Amy Chua, Professor of Law at Yale Law School, has written an ambitious book covering a vast array of empires and other powers. The work reaches from the Great Persian Empire to Rome and the contemporary US hyperpower. Her analysis also includes an outlook on the possible challengers to the latter, namely China, the European Union, and India.
The book is generally well-written. The question, however, is whom she wants to address: scholars and students looking for new insights or a quasi-erudite public in search of intelligent entertainment? Despite the numerous footnotes, one cannot avoid the impression that it is more of a "Reader's Digest" type of work.
The central thesis of Chua's book is that tolerance is a necessary condition for world dominance and that, conversely, intolerance is starkly associated with the decline of hyper-powers. For her, the United States is the quintessential example of a society that rose to global dominance through tolerance. However, this thesis is too simplistic to have much explanatory value, and her scholarship is questionable--the choice of sources is highly selective and far too narrow to do justice to the breadth of history and culture covered.
The limits of Chua's thesis and of her scholarship are closely related. It seems that she has used almost exclusively secondary sources written by Anglo-Saxon scholars, picking out what is consistent with the basic thesis of the book and discarding the rest. She reduces the complexity of a multitude of variables to just one, namely tolerance or intolerance. There is almost a complete neglect of the role of economic factors in the rise and decline of political entities. In fact, beyond stating the obvious--namely that being open to foreigners with high skills is bound to have a positive impact on the prosperity of a country--Chua proves little else. Instead of demonstrating a new and original thesis, she selects an arbitrary number of cases that fit her overall claim. This sort of approach is neither historically illuminating nor conceptually tenable.
Historically, the only thing the shrewd observer is probably able to say in the light of empirical evidence is that tolerance may foster a country's rise, but also its decline; it may be a sign of strength, but also a sign of weakness, of losing grip, of giving in. Much depends on the context. Intolerance may breed hostility, eventually leading to upswings and military defeat; it may stifle trade, but it may also help consolidate a country or empire to prevent its dissolution.
Conceptually, it is hard or even impossible to prove any causality between tolerance and an empire's rise. What one can say, for example, is that Britain was successful and also tolerant. Tolerance may breed success, may be concomitant with it, or may emanate from it. In a sense, the tolerance-intolerance thesis has a corrosive effect, as the relentless endeavor to subjugate all facts under the thesis distorts her argument.
In fact, Chua undermines her own thesis by arguing that tolerance was instrumental in both the rise and the decline of the Roman Empire. Moreover, is it not somewhat contradictory to state that Genghis Khan's "bloodthirstiness, ethnic and religious tolerance allowed the Mongols to achieve and maintain world dominance?" One may wonder how valuable tolerance-cum-bloodthirstiness is.
Sometimes Chua shows herself how shaky her main thesis is, for example, when she argues: "If the thesis of this book is correct, America is a hyperpower today above all because it has out-tolerated the rest of the world." She continues in this same weak vein: "If this is true, and if history is any guide, China can overtake the United States as the world's next hyperpower only if it outdoes the United States at strategic tolerance." She adds: "Can an authoritarian, rogue-state-friendly China possibly do so?" One may ask somewhat ironically here whether it is not true strategic tolerance to tolerate even rogue states. …