This analysis of world-dominant powers from ancient Persia to the modern United States yields an intriguing set of common traits and progressions.
Chua’s bestselling World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (2002) led the pack in sizing up the backlash against global free-marketers. Now she examines hegemony and the handful of entities worthy of the title “hyperpower,” which extends to the earliest civilizations: Persia, at its peak under Darius, the Macedonia of Alexander the Great and, of course, imperial Rome. There are also some surprises: Ghenghis Khan’s 13th-century Mongolian domain, for instance, eventually extended from Vienna to the Sea of Japan, far exceeding any before or since in contiguous territory. And the Mongols did it without original technology or literacy, absorbing both from cultures that came under their dominion. Likewise, the Dutch Republic of the late 17th century, a midget among Europe’s giants, became so dominant in world commerce that it eventually exported a king, William of Orange, to England. The commonality among these empires, says Chua, was tolerance. They were diverse societies, harboring—and exploiting—a wide range of ethnicities and unrestricted religions. The enduring model is Rome, which handed its adversaries a bloody defeat and proffered full citizenship the next day. The author notes that even China in its day of empire, the eighth-century Tang Dynasty, was a far more open society than it would be 1,000 years later. Tolerance alone won’t create a hyperpower, though, says the author; the United States needed the collapse of the Soviet Union to achieve its status. Chua concludes that hyperpowers ultimately tend to come “unglued” as a result of resistance to their own diversity. She cautions that the global rise of anti-Americanism today, which stems from attempts to export democracy in the service of self-interest, could be a negative sign.
The author gives short shrift to forces introduced by petro-politics or the nuclear threat, but still an illuminating exploration of what makes a superpower.