Jim Miles: Hyperpowers and Dominance – Book Review

By Jim Miles
Special to PalestineChronicle.com

Day of Empire – How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance – and Why They Fall. Amy Chua. Doubleday, New York, 2007.

This work had so much anticipatory potential as Amy Chua’s previous work “World on Fire” had provided a strong, well-supported thesis on how the colonial elites later brought about much of the incompetence, racism, and malevolent tendencies of post-colonial governments. “Day of Empire” held this promise, but for one significant word. If it had continued on the theme of elitism (as in fact, elitism is one of the main sub-themes), it would have been a much more acceptable work. That one word makes all the difference, turning what could have been a well-written exposition on the rise and fall of empires into a very poorly argued one.

That one word – toleration. Chua’s thesis is that “Every single hyperpower in history…was extraordinarily pluralistic and tolerant during its rise to preeminence,” arguing even more strongly that “tolerance was indispensable to the achievement of hegemony.” She puts many qualifiers on the word – “relative tolerance”, “strategic tolerance”, “religious tolerance”, “instrumental tolerance”, “calculating tolerance”, “internal tolerance,” – but the most antithetical one is her definition that “tolerance means letting every different kinds of people live, work, and prosper in your society [emphasis added].” How very kind of these empires – after razing, slaughtering, suppressing, annexing, taxing, defeating, subduing, imposing, and enslaving other societies – words repeated frequently throughout this book – they then suddenly became magnanimous in victory and tolerated their presence in their heartland – implying of course that they were still not tolerated in the hinterland, as the many colonial and frontier wars are sufficient evidence to show that they were not.

As for enslavement, Chua qualifies that with a ‘notwithstanding’ clause. She admits, “For much of its history the United States was no more an exemplar of human rights than were the Romans or the Mongols. Americans kept slaves; they brutally displaced and occasionally massacred indigenous peoples. Nevertheless….” Ah yes, nevertheless, if we can argue notwithstanding slavery and indigenous massacres, then, yes America was tolerant. Obviously then, indigenous peoples and blacks do not count when addressing tolerance. How plainly disingenuous. Her more modern variant when looking at the twentieth century states that “notwithstanding Vietnam or its chronic Latin American misadventures ” America had great goodwill “built up in the world.” Okay, now we add, Latin Americans, and Southeast Asians to the clause. Occasional massacres? Misadventures?

It takes a huge twist in rational to go from all this qualifications, from these notwithstanding clauses, to accept the thesis that tolerance is one of the main reasons for imperial success. By looking at what become sub-themes, a more realistic picture of what makes an empire a hyperpower appears.

One of the ongoing sub-themes, and this reflects her first book and really should be the main theme continued on from her previous work, is that of elitism. Throughout her arguments, Chua constantly uses the word “elite” in reference to how the empire controlled the peoples that were conquered. Elites were “marshalled…to help rule their vast empire”, the “elites” had citizenship extended to them, the “elites of defeated powers were enticed to embrace Roman culture as a means to power and privilege,” the elitism “began with the aristocracy” so that they would “identify themselves with Roman rule and to see their interests as aligned with the preservation of the empire,” while guaranteeing “a certain level of protection, both from imperial officials above and from the masses below.” Those darned unruly masses, always convenient for conscripted labour and cheap cannon fodder, but very inconvenient when it comes to equal rights and distribution of wealth, but then, notwithstanding them, yes, lots of tolerance towards the opportunistic quisling elites.

Another sub-theme, one that is primary in many other works on empire, is that of militancy. Again, throughout the work, Chua argues almost counter-intuitively that the military made the initial conquests in most cases and then were required as ongoing backup to the economic and political control of the hinterland. This backup was often used directly, often it existed as an ongoing threat, and always it was related to the control of the elites. The Tang of China “combined military aggression with vigorous foreign diplomacy” or alternately they subdued “rival kingdoms through shrewd diplomacy backed by the threat of force rather than bloody conquest.” The military theme predominates in the section on “The Great Mongol Empire,” one of the more violent descriptions of tolerance in action I have ever read.

The sub-themes change marginally as the book progresses. Elitism and militancy carry throughout. Tolerance becomes even more narrowly defined as “religious tolerance” as the western empirical powers take turns slaughtering each other. Chua argues that the Jewish religion becomes the main religious benefactor as the governance of the world becomes more and more mindful of finance capitalism to accompany the ongoing militancy proven so successful by earlier empires. The rise of corporate capitalism – with the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company, and the many corporate charters that enabled the settlement of the Americas – is introduced, but the predations of capitalism and the ingathering of wealth to the empirical heartland is not well developed, although she does state that “colonization was largely financed by private entrepreneurs.” Finally, after centuries of this rather bloodthirsty “tolerance” the American hyperpower arises.

Tolerance had little if anything to do with it. Natives were slaughtered genocidally, treated as sub-human savages. Sitting Bull was tolerated for a while on the rodeo circuit for his entertainment value, then murdered when he refused to give way to the American government at Wounded Knee. Blacks were not even human, relegated to mere property, although property owning is one of the ‘virtues’ of the American empire. The Mexican lands were fought for militarily and not bought by tolerance, with violence reigning over the land. The Spanish War opened on the pretext of the sinking of the Maine, while the indigenous rebellion in Cuba was squashed even though it was successful. The same happened in the Philippines, where an indigenous rebellion against the Spanish turned into a war with the Americans when they refused to acknowledge the rebels’ success.

It goes on, through Central America and the many incursions there on behalf of the elites of the banana republics, the splitting of Panama from Colombia, on to the more recent subversive activities in Chile, Argentina, Colombia again, Panama again, Brazil, tiny Grenada, Guatemala, San Salvador, and more, all backed by the military or the more modern tolerant approach of using the CIA. In Asia, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia suffered great direct military intervention all because the U.S. could not tolerate the democratic vote that would have brought a socialist government to Vietnam.

Chua’s tolerance has nothing to say about the American fear of socialism, or perhaps more correctly, the elitist fear of socialism. There was no tolerance for the democratic principle of sharing the wealth of a nation amongst all its people, at home or abroad. In the early Twentieth Century the military was used in the heartland – along with private security guards – to quell labour strikes that threatened to disrupt the wealth and power of the elites. As the Twentieth Century entered it second half, militant epical activities were more and more accompanied by economic imperialism, with the WTO, IMF, OECD, the World Bank, all acting in the corporate interest of drawing wealth, sucking wealth, out of the hinterland (now the world, more and more ‘globalized’) and to the heartland for the benefit of an ever decreasing smaller but richer elite. Chua says quite directly that “economic dominance continued to require military dominance” a reflection of Thomas Friedman’s “hidden fist” of the military. Tolerance? Free markets are anything but free.

Another element missing in Chua’s thesis is that of propaganda. It is mentioned early in the work, but is never discussed as a means of attracting wealth, resources, and skilled labour to the heartland. Nor is it discussed as a means of propagating the empire ever further into the hinterland, at least for the folks back home who are susceptible to the calls of freedom and democracy and free trade and rule of law and the many other lies that are used to perpetuate military and economic dominance of other countries. Tolerance is now part of propaganda.

All hyperpower empires have failed. Chua posits a rather obvious extension to her thesis that they become intolerant, that there is no “glue” to hold them together. Certainly they did become more intolerant, but nothing is really new there – desperate rulers seek desperate measures as rebellion and opposition spreads, as the control of the elites weakens, as the arrogance and hubris of the “civilizing” nation becomes more and more at odds with the reality in the hinterland. The “glue” that holds empires together is a combination of economic and military elitism. Any group that is favoured over another group will eventually become the target of opposition of some kind, and the more repressive the elitist factor, the more violent the opposition.

Elitism and militancy tend not to go away voluntarily. Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika worked for a while but lingering empirical resentments still trouble the Russian frontier. Chua’s arguments show that none of the previous empires died out peacefully but rather violently. The world can only hope that as the American hyperpower faces more and more problems globally that it does not react as other empires have in the past by becoming more and more violent.

Tolerance is not a creator of empire. Chua’s own arguments at times seem to be against herself, thus all the qualifiers and ‘notwithstanding’ clauses necessary to keep the thesis alive. Tolerance is easy propaganda for the powerful, an easy pretend factor, an opportunistic word to placate the home crowd. A simple change of thesis to that of elitism or cronyism would make “Day of Empire” a consistent reasonable presentation.

-Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. His interest in this topic stems originally from an environmental perspective, which encompasses the militarization and economic subjugation of the global community and its commodification by corporate governance.

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