10.6.08

SPONTANEOUS SUPREMACY? In Day of Empire, the subject of Book Review No. 15, author Amy Chua's subtitle, How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance -- and Why They Fall, summarizes her story. A passage in the introduction summarizes her conclusion.
For all their enormous differences, every single world hyperpower in history -- every society that could even arguably be described as having achieved global hegemony -- was, at least by the standards of its time, extraordinarily pluralistic and tolerant during its rise to preeminence. Indeed, 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." But here's the catch: It was also tolerance that sowed the seeds of decline. In virtually every case, tolerance eventually hit a tipping point, triggering conflict, hatred, and violence.
The book requires over 300 pages in order for Professor Chua to qualify her case, beginning with "world-dominant power" and continuing with "tolerance" as compared to the standards of the time. That requires some work, as the list of clear "world-dominant powers" includes pre-Alexandrian Persia, Antonine Rome and Tang China (dominating different parts of the world at the same time), the short-lived Mongol empire, the Dutch and British commercial empires (Spain comes close, but no hegemon), and the United States, possibly for only a brief time between Christmas 1991 and Labor Day 2001. As history, it's a bit of a stretch, as is often the case with attempts to construct a General Theory of Everything. As advice for people in the United States and in its trading partners that might also be rivals it might have some use. One element of "world dominance" that merits further consideration is that of dominance as a byproduct of actions undertaken for other purposes. Certainly there is no consensus in U.S. political or business circles over what the Correct Course ought to be, whether in dealing with emerging middle class markets in other countries, or with bitter-enders nostalgic for the Caliphate (an also-ran) or for the second coming of Cyrus and Xerxes. I had the opportunity to attend the Chicago stop of Professor Chua's book tour, where I raised the possibility of accidental hegemony and of social development being somewhat messier than any one policymaker or committee of policymakers could control, a possibility that she did not rule out.

(Cross-posted to the 50 Book Challenge).

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