Amy Chua: Interviewed about her book, Day of Empire: How hyperpowers rise to global dominance

Historians in the News

You say your book, Day of Empire, is a warning. How so?

I'm suggesting that, ironically, the secret to becoming a world "hyperpower" is tolerance. If you look at history, you see great powers being very tolerant in their rise to global dominance. So there is a sort of warning for today's hyperpower—the United States. The secret to our success for over 200 years has been our ability to attract the best and the brightest from all over the world. We can't just let every immigrant in. But it's important to not take a turn toward xenophobia and want to shut down the borders or root out certain groups, because history shows that that's always been the trigger of backlash and decline.

You give several examples of the rise of hyperpowers—nations that are unsurpassed militarily and economically— including the Roman Empire, the Tang dynasty and the Dutch Republic. But not everyone thinks of the Roman Empire as tolerant.
I'm not talking about tolerance in the modern human-rights sense. Rome had massive amounts of slavery; women had no rights. People were shredded at gladiator games. But the Romans were tolerant in the sense that they were indifferent to skin color and religious, ethnic or linguistic background. People of different ethnicities and religions were accepted into the Roman army and were able to become Roman citizens. The Romans thought of themselves as the chosen people, yet they built the greatest army on earth by recruiting warriors from any background.

But didn't the notion of tolerance change?
Of course. Once you get to the Enlightenment, the way that powers get to be hyperpowers isn't just by conquest. It's through commerce and innovation. Societies like the Dutch Republic and the United States used tolerance to become a magnet for enterprising immigrants.

You say modern America has a lot in common with the Mongol Empire. What about the United States would Genghis Khan endorse?
Genghis Khan decreed religious tolerance for all of his conquered peoples. So I think he definitely would approve of our constitutional protections of freedom of religion. I think he would also approve of the way the U.S. has been able to attract talented people from all over the world. The Mongols themselves had little technology, not even enough to bake bread. The only way they were able to conquer the great cities of Eastern Europe and the Middle East was by using Chinese engineers who knew how to build great siege machines. The parallel is that the U.S. was able to win the race for the atomic bomb because it was a haven for persecuted scientists from Nazi Europe....

comments powered by Disqus