making a significant appearance in the American colonies and western frontiers.
The toleration for white Christians didn’t extend to native Americans and enslaved blacks, however.
Moving into the 19th century, and the opening phases of American industrialization, the urbanization of the country required a new wave of immigrants. Anti-Catholic riots took place in the 1830s and 1840s and nativist political movements were in full force by mid-century. The Civil War played a role in re-organizing the lines of tolerance within the United States, and saw the emergence of massive political machines in the big cities designed to trade votes for access to city budgets.
Westward development of the nation was a lop-sided competition between Stone Age and industrial technology and little or no attention was paid to native concerns. The scale of immigration to North America from Europe and Africa vastly outpaced that to South America and Australasia.
As the continental United States changed into an agricultural and industrial (mining/timber) goliath, the Spanish empire was tottering on its last legs in Meso- and South America. In the Far East, a new wave of European trade expansion was taking place as trade for raw materials was replaced by the race to industrialize the region (Japan having taking the earliest steps in this direction).
The Spanish-American War and the Great White Fleet were to convert America from an international trading power to an international colonial and military power.
As the 19th turned to the 20th centuries, the turmoil of WW1 weakened European colonial powers. It also stimulated new kinds of national decisions for the U.S. “Nationalist passions” triggered a wave of immigration laws that fixed the ratios of immigrant origins to those found in the 1890 census. The result was a reduction and refocusing of U.S. immigration that was largely to stay in place until the mid-60s.
The Second World War, like the Civil War and World War I before it, went some way towards homogenizing American culture and reducing the inter-ethnic prejudices of the soldiers who fought in it. A devastated and impoverished Europe ceased to the be centre of the world economy and was replaced by an American economic and technological dominance that was to last for some decades. Indeed, it persists on a per-capita basis to the present day.
The massive development of military prowess by America in the Second World War, culminating in the development of the atomic bomb, was extensively assisted by European émigrés, often escaping religious/ethnic persecution on the Continent.
The impact of the War and the new immigrants on America’s international scientific and academic role was substantial.
The more recent changes in civil rights and college admissions policies which changed the United States in the 1960s need not be repeated here though the details (from the perspective of increasing tolerance and increasing US wealth) are covered in DOE. Obviously, the original publication date of the book (2007) forestalls a discussion of the current economic turbulence, and the dominance of the Democratic party in the legislative and executive branches. The chapter wraps with a discussion of the role of immigrants in the development of Silicon Valley and computer/software industry – the information race which followed the atomic and space race. The impact on America’s global influence is discussed briefly. Professor Chua notes that roughly 2/3 of the richest 400 people in America acquired that wealth entirely in their own generation.
Turning briefly from America, the author jumps back to the middle of the 20th century. Chapter 10 looks at how Germany and Japan’s intolerance affected their military success.
Germany, having built a political movement on the back of cleansing Germany of non-Aryan elements, was hardly able to treat conquered peoples in the European East as active partners. The ethnic groups released from Russian domination had a great deal of goodwill toward the Germans, which was rapidly wasted and abused. The manpower and intellectual capacity that might have fueled a more powerful military machine (within fewer internal security issues) was suppressed, murdered, or expelled.
In the Far East, the Japanese aspiration for a Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere quickly ran aground on their treatment of the people of southeast Asia, especially the educated and commercial classes in the various European colonies that they took over. Just like the Germans, they suppressed or killed the very people that could have maintained or enhanced the economic structure of their conquests. Chua outlines the very different Japanese approach in Taiwan, which was a Japanese colony from the turn of the 20th century. There, the Japanese invested in education and economic development, and provided a social stability that was to still influence Taiwanese thinking after WW2.
Ultimately, from Chua’s perspective, it was Germany and Japan’s intolerance (in contrast, say, to the Mongols active engagement with the skilled amongst those they conquered) that was central to their undoing as potential hyperpowers.
In Chapter 11, we return to the present day, and a consideration of potential challengers to the American hyperpower – China, the EU, and India.
China is economically resurging and by rights should have all the elements at hand for hyperpower status. It has a massive population, an educational and industrial growth plan modelled on successful European and Japanese development, a huge unexploited base of natural resources, a long seacoast, etc. etc. Applying the author’s central premise, however, China is not set up to become a magnet for the best and brightest from the rest of the world. Though open to the world in ways unseen since the Tang dynasty, there is still an exclusivity to Han cultural identity. Expatriates in China may be very successful but there’s no sense that they will become Chinese, in identity or citizenship. Chua does see China as a likely superpower, and therefore a likely participant in a bipolar world elevated beside the U.S. Its potential as a hyperpower, assuming the book’s thesis is correct, is constrained.
For the EU, its successful tolerance has focused on the inclusion of entire nations into its economic consortium rather than outreach to individuals drawn from outside Europe. European stability and peace has led to substantial prosperity. That has led to an increased appetite to act as a countervailing force and an alternative to the American model of development and modernity. Applying her hyperpower model of tolerance however, Professor Chua notes that EU strategic tolerance appears to have reached its limits with neighbours such as Turkey. And the EU has had noticeably less success in accommodating immigrants, either those from the Islamic and African nations, or those drawn to high-tech or skilled occupations from Asia. Europe’s shortage of skilled labour is ongoing and an increasing problem. Europe’s constraint on becoming a hyperpower therefore comes from its limited inclusiveness. It is designed to welcome in largely white, Christian (or perhaps post-Christian) neighbouring nations.
As for India, the author notes the tremendous potential of the nation, successfully tolerant of a multiplicity of languages and religions. India has a young population, widely educated in English with a cadre of excellent scientists, engineers and scholars. Nonetheless, 80% of the population lives on $2/day or less. India’s growth has largely come through the service industry rather than manufacturing (the reverse of China). Thus India’s future as a hyperpower, attracting the world’s talents to it, are problematic in the near and medium term.
The final chapter of DOE focuses on the post-Cold War American hyperpower, whether an American empire is desirable, and the way forward to continued “opportunity, dynamism, and moral force.”
Chua does recognize the schizophrenic/adolescent attitude of the much of the world toward the U.S. … which might be summarized as “I hate you, now give me and my extended family a visa.”
The truth, particularly in poorer parts of the world, is that attitudes toward the United States – are deeply schizophrenic – a perverse blend of admiration and envy on one hand and seething hatred and contempt on the other. For millions of Bolivians, Nigerians, Moroccans, and Indonesians around the world, America is arrogant, greedy, preachy, and hypocritical – but also where they would go if only they could. A student in Beijing summarized this attitude nicely. A few weeks after joining other students in a stone-throwing protest in front of the US embassy, he returned to apply for a US visa. Interviewed by US News and World Report, he explained that he was hoping to attend graduate school in America. “If I could have good opportunities in the U.S.,” he said, “I wouldn’t mind U.S. hegemony too much.”
But she is optimistic that there is a way to cope with this. Democratic world government may be over-idealistic, but there are many ways that America can be less irritating to the world’s sensibilities.
Chua believes a great deal of global good will toward the U.S. has been lost in the past two decades (not to mention that last fifty years). For her, there should be no American imperium (per the arguments to the contrary of many commentators on Left and Right soon after 9/11).
She re-iterates that America is a “nation of immigrants” with only fleeting imperialist moments. It is more on the Dutch model than the British or Roman. The positive family ties of people who consider the U.S. a second “home” for their extended family should be encouraged. America must deal successfully with three contentious issues: open immigration, non-isolationism, and multilateralism. Engaging local elites overseas and participating actively in the resolution of global problems are the means by which America can sustain a hyperpower position, though not one underpinned with coercion and military force.
Some quotes from the author:
This, then is America’s dilemma. 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 America does not exert power only over Americans. Outside its borders there is no political glue binding the United States to the billions of people who live under its shadow. [...]
First, if the history of hyperpowers has shown anything, it is the danger of xenophobic backlash. 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 alley was particularly “Anglo-Protestant” in origin) but dangerous.
[...] If America can rediscover the path that has been the secret to its success since its founding and avoid the temptations of empire building, it could remain the world’s hyperpower in the decades to come – not a hyperpower of coercion and military force, but a hyperpower of opportunity, dynamism, and moral force.
That, in an overly-simplified nutshell, is the 334 pages of narrative of Day of Empire.
In any book of such geographic and historical breadth, there’s bound to be bloopers or non-sequiturs. Since history isn’t Professor Chua’s profession (as best I can tell, she was educated at the undergraduate level in economics and has a J.D.), she must depend for raw material on the works of people from other disciplines. When covering 2500 years of global history, that inevitably means picking and choosing from a handful of source titles from each of the candidate powers and ignoring the contentious debates over historiography in the second half of the 20th century.
There are two limitations with this approach. Has the author read enough to be accurate? Has the author read enough to avoid embarrassing over-emphases or oversights? The obvious way to overcome those limitations is to get specialists to review sections of the book manuscript discussing their particular time period, and give a qualified collegial “thumbs up” on specifics and generalities.
Unfortunately the Acknowledgements section of DOE does not break out individuals by specialty or profession, so it’s impossible to know if Professor Chua’s manuscript got some academic “rough wooing” before publication. More particularly, how many historians reviewed the final manuscript?
Did they dismiss the term “hyperpower” out of hand? Did they suggest key modifications and why? Did they question any or all of the final tally of candidate powers? Did they recommend dropping some? Did they ask for a crisper definition of tolerance that would remove arbitrary evaluations of what was and what wasn’t a toleration of significance?
The methods of history largely involve using the vocabulary of any given speciality for a better evaluation of facts … or making a major modification to such vocabulary based on improved explanatory utility. In this case, does the term “hyperpower” give us any new insight that we wouldn’t have had in looking at powers or civilizations in general? Is there any difference in essential quality/nature (versus size) between hyperpowers and great powers? Are we employing 20/20 hindsight with an arbitrary term for arbitrary, perhaps anachronistic, purposes? As for “tolerance,” are we elevating practical expediency beyond its natural role in military success … to the level of a distinctly modern virtue?
The two key challenges for a book that introduces nebulous terms (i.e., hyperpower and tolerance) in its central thesis is to avoid (1) category errors (for placement of facts) and (2) “ confirmation bias”.
In defining “hyperpower,” we want to make sure all the candidate powers actually have something unique in common. Whale sharks and grizzly bears are the biggest fish and mammal, respectively, in their environments. Their differences, however, vastly outweigh their similarities and its of limited value to call them “giganto-animals” and build a new ecological theory based on the term. In an attempt to avoid “selection bias” (perhaps more accurately described as “insufficient cases”), Professor Chua has added rather than subtracted from her pool of candidate powers. If the term “hyperpower” is stretched to embrace powers that are fundamentally different in nature, however, it will confound the results of any hunt for real similarities. The author owes us an explanation of why a new term is actually needed and how it actually improves our historical insight.
Do land-based military powers with sparser technology/economies (the Mongols, the Huns/Goths/Vandals) really deserve to be lumped in with technologically superior and wealthy powers that controlled strategic “commons” like Rome, Holland, England, or America? Irrespective of their success, are we to hold them to the same standard in the hunt for “tolerance”?
Would it not stand to reason that any cherry-picking we do in the hunt for signs of “tolerance” in the two types of powers distinguished above (for example) will have fundamental and significant differences in the challenges they face? If we “re-amalgamate” our discoveries back under a rubric, won’t that do violence to any lessons we might draw? If the conqueror lets you live because you can read, does that differ from when the conqueror lets you live because you can plant crops? Are we lumping ceramic bricks and bricks of butter and dreaming up new imaginary roles for “brickiness”?
Similarly, if we pick and choose the “winners” of the geopolitical sweepstakes, regardless of the economic, geographic, and technological circumstances that permitted an inordinate growth in a power’s size, we open ourselves to “finding what we’re looking for” and conveniently ignoring what we don’t want to find. It is human nature to suffer from confirmation bias, and the community of historians has methods for reducing the influence of such bias.
Finally, we’ve not addressed any aspect of causality in such circumstances. Finding a correlation and declaring its causal role (as opposed to proving the chain of causation) isn’t history, or science. Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard biology professor used to refer to a creature’s attributes that could be attributed to the incidental side-effects of selective forces as spandrels.
Is “tolerance” a “spandrel” of political, economic, and military conquest, irrespective of the size (or even the ultimate success) of a conquering power? I’d say the answer is “yes” … unless strongly contrary evidence can be organized to prove otherwise.
If, as the professor notes:
[...]Conversely, I am also arguing that intolerance is starkly associated with the decline of hyperpowers. Here, however, separating cause from effect is more problematic. It is often difficult to say whether intolerance leads to decline, or whether intolerance is a by-product of decline. In most cases, both propositions are probably true.
Why not consider the obverse argument … that tolerance is an aid to expansion and likely the by-product of military success? Who’s afraid of the conclusively conquered?
Both of the potential errors mentioned above (categorization and confirmation bias) would require the careful help of fellow historians to constrain. In my reading of DOE, the qualifications to the thesis seem to come in the introductory section, the self-confident assertions of the thesis’ truth in the descriptive middle of the book, and the passionate prescriptive direction for American choices comes last.
Making a wild-assed guess on my part, it seems like Day of Empire was actually written backwards.
- The modern policy prescriptions for the maligned “hyperpower” first: open immigration irrespective of culture or socio-economic status, active engagement with the world and its problems, and multilateralism in foreign policy. They’d be unexceptional talking points for a speech from any Democratic Administration.
- Then a post-facto search was undertaken for a functional definition of hyperpower, followed by identification of potential candidates in history, using a very inclusive definition.
- The selected candidates were described, based on a handful of modern histories. Since those recent histories also obsess about many of the themes of modern life: racism, sexism, ethnic, and religious intolerance, they provide inadvertent, and possibly artificial, fodder for the book’s thesis.
- “Tolerance” (whether strategic, calculated, instrumental, or otherwise) was selectively highlighted at points in each power’s history that support the thesis. No effort was made to find tolerance that made no difference to hyperpower success. Nor to find intolerance that was critical to the hyperpower’s success. Nor was there much effort to more fully explain the tangential comment made in the Introduction … to wit, “[i]t is often difficult to say whether intolerance leads to decline, or whether intolerance is a by-product of decline.” (Yikes. Isn’t that the central issue of the whole book for the modern reader?)
- Then, however, my guess is that the author’s pre-publication readers started to raise caveats on the blanket assertions in the middle of the manuscript (e.g., just how tolerant were those Romans and Mongols? Are we comparing apples and oranges? Tolerating your serfs and castrated bureaucrats isn’t very significant tolerance. Etc. Etc.).
- Those caveats were retro-actively hedged in the Introduction by fudging the meaning of “hyperpower” and “tolerance” to the point where, frankly, the terms could pretty much mean whatever the author needed them to mean, at any given point. But that hedging of the Introduction never made it back into the middle and end of the book where the “rubber meets the road.” … where very conclusive statements were made about the role of tolerance (“necessary though insufficient”) for hyperpower success, despite repeated “scholars may disagree about the causes of decline” preambles.
The result, to my mind, is a book-length argument that recasts human history in potentially unneeded terms, for an essentially modern agenda. If one doesn’t accept the soundness of the terms, however, they become less compelling as useful terms in evaluating the past. If there are fundamental problems with the key vocabulary of the thesis, then the efforts to establish the thesis with the historical record, or extrapolate from the thesis to modern American policy prescriptions is fraught with problems. For example, if a hyperpower must clearly outpace any contemporary rivals, then America does not seem to have met the criteria of “hyperpower” until the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But DOE kicks off its America section centuries before any hint of hyperpower status. Does this imply that “tolerance” is an advantage at all points of the “power curve”? Or that the geographic, demographic and technological circumstances of America made “tolerance” unusually easy?
Similarly, we might quibble and say Rome was not a hyperpower because it fought unsuccessfully for centuries with the rich, literate Parthian and Sassanid civilizations on its eastern boundaries. It was obsessed about those eastern boundaries (having largely stabilized the southern and western boundaries). It relentlessly moved legions from the west to the east (to its great detriment) in an unsuccessful effort to take the Tigris-Euphrates once and for all. Turning to my own library, I was able to lay hands on two books used by Professor Chua (Balsdon’s Romans & Aliens and Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire [cb review] but quickly found others that better discussed the Roman sense of foreigners through the centuries as it related specifically to power (Mattern’s Rome and the Enemy, Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization [cb review], and Williams’ Romans and Barbarians). Surely what the Romans thought themselves about any supposed “tolerance” and its relation to power, across hundreds of years, is worth noting in some detail. It’s not all about stereotypes about Celts and Greeks.
If, through careful attention to the definition of hyperpower, one reduces America to a historical finger-snap and Rome’s eastern stalemates to insignificance, why bother with the thesis at all from a prescriptive standpoint? To be a smartass for a minute, if the fall of the Berlin Wall was in 1989 and the first attempt to blow up the World Trade Center by a culture with hyperpower aspirations was in 1993, just how long was America a hyperpower?
If being a hyperpower is really just a matter of the degree of power, geographical extent, or cultural/technical influence, then what (specifically) is the point at which it ceases to be merely a big power (operating one assumes under rules that do not require or support tolerance) and a hyperpower … which suddenly requires tolerance for success? These are questions that ideally should have been handled in detail somewhere in this book. Cause and effect. The distinction between powers. The separation of “tolerance,” per se, from the ordinary, and entirely unremarkable, nuts-and-bolts of power politics.
If the tolerance of a hyperpower’s ruling class or ethnic group can be hedged round by its calculating, instrumental, or strategic aspect, why not simply call it politics, economics, and military strategy? At least then we’d have centuries (rather than decades) of historical scholarship to draw upon and a wealth of historiographic tools to keep biases (entirely inadvertent) under control. As I say, I’m making a wild-assed and likely unfair guess about why the book’s assertiveness alters strangely, in the particular way and sequence that it does. Vague definitions, followed by ex nihilo assertions, wrapping with modern prescription.
Professor Chua wears her heart and her family biography on her sleeve. It makes her two books far more readable and her writing more lively and compelling. Having placed herself and her family’s history as brilliant, successful, recent immigrants within the structure of a “big picture” history book, however, she has an obligation to tease out the issue of causality and the specific relationship of tolerance and hyperpower, per se, with far more care. Having no family involved in the American’s hyperpower rise (if we can claim America as a hyperpower for longer than the last 20 years), she has nothing vested in the military conflicts that set one culture over another, one set of American values over another. For Official Victims of intolerance, there can be no good case for the American conquests, civil wars, expulsions, and exterminations that pre-date 1965. The grimmer foundations of hyper-power cannot be rooted in “tolerance” sprinkled like sand over the blood of the conquered and displaced.
Another option for the author beckons, however …
Just leave out the history and rationalize the “relative tolerance=hyperpower” argument on modern grounds as Francis Fukuyama did in Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity, and James Surowiecki did in The Wisdom of Crowds, and as Robert Wright attempted to do tautologically (in another “big picture” history book) in Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny .
There’s nothing wrong with making the stand-alone case that immigrants generally, or the specific immigrant groups she highlights herself — the Jews and Chinese –, are central to the success of America. The last few years have treated us to a parade of “How the Scots, Irish, Jews, etc. saved/created/built something or other of world-shaking significance.” Such 20/20 hindsight history is great fun when one’s own group is being praised, but it rarely rises to the status of great history. In style, such books share much with DOE. But this genre should be considered entertainment. As history it needs to be approached with great caution. Professor Chua’s first book is, if nothing else, a cautionary tale for “market-dominant minorities” out to write their own apologias. Who lives and dies, who eats and starves, is usually driven by wider forces than the cleverness and utility of tolerated minorities.
Unfortunately, during the reading of DOE, in any place where I actually knew the historical events in any detail, I could recall an act of strategic intolerance that was just as central to “hyperpower” success as any aspect of contemporaneous or comparative tolerance cited by the author. For every batch of Catholic Scots used as expendable shock troops by the English at the Plains of Abraham (“tolerance”), there was a wholesale expulsion of Acadian families from Canada to French Louisiana (“intolerance”). If I could find such instances, what could historical experts have found with a bit of digging? If I was very uneasy with the plastic application of the term “hyperpower,” how happy would a professional historian be … say a Jacques Barzun, or a David Landes?
If the growth, expansion, and decline of major powers have many influences, proving the role of tolerance requires more than picking wildly successful powers and putting our thumb on the balance in favour of palatable modern sensibilities. That’s like interviewing Powerball winners for their opinions on recent U.S. economy theory. The causal chain for tolerance and power expansion has to be built, in my opinion, with minor winners and losers, not just the show-stoppers (Rome, Nazi Germany).
I think Day of Empire would have been a career–killer for a junior historian. For a law professor at Yale University, it’s a work of major industry and creativity, presented with the clear writing style that made her earlier book a real pleasure. What should we make of it?
Get Me Rewrite!
After many hours and many versions of this review, I came to see Day of Empire as the first draft of a deeper argument about the present. One which Professor Chua telegraphs by mentioning her mystification at Samuel Huntington’s book Who Are We?. DOE is an effort to recast social success in terms of “niceness to the Other.”
Now you might think that a book about hyperpowers wouldn’t be able to overlook all the eggs violently broken in the course of making those massive omelettes. Most of the butchery and relentless cultural demolition driven by over-weening pride, religious proscription, cultural self-confidence, and technological superiority is glossed over … to race forward to the “good bits” where worthy minorities and captive peoples are given a seat at the table, or the foundry, or the library, or the warehouse, or in the army.
As a thought experiment, however, let’s turn the book’s emphasis on its head. Instead of starting with a vulnerable minority’s perspective, however, let’s begin by looking at an ambitious young sub-hyperpower, looking to make its mark on its nearby competitors. Preferably in a conclusive and fatal manner. What attributes of instrumental tolerance will it need? What level of agency can it expect to have? Is it in charge of its own destiny or is it at the mercy of geography, epidemic disease, diplomacy, crop failure, or the depth of the gene pool of the particular “thugocracy” at the top of its culture?
We might find that as it makes new conquests, the sub-hyperpower quickly outgrows the space that it can effectively populate by itself. Some few empires (Rome in western Europe, Britain in North America) had such a military and economic dominance over their conquests that they could literally reproduce their way to geographic dominance. But for our hypothetical sub-hyperpower, however, rather than replacing conquered neighbours wholesale, it must rule over them with some combination of military, political, and economic force. Depending on the foundations of its military success, an empire may be more developed that its defeated neighbours, or it may simply have gained its military advantage by demolishing the economic foundations of its neighbours (e.g., Mongols). Either way, suddenly it’s got a bunch of strangers to control and a bunch of kin back at home base that are looking forward to the easy life.
Those same kin are plotting industriously to knock off the current lineage at the top of the heap. A fine stand-by argument for such coups is that the current boss has “gone soft”, “gone native,” or both. So any protection extended to the conquered, by anyone beyond the original conquering or colonizing force, is potentially a deadly internal political liability. Onward through the centuries said sub-hyperpower goes, waxing and waning, butchering and being butchered, until that fine day comes when it has the military and economic power to scare the bejeebers out of everyone around it. For sake of Professor Chua’s argument, let’s call it a “hyperpower.”
Where can it go from there? It’s a magnet for luxury goods, foodstuffs, grand construction, and the paper trail that follows any imperial power. The contending clans of the hyperpower’s elite are all looking for the smallest advantage to help them take over. Such advantage can come at any time through mistakes in administration or through military failures at the margins of the empire (which by now, because of the hyperpower’s success, are of limited economic value).
From here forward, the hyperpower is trying to maintain its success and trying to live up to the good old days and the revered ancestors.
As history shows us, entirely in hindsight, sooner or later there’s one idiot emperor too many, or one adversary that gains modest regional advantage, or the bubonic plague or smallpox shows up at an importune time. Perhaps a civil war breaks out and the empire exhausts itself in self-destructive politics that lets peoples at the periphery cleave off a province or territory. Maybe its technological advantage slowly leaks to its periphery and former vassals become future predators, or former peasants steal the A-bomb.
This story or a close variant of it, I’d propose, is what we’re most used to reading when we recall discussions of imperial elevation and destruction. Are we greatly hindered in our understanding by underplaying the minorities or subject peoples who provided the military or luxury underpinning for such a hyperpower? The role of subsidiary or minority groups may provide a functional role or a cultural garnish. At the margins, their skills may affect the nature and degree of success in economic or bureaucratic activity. But does any of it, in more than an incidental way, go to the heart of the political, economic, or geographic constraints that affect powers at their peak? Is there not a role for self-regard and prickly self-defense that typifies successful hyperpowers? And even more a role for the cultural self-confidence to see oneself as uniquely suited for the domination and control of other human beings for centuries at a stretch? Perhaps it’s the loss of self-identity, or “glue” as Professor Chua describes it, which determines how long a hyperpower can hold its position. Notably, the modern movement that explicitly aspires to global hegemony, sanctioned by God, is ignored by Professor Chua in her discussion of China, the EU, and India. Perhaps Islam will have the right “glue” …
And if, since the discovery of the atomic bomb and the emergence of Silicon Valley, America has been particularly strengthened, by an immigrant workforce uncovering scientific and technological marvels, it has also been particularly threatened (though espionage and sabotage). Why can’t we fundamentally distinguish such a new service industry hyperpower, dependent on the harvesting of international brains, from the agrarian and industrial giant that grew unmolested in North America from the 18th to the 20th century?
All the information in DOE is worth discussion and review but testing and evaluation of the central thesis should, I believe, take place from two perspectives at once … the host and the symbiote, so to speak. For Professor Chua’s book, I think there are some likely American candidates who could have provided a different perspective on the subject matter. Indeed, perhaps they already written reviews and I’ve missed it. Here is my list of people who could have profitably given the author, and us, some feedback on the utility of the terms “hyperpower” and “tolerance.”
1. Samuel Huntington. Dead, unfortunately, but he spent the last few decades really trying to sort out whether “America had a common law and civic ethos,” or a sui generis civil society and the common law had an America (see Who Are We?). He was a firm believer that America was not a “nation of immigrants” but rather a “nation of colonists” whose values dominated the country until just about the time that Professor Chua’s brilliant dad emigrated from the Philippines. Huntington would have brought a colonist’s perspective to the hyperpower discussion … and a wider context of what values it takes “building the house” of a hyperpower compared to those needed for the “interior decoration” phase. His assessment that Hispanic immigration to the U.S. in the last few decades is the first successful colonization of the English-speaking world since the Normans hit the beach near Hastings is plenty controversial. But it’s yet to be proven wrong. Time will tell.
2. David Hackett-Fischer. Now moved on to less contentious historical topics, Hackett-Fischer’s Albion’s Seeds provides a background on the long historical traditions that underlay America’s colonists and how those various groups: Dissenters, hill folk, Piedmont settlers, represented very specific folkways which can be traced into modern American social and political life. The violence that those early settlers inflicted on each other was the foundation of their willingness to apply it others. And law and religion were often playthings for those cultural attitudes.
3. Michael Barone. Author of Our First Revolution and a knowledgeable expert on American society and politics. For discussing British and American “hyperpower” history, Barone could provide additional perspective on how intolerance, and well as the well-documented tolerance, played out in the growth and success of the two powers (Britain and the U.S.) that have dominated world history for the last 250 years.
4. David Gelernter. Author of Americanism, Yale University computer science professor, and therefore an accessible colleague of Professor Chua. Dr. Gelernter would be able to talk directly to the role, and limitations, of the religious traditions of tolerance in America. And where that tolerance reached its limits and aggressively wore away immigrant cultures.
5. Alfred Crosby. Professor of American Studies, History, and Geography at the University of Texas and author of The Measure of Reality [cb review] would be able to address the nuts and bolts of inter-group tolerance that were central to the operation of European trading republics. Was tolerance the basis of a hyperpower or was it merely the “force multiplier” that let little city-states, little islands, and ultimately an entire continent create economic and military dominance? Professor Crosby would have particular insights into the chicken-and-egg relationship of development and tolerance.
6. Finally, Walter Russell Mead. Author of Special Providence, and God and Gold, and American foreign policy expert. No one, in my opinion, has done more to outline the cultural dynamics of foreign policy decision-making in American history … or better described the blend of merchant acquisitiveness and missionary zeal that has motivated American (and British) self-regard.
If Mr. Mead had a chance to review the premise of “hyperpower” and the role of tolerance, we would have a substantially enriched historical perspective from inside the hyperpower, looking out, so to speak. And of all the scholars mentioned, Mead would be able to comment on whether modern America (with its various tribes, groups, and special interests in constant change) can ever form the basis for Professor Chua’s dream that America will be a hyperpower merely of “opportunity, dynamism, and moral force.” After being a “boss,” the invitation to join a “union” is hollow. Wars have started for less.
Day of Empire is a prodigious effort but it does, with no apology needed, come from the pen of someone whose family inherited of European science, law, and civil society without being obligated to spill foreign blood. For those whose ancestors left northwest Europe as colonists in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries and came to America, the sacrifices made were not simply those of extending or receiving toleration. Terrible choices were made again and again through the centuries, to exterminate, expel, and suppress cultural and economic enemies. Hurons were targeted, Acadians were transported, Loyalists were expelled to Canada and the Caribbean, slaveholding was accommodated as part of the compromise of Independence, the Cherokee were dispossessed (like the Scots-Irish before them in Pennsylvania), states’ rights of self-determination were crushed militarily in the Civil War, then quietly allowed to resurface with the abandonment of Reconstruction and the imposition of Jim Crow, Asians were expelled and excluded at the end of the 19th century, and immigration was throttled down to a trickle as America industrialized and then dispossessed a vast number of Protestant agricultural workers from their farms. On through the decades, the nation has selectively tolerated some minorities, obliterated others, and thrown its population into waves of intolerance, both domestic and foreign.
One could claim that a willingness to accept that relentless intolerance has been the price of broader social acceptability throughout American history. In other words, one was tolerated to the extent one shared the intolerances of the broader populace. And it doesn’t seem to have changed much to the present day … as the relative treatment of Cuban and Haitian boat people illustrates. It’s not in the tolerance we potentially find hyperpower, the rejoinder to DOE might state, it’s in the cultural capacity for intolerance in the pursuit of American security and prosperity.
To paraphrase and poach from H.L. Mencken … there is always an easy solution to every American problem — neat, plausible, and usually requiring entirely non-existent Americans to execute. Like a number of bi-coastal commentators, Professor Chua is asking for an American attitude to the world that is fundamentally at odds with much of its cultural origins and its actual electorate. Squaring that circle needed to be part of this book, it seems to me (as a non-American). Last year, Bill Bishop wrote a very useful book on American cultural geography called The Big Sort (cb review pending!) which is particularly pertinent to DOE’s conclusions. Since roughly the time of Professor Chua’s birth, Americans have been using their increased prosperity not in aid of “tolerance” but to move away from people that they disagree with politically. And their political views have centred more and more around a tightly related set of cultural and religious values. The result has been an electorate that resides more and more in “landslide” precincts (where the vote gap between winners and losers is >20%). Democrats move to Democratic neighbourhoods. Republicans move to Republican neighbourhoods. In effect, the response to an incessant demand for domestic tolerance has been a migration enabling “indifference.” From Bishop’s perspective the result is two Americas: one with weak social ties, growing economic and educational prosperity, and a great uniformity (of diversity), and a second America … sparser in its density, poorer economically and educationally, with stronger social ties, and a uniformity of religious and cultural values. It’s worth thinking briefly about the respective contributions of these two Americas to the elements of “hyper power.”
Professor Chua is asking for international tolerance and accommodation by Americans, but as noted by Moses Naim in this book Illicit, [cb review], the U.S. is also being asked to absorb a hugely destructive economic and criminal relationship with the rest of the world … (along with the prosperity and success of globalized legitimate economic activity). To give the thesis of DOE added oomph and to translate it into an American future, I think the concerns and social experiences of both Americas (urban and rural, immigrant and colonial) will need to be addressed. If one assumes that the Anglosphere’s cultural underpinnings had nothing to do with its lead in science and technology (a shaky assertion if we look to the origins of the industrial revolution (cb reviews here and here), or that its common law had nothing to do with its cantankerous, pre-Reformation Anglo-Saxon yeomanry (cf. Macfarlane here), then radical changes in the American attitudes towards its legal and economic role in the world might seem plausible. A more likely scenario is that we are entering a period of history when the debate over American identity will sharpen … and the debate will be most intense and fraught in the domestic arena before it is resolved in American foreign policy. The role of “Mom and Dad to the world” may not be palatable to millions of American voters.
Without guides to the pre-1960s history of the English-speaking world … guides able to convey that world with the same passion and honest reflection already evident in Professor Chua’s book, it’s unlikely that Day of Empire’s hypothesis will ever have the wider influence that it might reasonably expect. That’s unfortunate and entirely unnecessary. Ironically, sitting at the pinnacle of intellectual and social status in America, Professor Chua has returned to the position of a “market-dominant minority,” explained so usefully in her earlier book. As a professor of the common law and an ethnic Han, however, she’s at the intersection of two potentially enormous changes in our future: (1) the accommodation of American law to international norms, and (2) the resurgence of Han economic and military might. Those are concerns that go directly to author’s discussion of America’s role in her concluding chapter.
Just recently the Department of Homeland Security woke up to realize that thousands of young men and women have been overseas getting a graduate education (in the Army Reserve and the CIA) in low-tech insurgency. Apparently, in some imagined defiance of American history, that might lead to “right-wing extremism.” Many of those kids come from areas that cling (in that memorable phrase) to “ guns and religion.” In their skills and attitudes, however, they more resemble an earlier and less apologetic time in American history, when it was assumed that the populace would enforce its values violently against all comers, domestic and foreign. Colonial self-sufficiency was one element in American success and, it must be admitted, an endless source of antagonism. We are about to see if the American electorate can still reach a consensus on how much sovereignty to surrender and under what circumstances. If Bishop’s “Big Sort” has much validity, the discussions in DOE about an American future will be decided in tumultuous domestic battles. The nature of American identity will be vigourously contested, and if Professor Chua’s work on market-dominant minorities and hyperpowers is any indication, violence will be involved.
As the author further noted in DOE, China is unlikely to reach hyperpower status but it is entirely likely that it will achieve superpower status and return the world to a bipolar power structure. It’s hard to imagine that that will not have a traumatic impact on America’s citizens of Han descent. Hard choices will have to be made by individuals … just as an earlier generation of European émigrés helped build the atomic bomb for America, while simultaneously other émigrés stole it for the Soviet Union. As tales of Han espionage and hacker sabotage move from obscure regular tallies on strategypage.com to the front pages of newspapers, we’ll need people to address the issue head-on, immune to the “racist” smear. I think Professor Chua could have a particularly useful role in the discussion of if, how, and when American Chinese should fundamentally sever their links to Han autocracy. Perhaps it won’t come to that.
On both these incredibly difficult issues (sovereignty and the emergence of a bipolar world), it’s to be hoped that Professor Chua applies her previous insights on market-dominant minorities and restates her thesis on the role of tolerance in the rise and fall of hyperpowers. Just as fervently, we might hope that she draws in a set of intellectual collaborators that complement her perspective on America history rather than merely reinforce it. Regardless of whether the Day of Empire’s thesis stands up, we’re not so flush with academics who write well that we can spare any. And the stakes and issues surrounding America’s role in the world will only increase.