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The age of descent?

Day of Empire How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance -- and Why They Fall; Amy Chua; Doubleday: 398 pp., $27.95

November 11, 2007|Daniel Kurtz-Phelan | Daniel Kurtz-Phelan is a senior editor at Foreign Affairs.

Some years ago, an invading army swept into the land currently known as Iraq and, in a series of swift and merciless battles, overthrew a dictator who had for decades brutalized his people and terrorized the region. The foreign conquerors were welcomed by the population. The natives, according to one account, showed "the troops the time of their lives." For a month, they "were feted and lodged in the city's poshest private homes and given unlimited access to wine, food, and women, including the wives and daughters of prominent citizens. Professional courtesans offered their expert services; after-dinner striptease was apparently a favorite entertainment."

In their most optimistic moments before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, U.S. leaders may have had something like this in mind -- that, as Dick Cheney famously predicted, the invading troops would be "greeted as liberators." But this account dates back considerably further -- to the 4th century BC, when an army under the command of Alexander the Great marched into Babylon, the ruins of which lie not far from the central Iraqi city of Hilla. That conquest, Amy Chua argues in "Day of Empire," is a good example of what an aspiring world leader should do when seizing control of foreign lands. The United States' invasion of this same territory more than 2,000 years later, she suggests by contrast, is a good example of what not to do.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, November 13, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Book Review: The Sunday review of Amy Chua's "Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance -- and Why They Fall" erroneously referred to Roman emperor Trajan as having had a Muslim advisor. Trajan had a Moorish advisor.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, November 18, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Book Review: The Nov. 11 review of Amy Chua's "Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance -- and Why They Fall" referred to Roman emperor Trajan as having had a Muslim advisor. Trajan had a Moorish advisor.

The key difference between the two invasions is what Chua calls "strategic tolerance." Every "hyperpower" in history, she writes, has been "at least by the standards of its time, extraordinarily pluralistic and tolerant during its rise to preeminence." Imperial Rome and Britain, China's Tang Dynasty, Achaemenid Persia, the United States -- in the rise to preeminence, each was more accepting of racial, ethnic and religious difference than the competing powers of its age.

Such a happily multicultural case may strike skeptics as politically correct cant, but Chua's argument is clear-eyed and hard-headed. For most of history, tolerance has been a tactical expedient rather than an abstract principle, a way of stoking economic dynamism, increasing manpower and maximizing the efficiency of political control. "To attain and maintain dominance on a global scale," Chua notes, "coercion is simply too inefficient, persecution too costly, and ethnic or religious homogeneity, like inbreeding, too unproductive." In short, tolerance is a force multiplier: It enables a nation to do more with the resources it has. Great powers do well by doing good.

Chua, a law professor at Yale, made a name for herself in 2003 with "World on Fire," which posited that the spread of free-market democracy was both exacerbating and being undermined by ethnic tensions. There is a similarly pessimistic strain to Chua's analysis of ethnicity and national power in "Day of Empire." At some point, strategic tolerance reaches a limit and "sow[s] the seeds of decline," setting off a cycle of "conflict, hatred, and violence." That ominous note is especially evident in Chua's discussion of the U.S. She fears we may be approaching the point at which tolerant rise gives way to intolerant fall.

Chua writes with a wry, breezy wit, giving her analysis a lively accessibility, and she builds her argument around a series of enjoyable and often provocative case studies of "world-dominant powers." Rome in its golden age, a free-trade zone with dozens of ethnicities living under an inclusive Pax Romana, may be the best known. Chua demonstrates persuasively that Rome's willingness and ability to incorporate and assimilate streams of new peoples was central to its greatness. (The emperor Trajan, she points out, was a Spaniard whose top advisors included a Greek, a Muslim and a Jew, while Septimius Severus "was an African with a Syrian wife.") Alexander, similarly, built his army by integrating the best commanders and soldiers from the armies he'd conquered, regardless of their ethnicity. And the British Empire owed its supremacy to the contributions of three groups that were shunned elsewhere: Jews, Huguenots and Scots "played an indispensable role in the financial and industrial revolutions that catapulted Great Britain to world dominance."

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