Amy Chua | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
(Cheryl Carlin)

Amy Chua

The key to the rise of the Romans, the Mongols—and the U.S.? Ethnic diversity, Chua says in a new book

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You say your book, Day of Empire, is a warning. How so?
I'm suggesting that, ironically, the secret to becoming a world "hyperpower" is tolerance. If you look at history, you see great powers being very tolerant in their rise to global dominance. So there is a sort of warning for today's hyperpower—the United States. The secret to our success for over 200 years has been our ability to attract the best and the brightest from all over the world. We can't just let every immigrant in. But it's important to not take a turn toward xenophobia and want to shut down the borders or root out certain groups, because history shows that that's always been the trigger of backlash and decline.

You give several examples of the rise of hyperpowers—nations that are unsurpassed militarily and economically— including the Roman Empire, the Tang dynasty and the Dutch Republic. But not everyone thinks of the Roman Empire as tolerant.
I'm not talking about tolerance in the modern human-rights sense. Rome had massive amounts of slavery; women had no rights. People were shredded at gladiator games. But the Romans were tolerant in the sense that they were indifferent to skin color and religious, ethnic or linguistic background. People of different ethnicities and religions were accepted into the Roman army and were able to become Roman citizens. The Romans thought of themselves as the chosen people, yet they built the greatest army on earth by recruiting warriors from any background.

But didn't the notion of tolerance change?
Of course. Once you get to the Enlightenment, the way that powers get to be hyperpowers isn't just by conquest. It's through commerce and innovation. Societies like the Dutch Republic and the United States used tolerance to become a magnet for enterprising immigrants.

You say modern America has a lot in common with the Mongol Empire. What about the United States would Genghis Khan endorse?
Genghis Khan decreed religious tolerance for all of his conquered peoples. So I think he definitely would approve of our constitutional protections of freedom of religion. I think he would also approve of the way the U.S. has been able to attract talented people from all over the world. The Mongols themselves had little technology, not even enough to bake bread. The only way they were able to conquer the great cities of Eastern Europe and the Middle East was by using Chinese engineers who knew how to build great siege machines. The parallel is that the U.S. was able to win the race for the atomic bomb because it was a haven for persecuted scientists from Nazi Europe.

How did you get interested in global issues?
My own family is Chinese, but from the Philippines. My parents immigrated here. My mother was Catholic, two grandparents were Buddhist and Protestant, and my husband is Jewish. I'm a product of globalization.

What are your criteria for a “hyperpower”?
I did come up with a very specific set of conditions. The core idea is that it has to be a power that clearly surpasses all of its rivals, so the U.S. during the Cold War was not a hyperpower. Even though we were a super power, we had a rival that was about roughly as strong. The other criteria is that a power can’t be clearly inferior economically or militarily to any other power on the planet, even if it doesn’t know about it. This should take care of the empires of antiquity. For me, a starting point was that Rome had to be a hyperpower because, if it wasn’t, then there’s no such thing. And, finally, the idea is that a hyperpower is a society that really projects its power globally, not just regionally or locally.

How did you avoid over-generalizing and concealing huge differences between societies?
I try really hard to always point out differences across the societies. I have lots of warnings saying, ‘Look, I tried to be over-inclusive rather than under-inclusive.’ So some of these powers, like the Dutch Republic, are more contestable cases whereas the great Mongol empire was, hands down, a hyperpower. Also, it’s the differences across these hyperpowers that really interest me. For example, I say that the role that tolerance has played has really changed over time. In that sense, I’m pointing out a difference.

Explain your version of the term “tolerance.”
By tolerance I don’t mean equality, or even respect. As I use the term, tolerance means letting very different kinds of people live, work, participate and rise in your society regardless of their ethnic or religious backgrounds.

Why do you include Nazi Germany and imperial Japan in your discussion of power?
I included them as examples of incredibly intolerant societies that rose to frightening heights of power but never, I argue, remotely came close to global domination. While you can get very powerful through intolerance – the Germans really mobilized negative and hateful energy by calling for the extermination of inferior peoples – I say that no intolerant society can become a hyperpower because it’s just too inefficient to be enslaving, exterminating and persecuting people. You waste so many resources, which sounds sort of callous to say. But from a strategic point of view, intolerance has inherent limits. A lot of people say that the only reason the U.S. is a hyperpower is because it’s imperialistic and it exploits other countries, and I actually say that the real secret to U.S. global domination is its tolerance. Intolerance just can never yield the same amount of success and global power.

How did 9/11 change the way America was defined as a hyperpower?
In the late 1990s after the Soviet Union fell, an unusual set of circumstances came over the world. We had one hyperpower, the U.S., and everybody felt like with communism discredited and the U.S. as a leader, markets and democracy were just going to spread over the world, turn everybody into competitors and we were going to get rid of backwardness and ethnic conflict. The idea was that here we were a hyperpower and nobody was afraid that we were going to be invading other countries.

After 9/11, of course, there was the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War and right at that point everything changed. Suddenly, all over the world we were not just viewed as a passive, pro-market beneficent hyperpower. Suddenly, everyone all over the world saw the U.S. as a unilateralist, aggressively militaristic hyperpower. At this moment, Americans are really struggling with that question, which is ‘What kind of hyperpower should we be? Do we even want to be a hyperpower?’

What does being a hyperpower mean for the U.S.?
We are history’s first democratic hyperpower. This is a fabulous thing on the one hand and possibly a reason we continue to be a hyperpower. On the other hand, being a democratic hyperpower also sets limits on the U.S. Even if we wanted to, we can’t just go conquer other territories and take all their resources. We champion democracy. We can’t just annex territories. So when we invaded Iraq, it was never a possibility that once we liberated Iraq, all the Iraqis could then vote in the next U.S. presidential election. The U.S. is in sort of a strange box: it can promote democracy, but it can’t make the people it dominates a part of the American democracy. I think this is partly why there is so much resentment against the U.S. Lots of people want to be Americans. They want to live like Americans. They admire America. They would love to come and be citizens of America. But we can’t do that. There’s a kind of schizophrenic love-hate relationship where we’re telling the world that we want to bring democracy and free markets and wealth to them, and yet we just can’t let them all into this country. We have to admit that we can’t let the rest of the world become citizens, but we need to find new 21st century ways of having more of a connection with the rest of the world.

What 21st century options could work?
Of course, there have to be limits, but I think we have to continue with our very open-feeling immigration policy so at least we’ll continue to hold out the possibility that some people can become Americans regardless of ethnicity or religion.

U.S. multi-nationalists, interestingly, can serve a positive role, for example, in the extent that U.S. multi-nationals and U.S. corporations abroad actually train executives and managers from other countries. Ukrainian or Filipino or Nigerian executives will start to have American values. They’ll be gaining from the profits of these American corporations that they belong to and so, in a way, it’s a way of participating in America’s prosperity. Co-opting these elites or encouraging the development of pro-American elites is at least the beginning of having more connection to the rest of the world.

We should be the leaders of multi-national, international initiatives for problems that are really of global magnitude. This way, people can look and see that we are all connected in a certain way and that the U.S. is going to work to bring benefits to not just Americans but the rest of the world as well.

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