One Saturday afternoon while exploring the shelves of my public library I came across Amy Chua’s Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance–and Why They Fall. While most know Chua thanks to her controversial 2011 bestseller Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, I was introduced to her writing in late 2016 when I read her perhaps only slightly less controversial book The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. Being a sucker for history books I simply couldn’t resist Day of Empire. I added it to the small stack of library books in my arms and headed to the check-out desk.
Eager as I was to read Day of Empire I still approached it with a bit of skepticism, since Chua isn’t a trained historian. (But she is a distinguished law professor at Yale.) Be that as it may, I’m happy to say in the end I found her arguments compelling and her command of history impressive. Much to my surprise I find myself recommending this rather good book.
Published back in 2007, Day of Empire looks at history’s great “hyperpowers” (roughly described as empires and such that at their zenith had few, if any equals) and what made them great – and in end what brought them down. Looking at history’s great empires, from Persia to Rome to Britain to America and everything in between, according to Chua, the key successful element to hyperpowers both ancient and modern is tolerance. If they’re able to absorb diverse populations with relative harmony and harness their creative energies they’ll prosper and succeed. But if they’re unable, or grow intolerant then imperial decline sets in, frequently ending with a partial or full collapse of the once mighty power.
For example, even though Rome conquered a diverse array of peoples ranging from Europe to North Africa to Near Asia, Roman citizenship was technically available to all. As a result many of Rome’s subjects had a stake in the empire’s well-being and responded accordingly. While many counties in Europe were absolute monarchies ruled by autocrats and their citizens enjoyed few, if any civil liberties Holland and Britain were free societies. Over the years persecuted minorities like Huguenots and Jews were drawn to these two realms bringing with them their expertise in fields like banking, commerce and textiles. On the other hand, imperial Spain’s persecution of especially Jews but also Muslims created an exodus of its Kingdom’s most talented subjects. (Many Jews found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, prompting the Sultan to publicly thank the Spanish monarchs for “helping enrich” his kingdom.) Within a generation or two Spain would find itself a shadow of its once great self.
Like I mentioned earlier, I found Day of Empire surprisingly good. Considering all the anti-immigrant and anti-muslim rhetoric emanating from today’s Oval Office, it might be wise for both power brokers and citizenry to take note of Chua’s words when it comes to the value of tolerance. If we don’t, America could find itself slipping into ruinous decline, like so many failed empires before us.