Saturday, April 14, 2012

Chua - Day of Empire

Day of Empire (Amy Chua, 2007) is an analysis of the great empires of history and what allowed them to have a pervasive impact in their time and what ultimately led to their demise. Chua’s proposition is that the same attribute that brought them to such prominence was also the Achilles heel that brought their end – openness and incorporation of many different cultures.

Chua very carefully defines “empire” as those societies that had colossal power that was preeminent in the known world of their time. The empires she recognized were the Persian Empire of Cyrus and Alexander, the Romans, China’s Tang Dynasty, Genghis Khan’s Mongols, the Dutch, British, and late 20th century America. Missing from the list are Spain, Portugal, the Mughals and Hapsburgs, specifically because none of these were unrivaled powers in their times. The great empires were uniquely able in their early days to envelop other cultures, to invite their contributions, and to build a sense of shared destiny among their peoples. She indicates “… in every case tolerance was indispensable to the achievement of hegemony. Just as strikingly, the decline of empire has repeatedly coincided with intolerance, xenophobia, and calls for racial, religious, or ethnic ‘purity.’” (p. xxi)

In the case of the Roman empire, Chua notes that the great tolerance of Rome as it spread was a necessary condition to expansion. However, this tolerance also led to some of its territories, particularly in the east and north, maintaining their own relatively independent social order. This autonomy allowed for a growing resistance to Roman rule and the crumbling of any shared commitment to the welfare of the empire. While the Persian, Roman, Mongol, and British empires emerged through expansionist economic and political motivations, the Dutch and American cases unfolded when other people came to them. Holland was a very small country and had few citizens before it became the refuge for many Jews and Muslims fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. America was mysterious, a risk, and a harsh frontier that became the home to hearty frontier seekers escaping religious persecution and economic hardship. Because the Dutch and Americans welcomed these fleeing masses, both of their empires drew talent, ability, motivation and dedication from its newly arrived citizens.

Day of Empire was published in 2007 and preceded the changes that have taken place in the last five years. In fact, questions she raises about whether or not the U.S.A. should continue to exercise globe-shaping influence seem odd in today’s flatter global economy. Chua commented, “the ironic result of the United States’ ‘democratic world dominance’ has been rampant, raging anti-Americanism.” (p. 328) American products and culture are widely embraced yet those who seem so eager to adopt American ways resist its political and military domination. She said, “… the United States would be better off following the formula that served it so well for more than two hundred years. America pulled away from all its rivals by turning itself into a magnet for the world’s most energetic and enterprising…” (p. 335) Comforting to those who worry about its emerging prominence, Chua believes China is not likely to exercise anything close to “empire.” Her perspective is that China has never been able to incorporate other cultural groups and perspectives, something that its neighbor to the south, India, has repeatedly been able to do. Thus, the suggestion is that the United States may be able to define a new kind of role, influential while not unilaterally dominant, when it is balanced by India, a country whose citizens are among the most positive in the world in their views of America and its people.

The lessons of Day of Empire are important for a variety of reasons – individual, governmental, and global. If individual leaders are unable to affirm diverse perspectives and contributors to their cause and if nations harbor notions of superiority that deny other cultures a place, then the global community will suffer. However, if leaders and governments can find a way to avoid intolerance and hatred among their diverse stakeholders, then a future of prominence and prosperity may be possible. While Chua's book focuses on the United States, there are other nations throughout the world that would likely be interested in enhancing their presence; the advice Chua offers about welcoming others and making sure all benefit according to their contribution is sound advice for any nation that hopes to prosper in the 21st century.

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