The Rise and Fall of Hyperpowers by Amy Chua

Amy Chua, a Harvard-educated and Yale-employed author and professor, walked through the characteristics of the world's hyperpowers with a thesis that helps to identify the common threads that course through the most successful empires from antiquity to modern times. Her key hypothesis: tolerance and pluralism accelerate the rise; intolerance and xenophobia expedite the decline.

One may not think of the slash-and-burn Mongols or the you-will-be assimilated Romans as the most 'tolerant' civilizations in history, so Chua points out that tolerance in its philosophical essence means simply: a sense of openness with respect to integrating the best innovations, ideas and socio-ethnic intricacies in an effort to be at the forefront of technological, military and economic frontiers.

The world's most valuable human capital is and never will be relegated to a single ethnic, social or geographic group: tolerance brings the best and brightest together. The colonial British - another example cited in Chua's thesis - and their affinity for marginalizing other cultures they encountered in India and Africa seem to be the antithesis of tolerance.  Chua points out, however, that the British were wise to let many types of people live, work and contribute to society even if the sphere of influence of British rule remained largely subjugatory.

Welcoming multiple and various ideas, tactics, customs from the far reaches of a civilization's populace make tolerance a strategic imperative in building an empire.

While we learned much more about the interesting characteristics of her example civilizations, the audience's curiosity seemed to turn quickly toward the parallels observed between the United States and her comparisons of other successful hyperpowers.  What made the U.S. such a hotbed for innovation, economic and military might?

In short, the constitutional mandates of freedom, self-expression, and laisez-faire enterprise.

Despite some notable hypocrisy, the United States has long benefited from the contributions of a large immigrant pool from which the world's best doers and dreamers blended their religious, cultural, technical and creative ingredients. The U.S. only came to be a hyperpower, as defined by Chua, after World War II when true freedoms and tolerance were granted. Some might argue we still have more to do.

The United States in the 21st century faces the fundamental problem as all other hyperpowers have in the past: find ways to create the 'glue' or common identity between disparate segments. Rome could assimilate defeated peoples into Roman citizens and thereby grant the accompanying privileges. Vastly different peoples could be Romanized without suffering too greatly. 

The U.S., however, is governed as democracy, so it does not subjugate the foreign constituents into  our sphere of influence. From Nicaragua to Iraq, many millions of people live in the shadow of the U.S. foreign policy or influence, but the U.S. does not assimilate them into democratic system.

The million dollar question to prevent the decline of our hyperpower status: Can the US assign or create a singular identity across all these elements of influence?

Chua leaves us with a poignant quip: The United States can remain a hyperpower when it stops trying so hard to be one. 

Will the E.U. or China become the next hyperpower?  Chua opines that they will both continue to grow, expand, and develop economically, but they may not become hyperpowers themselves due to the current inability to welcome the world's best and brightest talent like the U.S. with the rigid religious and societal constraints. 

If you'd like to learn more about the the rise and fall of hyperpowers and where emerging cultures and nations might fit into the mold, I'd encourage you to check out her book: Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance - and Why They Fall

- nick huhn