May 7, 2008

Book review: "Day of Empire," by Amy Chua

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Day of Empire, by Amy Chua
Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance -- And Why They Fail
By Amy Chua
Doubleday / ISBN: 978-0-385-51284-8

Almost everyone agrees by now that the United States currently wields an enormous amount of power and influence over the rest of the world; but does that give us the right to call the US an "empire," at least as how we traditionally define the word? After all, the US isn't trying to actively annex or colonize any foreign lands, has no interest in adding more states to the 50 we already own; we do have a vested interest, however, in seeing American-owned businesses do well in these foreign lands, a commonality among many empires throughout the ages, and we're not afraid to use military force to achieve those aims, yet another commonality. We spread the idea of free-election democracies and free-market capitalism, but then insist that the countries we deal with adopt such measures themselves, or suffer the wrath of an imposed democracy through the barrel of a gun.

Perhaps it's better, then, says bestselling essayist and futurist Amy Chua in her new book Day of Empire, to think of the United States instead as a "hyperpower" -- not necessarily an empire or republic or kingdom dealing with all their warring neighbors, but literally a society that has gained unquestioned dominance over the entire planet at once, or at least whatever part of the planet was known to those people at that point in history. If you define it this way, Chua says, then you can actually see a clear line of hyperpowers stretching back chronologically to Cyrus' Persian Empire of 500 BC, with other such infamous societies as the Roman Empire, Genghis Khan's Mongol Empire, and even the Dutch Republic of the 1600s falling on this line as well; and what's more, you can actually see very obvious similarities between such groups when you align them in this fashion, lessons that can be applied to the US as well at this particular moment in history (the moment we're about to lose our hyperpower status, that is). And indeed, that's something else Chua convincingly does throughout the book as well, is show example after example of powerful empires that never did make it to hyperpower status -- the Ottoman Empires of history, the Spanish Inquisitions, the 20th-century fascist states -- and proves that none of them heeded the lessons about hyperpowers that she points out in this manuscript, thus reinforcing her theories about such societies' rises and falls even more.

So what exactly are the grand secrets about such hyperpowers that Chua discovers? Well, nothing too terribly surprising, if you really stop and think about; basically, that time after time after time, all hyperpowers in history saw their ascendency during a time when they embraced tolerance, when the society itself welcomed different religions and points of view and skill sets and culinary palettes, that the powerful combination of work power and brain power is what vaulted these societies into hyperpower status in the first place. And consequently, in example after example after example, where these hyperpowers started to fall is when they suddenly stopped being tolerant, when success and laziness and a drop in societal education turned the populace into xenophobic, superstitious zealots; time after time, Chua shows how such an attitude has driven away the very people and resources that made that society so powerful, usually right into the arms of another society on the rise that is happy to accept the resources. That's why this line of so-called hyperpowers seems sometimes to be an unbroken stretch from one society to the next for the last 2,500 years; because mainly it's a history of huge groups of people fleeing from one region of the world to the next, all the Jews with their money and scientists with their heretical ideas, and let's not even start with those dirty, dirty bohemians. Every time such groups are forced to flee one hyperpower because of rising intolerance, Chua convincingly argues here, these are always the moments those hyperpowers begin their downfalls; and whatever society ends up embracing these refugees tends to become the next hyperpower in history, which makes a lot of sense when it's explained that way.

And indeed, Chua's book is full of such "ah hah, yes, you're so right" moments, conclusions that make so much logical sense when you read them but that you had never really thought of yourself before this book; this manuscript is very much a reflection of the law professor Chua is during the day, moving very logically from one step to the next to the next. In fact, this might be the most interesting thing of all about Day of Empire, is that Chua does such a great job of pointing out the surprising amount of similarities from one hyperpower to the next; from Greek emperors bowing before Egyptian gods to Queen Victoria declaring herself the Empress of India, Chua creates an unshakable argument through facts and historical records of how important such religious tolerance and surface-level gestures have been to every single hyperpower in existence, no matter how those gestures are actually expressed from one decade to the next. In fact, as painful as it is, Chua also convincingly argues here how close such "evil" societies throughout history came to becoming long-term and secure ones, if they had only embraced such tolerance a little more themselves; to use one chilling example, how the Nazis would've probably gotten World War II called off as a stalemate, and survived well into our times, if they had only been able to embrace Russians, Poles and Czechs as equals and work out some kind of mutually beneficial truce. If not for the Holocaust, if not for their official policy of considering all their neighbors vermin, the Nazis could've very well "won" WWII precisely by not losing it; and this is the case with almost all the not-quite-hyperpowers in history, Chua argues, from the Spanish Empire embracing the Inquisition during the Dark Ages to China's Ming Empire embracing isolationism after the devastation of the Mongol Hoard.

It's an intriguing and thought-provoking book, one that will really have you looking at America's position in the world in a different way, wondering how we too might be able to "softly transition" out of hyperpower status like Great Britain did a century ago (a point in history Chua clearly admires), or if we are doomed to crash and burn like the old hyperpowers who never learned these lessons. Combined with the last section of this manuscript, a look at the rising regions and coming powers of the world (mostly the EU, China and India), it's a great primer as to how powerful societies get things right, where things go wrong, and what we can likely expect in global politics over the next 25 years. Day of Empire is a fast-moving, plainly-written book, one of those great nonfiction accounts geared towards a general populace that I love so much; not only policy wonks but simply those wanting to know a little more on the subject will find the book a real asset, and it gets a big recommendation from me today.

Out of 10: 9.3

Read even more about Day of Empire: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:49 AM, May 7, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |