The first basic idea of the book is that of hyperpower (as opposed to superpower). According to Chua, hyperpowers are the few societies that managed to concentrate so much military and economic power that they dominate the world.
A hyperpower is not just a dominant power compared to others, it is a world-dominant power (that is, dominant in its world, the world it knows). Chua’s book is about how these few societies achieved such status and how they lost it, as all of them did.
The central thesis of the book is this:
"For all their enormous differences, every single world hyperpower in history - every 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 preeminence. 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 a 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." (xxi)
For Chua, a hyperpower has three characteristics:
1. its power is superior to that of all its rivals 2. it is militarily and economically superior to any other power, known to it or not 3. it projects power over such large territories and rules over such large populations that it is far superior to a mere regional power.
Why is tolerance so central? Because to rise to world dominance, an empire has to harness the best human capital and master the most advanced technologies.
You don’t achieve that by slaughtering every population you conquer or by mistreating ethnic minorities (that’s what Spain did in the good old days of the Inquisition, and what the Axis powers did before and during World War II). You achieve it by co-opting the best minds of your conquests, by downplaying or ignoring the religious, ethnic or linguistic distinctions. In other words, by adopting an attitude of relative tolerance.
Chua is indeed careful to note that the tolerance exercised by Persian, Roman or Chinese emperors was not contemporary tolerance, but a tolerance greater by the standards of the time. Of course, these rulers had no concept of human rights or self-determination as we understand them today. But they were more tolerant than their contemporaries. Chua is also careful to nuance her analysis by stating that relative tolerance is a necessary but not sufficient condition for world dominance.
So, who were the hyperpowers?
* The Persian Empire (from 559 to 330 BCE) * The High Roman Empire (70-192 CE) * The Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) * The Mongol Empire (1206-1368) * The Dutch World Empire (1625-1675) * The Ottoman, Mughal and Ming Empires in the East * The British Empire (19th century) * The United States today
The section of the book I find the weakest is the chapter on the British Empire. In looking to support her thesis, Chua focuses almost exclusively on India, neglecting the racial atrocities committed by the British in their African colonies (Rhodesia, anyone?). That, to me, is a major omission.
Why bother with all this historical stuff? Because it is relevant to the policies adopted by the current hyperpower: the United States. Chua argues that the strength of the United States is precisely its capacity to attract the best and brightest from the rest of the world and to assimilate them relatively well. This constant influx of human capital guarantees creativity, innovation and technological developments (something missing from the potential rivals for the crown: the European Union, China and India).
However, all the previous hyperpowers have ultimately fallen, partly because of a rise in intolerance (just watch Lou Dobbs on CNN or listen to any Republican debate and you’ll get a taste of that - my editorial comment, not Chua’s).
For Chua, the current imperialists in the American corridors of power (the Neocons) have not learned from history. If they had done so, they might have learned that the exercise of power has shifted from strictly military to economic. Conquests are expensive, trade is not necessarily (Great Britain didn’t learn that one either).
The United States is a democracy operating within a framework of international law where self-determination and human rights are accepted as norms. As much as the American way of life is attractive to millions around the world, the unilateralism and militarism of the current administration has triggered strong anti-American movements. For Chua, the neo-imperialist dreams were incredibly naive to think the Iraqis would embrace their visions (ya’ think?).
Chua’s point is that it is not in the interest of the United States to be an empire. As she puts it "the face of an American empire is present-day Iraq." (335) Not a pretty sight. Instead, the United States should stick to what has served it so well: being a magnet for global human capital of all background, but there are challenges here as well.
Take immigration: it is impossible to ignore the current crop of nativist promoters (Lou Dobbs again, Tom Tancredo) and the general rise in "anti-brown people" in the conservative blogosphere. For Chua, the current fear-mongering and calls to close the border are wrongheaded:
* Because silicon valley would not have happened without immigrants. Xenophobic backlashes ultimately undermine the social system as a whole. Hyperpowers fall precisely when purist discourse prevails.
* Because a reasonably open immigrant policy creates goodwill and good relations with the rest of the world (something the US could use right now). * Because the prosperity of the US requires the continuous influx of human capital.
I am less convinced by the argument that outsourcing creates the glue that unites the US to the rest of the world. Sweatshop work does not create such links.
However, Chua closes her book by stating a not very original point: multilateralism is not surrender, but opportunity and the United States will need allies and immigrants to address global issues. The unilateralism promoted by the current administration has been more detrimental. It has exposed the limits of American power rather than its strength.
Amy Chua is neither an activist nor a polemicist, so, you won’t find any Bush-bashing or anti-war statements in the book. Her point is to promote historically-grounded analysis, not quick talking points to throw at one’s political adversaries but, in her own moderate and measured way, she does deal a few blows to the neo-conservative, militaristic view that has undermined American power in these past years.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.