»  The American Conservative

December 3, 2007

  No Tolerance for Human Nature

Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance—And Why They Fall
by Amy Chua


Four years ago Amy Chua published a striking book titled World on Fire in which she drew our attention to an important contradiction inherent in the globalization project. Globalization, she argued, disproportionately benefits "market-dominant minorities" like her own relatives, the overseas Chinese of southeast Asia, or the Jewish "oligarchs" of Yeltsin's Russia. Globalization is thus at odds with democratization, which favors the less entrepreneurial "sons of the soil" and excites ethnic resentments.

In Day of Empire Ms. Chua continues her exploration of the shifting currents of modernity. Taking for granted that the present-day U.S.A. is a "hyperpower," overwhelmingly dominant in a unipolar world, she ransacks history for clues as to how such powers rise and fall, and what lessons we might learn therefrom.

Her main thesis is that peoples advance to hyperpower status by practicing tolerance towards the foreigners who, either by conquest or immigration, come within their scope. Having embraced masses of foreigners in these ways, the metropolitan power needs to come up with some kind of "glue" (this is the author's word) to bond them to itself—to turn subjection into allegiance. Hyperpowers of the past have had varying degrees of success in the devising and applying of this "glue." All declined at last—became unstuck, as it were—because the original spirit of tolerance and inclusion was lost.

This thesis is illustrated by a parade of hyperpowers: the empires of Cyrus and Alexander, Rome of course, China's Tang dynasty, the Mongols, the Ottomans, Mings, and Moghuls, and the maritime empires of Spain, Holland, and Britain. Each, according to our author, rose to dominance by enlisting foreign expertise and tolerating foreign customs and faiths. Some developed bonding "glue": Roman citizenship, the trans-ethnic Islam of the Ottomans, Hellenic culture. Others did not:

The Tang policy of strategic tolerance meant that the empire never tried to impose a Han Chinese identity on its non-Chinese subjects. As a result, no common political, linguistic, or cultural "glue" bound "barbarians" and Chinese together in the sprawling Tang Empire. On the contrary, even in the early eighth century [the Emperor] found himself ruling over large numbers of distinct, fiercely independent communities with no loyalty or even goodwill toward their Chinese overlords.

I must say I found something deeply unconvincing about this whole argument. Some of it struck me as just tautological. A nation becomes a hyperpower, the author tells us, by tolerantly incorporating lots of other nations or peoples. As opposed to what? Well, I suppose the emerging hyperpower might just massacre its subject peoples, or enslave them... but in fact most of her examples did both things, if selectively. The Mongols were notorious for their wanton massacres; while a proposal that Roman slaves should wear a distinguishing tunic was scotched on the grounds that it might alert the enslaved to how numerous they were.

Just so at the other end of the argument. Rome fell, Amy Chua tells us, "when it let in peoples that it failed to assimilate, either because they were unassimilable or because their culture and habits exceeded the limits of Roman tolerance." Which is to say, "strategic tolerance" works, except when it doesn't. Well, duh.

The whole enterprise also has something Procrustean about it. Here is a region- or world-spanning hyperpower. Let's see if I can jam it into my tolerance-glueyness-intolerance template. Other than the fact that they interacted with a lot of foreigners, what exactly do Achaemenid Persia and the 17th-century Dutch empire have in common? Not much that I can see, or that Ms. Chua could persuade me of.

Nor is the path from tolerance to intolerance persuasively described. I am sure Ms. Chua is right to say that an 18th-century Englishman in India was more likely to take an Indian wife than was his counterpart in 1920; but that was because the first was a solitary merchant adventurer far from home comforts, while the second was a salaried employee of the Crown inhabiting a bungalow in the home-from-home "civil lines" among straitlaced and vigilant superiors and marriageable memsahibs. No real change in metropolitan attitudes was involved. If anything, the British of 1920 were more receptive to "diversity" than those of 1750—ask a Jew or a Catholic.

I don't think, either, that Ms. Chua pays sufficient attention to two issues that ought always be near the front of one's mind when discussing these issues of tolerance and "diversity." One is the matter of numbers; the other, that of race.

So far as numbers are concerned, the author does actually show awareness of the issue, but only when it suits her. A key word here is "unassimilable," as in that quote above about Roman decline. Some of the peoples the Romans failed to assimilate—the author has the Hellenized east and Germanic north especially in mind—were simply unassimilable. The disjunctive "or" suggests that " their culture and habits" exceeding "the limits of Roman tolerance" was only part of the problem. What was the rest? Surely, their sheer numbers.

Much later in the book, when she gets around to laying out prescriptions for the present-day United States, Ms. Chua lays into immigration restrictionists.

Time and again, past world-dominant powers have fallen precisely when their core groups turned intolerant, reasserting their "true" or "pure" identity and adopting exclusionary policies toward "unassimilable" groups. From this point of view, attempts to demonize immigrants or to attribute America's success to "Anglo-Protestant" virtues is not only misleading ... but dangerous.

Note that the word "unassimilable" has acquired quotation marks at some point in the 277 pages between Imperial Rome and George W. Bush's America. The target in this later selection is Samuel Huntington, whose 2004 book Who Are We? is regarded by Ms. Chua as wrong-headedly nativistic.

But what exactly makes a group unassimilable (or "unassimilable")? A key determinant is simply its size. No sane person would argue that a thousand or ten thousand Somalis, Mexicans, or Chinese are unassimilable in today's America. Ten million is a different matter, a very different matter. That is Samuel Huntington's entire point. Probably many Romans felt the same way about Goths. They were right to do so, as events proved.

And then, of course, race. Our author is mighty aggrieved by any program of national or racial purity. She blames the swift demise of the mid-20th-century German and Japanese hegemonies on racial exclusivism, and suggests that the ethnocentric obsessions of the Chinese will prevent their rising to hyperpower status in the 21st century. Fair enough, though I think there is more to be said in both cases.

That a perfectly unqualified racial inclusiveness can be the basis for an enduring and stable society is not, however, proven. Certainly none of Ms. Chua's historical examples proves it. All of them of course included individuals of many races, but here again the issue is one of numbers. To be sure, the Ottomans and the Moghuls, both of originally north Asian stock, did rule big numbers of quite different peoples. If true assimilation had occurred in either case, however, Lawrence of Arabia would have had no ethnocentric Arabs to command, and we should presumably have been spared the grisly partition of British India and the three consequent subcontinental wars. The British and Dutch tried their best with multiracialism, but the present condition of ex-British Africa (not to mention, some might add uncharitably, ex-British Britain), and recent ructions in the Netherlands, suggest less than unqualified success.

Ms. Chua would put these problems down to an absence of "glue"; but what "glue" can bond peoples who, as we are slowly coming to understand, exhibit intractable—yes, possibly unassimilable—group-statistical differences in matters of behavior and personality? Do we actually know of any such "glue"? This book offers no evidence that we do. Will American citizenship do the trick? It did with the Irish, Italians, Poles, and Jews, but that just takes us back to the matter of race, and to Rodney King's famous question.

At the end of this book, as at the end of her previous one, Ms. Chua appeals for more openness, tolerance, and generosity of spirit. Well, yea to all that. It is hard not to conclude from the preceding chapters in Day of Empire, though, that settled populations with a strong sense of collective identity cannot for long practice unlimited tolerance. Nor can subject peoples for long restrain their resentment at subjection: and this is true whether their subjection is physical, imposed by imperial conquest, or merely cultural, "imposed" (as they see it) indirectly by the machinations of distant superpowers and multinational corporations.

Human nature is what it is. If we do not accept its finitude calmly, and learn to work sanely and humanely with it instead of against it, it will bring us to ruin at last, as surely as empires must fall.