Day of Empire
How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance – and Why the Fall

Author: Amy Chua
Amy Chua

Amy Chua (Wikimedia Commons Photo)

Doubleday, 2007

Amy Chua is the John Duff Professor of Law at Yale Law School, and this is her second book that draws from history. It draws from a span of history of many millennia, a difficult work for those who have spent decades studying history professionally, and work that few if any of them would attempt.

Chua writes that "first and foremost" her book is "a tribute to America's tolerance" and adds that it is also "a study of power – colossal power – and the conditions that allow some societies to attain and maintain it." She writes that tolerance has been "the true secret to America's success, and today, more than ever before, we are in danger of losing our way."

She uses the term hyperpower, and the first hyperpower she writes about is the Persian Empire of the Achaemenids, beginning approximately in 559 BCE and ending around 330 BCE. Tolerance in that age was different from tolerance today. The Achaemenids were typical conquering overlords. They liked order and wanted local kings to rule their people in accordance with local customs, including religion. They were tolerant as long as order was maintained. It is not the kind of tolerance the people who believe in democracy should appreciate or practice.

Why the Achaemenid Empire fell revolves around the question why Philip II of Macedonia saw the Achaemenid rule of Darius III as having grown weak and why Philip's son, Alexander, was able to defeat Darius militarily. Chua does not convincingly tie the fall of the Persian hyperpower to the issue of tolerance.

She does better with another hyperpower: the Roman Empire. She recognizes a variety of conflicting opinions on why the Roman Empire fell and puts forth intolerance as one ingredient. She discusses the Christian emperors, the conflict between pagans and Christians and among Christians. Writing about the invasions that fragmented the western half of the empire she writes: "The attacks on pagans and heretics proved deeply self-destructive, actually facilitating the encroachments." She quotes Montesque:

Whereas the ancient Romans fortified their empire by tolerating every cult, their successors [the Christian emperors] reduced it to nothing by cutting out, one after the other, every sect but the dominant one.

The question remains: why were "barbarian" warrior groups able to assert themselves militarily within the western half of the Roman Empire, thereby fragmenting that part of the empire? The subtitle of Chua's book asks why. Why was there so little participation by local people in the defense of their own area against fearsome armies? The answer involves a political system that alienated people rather than served their interests and rulers who were afraid of an armed citizenry. Tolerance was a subsidiary element.

Chua turns to China and the Tang Dynasty. The recognized end of the Tang Dynasty is 907. Chua writes that "Tang intolerance intensified" in the 800s. She mentions the intolerance of the Taoist Emperor Wuzong, who was anti-Buddhist and opposed to all foreign religions. Christian and Zoroastrian churches and temples were suppressed. "Regional warlords," she writes, "came to rule their own kingdoms, and the central government [lost] fiscal control." Then, she adds, "[b]etween 875 and 884, another series of uprisings shattered the empire." These are descriptions of conditions that do not necessarily contribute to an answer to the question why the Tang Empire fell. Chua says nothing about the contribution made by China's system of government – rule by bloodline – which eventually produced incompetent emperors, failed administrations and emperors perceived as having lost the Mandate of Heaven. The Tang Dynasty had the same system of government as the Western Han Dynasty and and fell for much the same reasond.

On the Mongols, Spain's Empire, the Dutch and the British, Amy Chua writes details that might be interesting to the average reader. About the British Empire she had to back away from her thesis, writing that her point "is emphatically not that 'alas, had only Britain been more tolerant it might still have colonies in Asia and Africa.' "

Amy Chua would like the U.S. to remain a tolerant nation. Her descriptions of the tolerance that was a part of the origins of the United States are valid enough. She describes the U.S. as a hyperpower, but writes,

The United States would be far truer to its own history and principles striving to be an exemplar of the world – a "city on the hill" – rather than arrogating to itself the sisyphean task of remaking societies around the world in its own image.

It is a different world from what existed at the time of the Achaemenids or the Roman Empire. The kind of empires then were different from what some people today describe loosely as empire. U.S. society is not going to be overrun by the kind of conquering armies that existed back then, civilized or tribal. The kind of conquests that existed prior to World War II are no longer likely. We have the United Nations, which grew out of the failure of those who attempted conquest during that biggest of wars. Chua mentions the United Nations:

Theoretically, the United States might ... throw itself behind a new democratic world government ruled by international institutions under international law. In this scenario, there would still be a hyperpower, but it would not be the United States; it would be the world government to which the United Sates had ceded authority.

The United Nations was not designed to supercede the sovereignty of its members or to prevent members from forming a coalition for armed defense. Theoretically the United States could be just one member of a combination of powers devoted to international law and military power, acting not as a hyperpower but in concert with these other nations. And rather than any decline or fall being involved, there would be economic benefit. Some of us in the United States like to think that nothing good in the world can happen unless it is initiated by us. The people elsewhere in the world are helpless children without the moral compass that we possess – a strange view given that we in the United States are made of the same human stuff as the rest of the world and have derived what we are politically from elsewhere, namely Europe.

Amy Chua and I hate the same thing. I wish I could have agreed more with her history.

Copyright © 2007-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.