Friday, November 16, 2007
The Benevolent Empire Strikes Back
What makes an empire great? What makes it really great – more durable and expansive than its rivals? What makes an empire a “hyper power,” the center of things in a unipolar world? Yale law professor Amy Chua wanted to know, and so she studied world history’s “hyper powers.” The label owes its origin to a Frenchman, who in 1999 uttered it in an anti-imperial – or at least, anti-American, tirade. But in Chua’s new book, Day of Empire, it’s drained of any prejudice. Her definition, which to me, sitting in on her lecture today on the campus of UC Berkeley, seemed a bit loose, focuses on scale – these empires aren’t on the Aztec scale, but on the Roman, Persian, or Mongol – and, on economic and military preeminence. She argues that radical tolerance or pluralism is the foundation upon which any hyper power stands, bearing in mind that what was progressive in early modern Holland won’t pass muster with liberals today.
From her public comments, and from what one can read in this LA Times review, Chua’s attempt to analyze ancient and modern empires comprehensively, while admirable and ambitious, appears to miss the mark. I asked her whether her notion of “strategic tolerance” could indeed be applied equally well to a decentralized ancient empire, which bows to local custom and rule as a matter of practicality – say, the Achaemenid Persians in a place like Upper Egypt – as to a modern empire, like the American, which might, in the interest of gaining a competitive advantage over the Chinese, selectively offer visas to highly skilled foreign nationals to keep them from setting up shop in Hong Kong. She answered that colleagues had warned her of the brutality of pedants and specialists, had charged that she wouldn’t be comparing apples and oranges, but apples and nuclear power plants, and still, alas, she had carried on, secure in the notion that “tolerance” is a flexible yet coherent concept, the “glue” of each of these societies, and, ultimately, what for us should paste them all together. I’m jealous. Would that I were a lawyer and not an ancient historian.
Defunct are the empires of the past; a simple fact, perhaps a justification for shallow study, but also the source of an unmistakable fear of the future that animated Chua’s talk and spread to the crowd. In the western tradition, one finds the idea that empires rise and fall cyclically as far back as Herodotus. Chua faces off with a more difficult problem, encountered by a later Greek historian, Polybius, who took for granted that empires rise and fall, but somehow sensed that Rome was different, that the empire under which he lived was both born of time’s perennial cycle and transcended it. Chua wanted today to look to the future, and in her lawyerly way, to imply that the United States can escape the fate of past empires that failed to negotiate between the extremes of excessive tolerance, whereby internal cohesion suffers, and the backlash of intolerance that, she argues, often seems to follow an externally produced catastrophe on the scale of 9/11.
Chua is a Chinese-American, the daughter of a Berkeley computer science professor. And so it seemed fitting that her comments looked forward to an American clash with China, and also seemed to juxtapose the absorption of Asian immigrants here on the Pacific Rim in California with a failed approach to immigration and integration for Hispanics here and across the country. She tempered optimism on China by pointing to Chinese ethnic chauvinism. But she also fastened upon Jews, repeatedly, as the quintessential beneficiary of imperial tolerance, arguing that hyper powers that took in Jews invariably profited big time. I couldn’t help but wonder if she was driving at the conclusion that what some have called market-oriented ethnic minorities are better positioned than others to profit from the tolerance of hyper powers, and, in turn, fuel the growth of their hosts. In fact, in response to my question, Chua almost seemed to bemoan the ideological restraints that prevent modern, liberal, democratic empires from more effectively cherry picking the kinds of immigrants they desire.
The Middle East had to fit in somewhere. Chua elicited chuckles by pointing out that Coca-Cola and American blockbusters won’t turn a Palestinian into an American – or a pro-American; or that the US isn’t about to draw an army of civil servants from the Iraqi population, à la the British in India. Her more serious point, and, I think, one of the major arguments of her book, is that the US had better not impose its values and culture on Middle Eastern nations. That wouldn’t be tolerant. Instead, it would spell the beginning of the end of America’s reign as hyper power. Given that she very much left open the question of whether or not American hegemony, or even hyper power per se, is a good thing, I couldn’t help feeling that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too. Tolerance and pluralism, no doubt, are by Chua’s reckoning, good things. And the powers that practice them, get rewarded. (Here, Stanford’s Josiah Ober, the preeminent historian and theorist of classical Athenian democracy, would wholeheartedly agree). Then why, one wonders, shouldn’t the West be intolerant about intolerance in the Middle East? To protect our competitive advantage? In other words, is hyper power a zero-sum game; we keep tolerance and pluralism to ourselves and thereby retain our dominance? If instead, tolerance is a universal good, an engine of economic growth, the fons et origo of happiness, why shouldn’t we be pushing with Thomas Friedman for the pope to visit Saudi Arabia? Liberal values may prove just as much a casualty of the neocon putsch as the tragic loss of human life in Iraq.