Pluralism, tolerance and power

December 16, 2007|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,[Special to The Sun]

Day of Empire

How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance - And Why They Fall

By Amy Chua

Doubleday / 396 pages / $27.95

With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the United States entered some select company. The superpower became a "hyperpower." Like Persia, Rome, China, Mongolia and Great Britain, the United States attained military, economic and technological pre-eminence. It projects its power - and its values, language and lifestyles - over vast areas around the globe.

In Day of Empire, Amy Chua, a professor at Yale Law School, traces the rise and fall of these global hegemons. The willingness and ability of a nation to harness human capital by being more "pluralistic and tolerant" than its rivals, she argues, is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for world domination. As Nazi Germany and imperial Japan learned, racial purity, religious persecution and ethnic cleansing are costly, inefficient and unproductive.

Hyperpowers did not necessarily extend political or social equality, or even respect, to their "subjects." But every one of them conferred enough freedom to enable individuals or groups of different ethnic, religious, racial or linguistic backgrounds to "co-exist, participate and rise in society." Conversely, Chua claims, "intolerance is starkly associated with the decline of hyperpowers." Xenophobia and religious fanaticism in the ancient hyperpowers produced discord, rebellion, implosion and collapse.

The condensed histories in Day of Empire are informative and charming, and Chua's thesis is ingenious and thought-provoking. Hyperpowers did, indeed, turn diversity into "a source of synergy and strength" - and co-opt potential opponents. Nonetheless, Chua's reach often exceeds her grasp. She does not demonstrate that tolerance is more essential to hyperpowers than it is to superpowers or, for that matter, to plain old garden-variety empires. Her definition of "strategic tolerance" is a moving target, with lots of exceptions explained away. She often assumes what she must prove: that the ability to attract and assimilate was a prerequisite for preeminence. And, as she acknowledges in her introduction, separating cause from effect in accounting for the decline of hyperpowers is "problematic." Intolerance may well be a response to disintegration, not the spark that spreads dissatisfaction and dissent.

The "strategic tolerance" of hyperpowers took two main forms. As their empires extended over vast expanses of land, hyperpowers granted limited political and cultural autonomy to the people they had conquered. They tapped local talent - through intermarriage, the forced adoption of children, conscription into the army and grants of citizenship to intellectuals, artisans, merchants, physicians and bureaucrats. Imperial Rome, for example, took a "color-blind and surprisingly class-blind approach to citizenship," placing "no ceiling on the power that elites from the provinces could achieve."

Chua admits that tolerance was "selectively deployed." But she does not adequately examine the implications of this concession. Or mount a sufficiently persuasive case for her use of the word "tolerance," with its positive connotations, to characterize hyperpower practices. In Rome, about 10,000 men became citizens by serving in the auxiliary army for 25 years (during which time they could not marry). But most conquered people were enslaved, laboring in the fields, performing sexual services or sent to the gladiator games with common criminals, where they were mauled by wild beasts to the delight of Roman spectators. Because he was a citizen, the Apostle Paul was not tortured or crucified by Roman authorities. They beheaded him. This behavior, we can guess, did not endear Christians to the Empire.

Consider as well Chua's analysis of the Mongol Empire. Setting aside her own admonition that tolerance is a relative concept, Chua asserts that Genghis Khan was "remarkably tolerant, even by modern standards." He granted "absolute freedom of worship for everyone," including Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and shamanists. And his descendants' approach to religion resembled "that of any Ivy League university."

Perhaps. But Genghis Khan's "basic strategy" also included burning unfortified villages, taking captives, killing thousands and unleashing a flood of refugees. After surrender, he executed aristocrats, governors and soldiers. When the Jurchen emperor defied him and set up his own court, Genghis Kan besieged, conquered and pillaged Zhongdu. According to one account, 60,000 Chinese maidens jumped from the city walls, preferring death to capture by the Mongols. Lauded by Chua for his "cosmopolitanism," Kublai Khan, Genghis' grandson, banned intermarriage and prohibited ethnic Chinese from carrying weapons or learning the Mongol language.

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