Sunday, December 30, 2007


There is a good interview of Amy Chua by Cullen Murphy on Book TV's After Words. Chua, a professor at Yale Law School, has written a book titled Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance - and Why They Fall. The book looks at a sequence of historical powers that transcended the power experiences of their contemporaries -- Ancient Persia, Rome, the Mongol Empire, the Dutch trading empire, the British Empire, and the United States.

In each case the central power had dominant economic and political power, and in each case the empire spanned huge areas. Thinking about it, one obvious element of Chua's hyperpowers is a communication infrastructure that spans the empire size geographical area. I think that in each case the empire involves an economic system that worked, usually improving economic performance by allowing local groups to exploit comparative advantages through wider trade than was possible without the imperial guarantee of the trade routes.

Chua points out that the earlier empires were made possible when a tribal group expanded its military power by enlisting other ethnic groups into its military; only by doing so could an early empire recruit enough troops to take and hold a large geographic area. She suggests that the later empires are far more mercantile on balance, although clearly each had a military capacity to protect its lines of communication and trade.

Chua's main point seems to be that hyperempires must have the tolerance necessary to accept the human resources from other peoples that it needs to expand its power, and to allow the people with those resources to live and succeed in the imperial society. She suggests that the historical societies fell when the "glue" needed to hold the loyalty of their subjects failed, and when they lost that crucial tolerance. She emphasized the exceptional success of the United States in integrating immigrants into its civic culture and institutions, which form the glue of our society.

I wonder whether her analysis might expand to the Islamic world that extended from Spain to India based on the glue of Islam rather than on an imperial political power? Would it extend to the Inca empire that was exceptional for its time and place in extent and influence?

I was impressed by the question of how the United States, with its shared ethos of self determination by other peoples, can provide the glue needed to maintain the global economic empire it has established. She is, I believe, correct in maintaining that American success must continue to be built on the tolerance necessary for us to recruit our needed human resources worldwide. She pointed out that the most long-lived empire in history, the Roman, managed to establish a system in which leaders all over that empire felt the success of the empire was important for their own security and welfare. The question is how can the United States create conditions so that leaders all over the globe comparably feel that the continued success of the United States is important to their own security and welfare?

Chua says, and I agree, that the United States has not been very successful in creating that situation. I might suggest that in the period immediately after World War II, there was a very wide spread feeling that the Pax Americana was important, and that the United States was leading in the recreation of a world economy that would "lift all boats". We have wasted much of that prestige in the last half century.

I am not so sure that the maintenance of imperial power is in itself a critical objective. The Dutch and English seem to be living pretty good lives in humane societies even after their global imperial power has wained. Perhaps the more appropriate objective for an empire is to help establish the conditions so that people will be better off after the imperial power is shared than they are currently. Power should be valued for the ability it provides to achieve other goals rather than as a goal in and for itself.

Chua is. I think, correct in stating that the United States must forgo the glue of offering citizenship in this country that was so successfully used by the Romans in binding aristocrats and soldiers from all over the empire to the Roman center. Adhering to self-determination requires that people remain citizens of their own countries.

In the last century the United States has lead in the creation of regional and global institutions -- United Nations, Bretton Woods System, the World Trade Organization, NATO, NAFTA, etc. that serve as glue for an international system making trade and economic cooperation possible and guarantee the limitation of wars and violence needed for the system to work.

Indeed, I wonder whether one of the most common factors in the success of the hyperpowers was not the ability to create new institutions that responded to the evolving needs of the expanding political and economic systems.

It might be that as the 20th century was the American Century, the 21st century will be the century of the community of nations. In any case, I don't see an alternative that I like to maintaining a system that allows Europe and North America to coexist as comparable global economic powers, that allows Asia to join as a third comparable global economic power, and that provides the stability for continued economic progress.

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