The Lessons of Hyperpowers and the Future of National Identity

Amy Chua

For the large majority, Democrats and Republicans alike, these questions are painful, with no easy answers. At some level, most of us cherish our legacy as a nation of immigrants. But are we, as the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington warns, in danger of losing our core values and devolving “into a loose confederation of ethnic, racial, cultural, and political groups, with little or nothing in common apart from their location in the territory of what had been the U.S. of America”?

My parents arrived in the U.S. in 1961, so poor that they couldn’t afford heat their first winter. I grew up speaking only Chinese at home (for every English word accidentally uttered, my sister and I got one whack of the chopsticks). Today, my father is a professor at Berkeley, and I’m a professor at Yale Law School. As the daughter of immigrants, a grateful beneficiary of America’s tolerance and opportunity, I could not be more pro-immigrant.

Nevertheless, I think Huntington has a point.

Around the world today, nations face violence and instability as a result of their increasing plural- ism and diversity. Across Europe, immigration has resulted in unassimilated, largely Muslim enclaves that are hotbeds of unrest and even terrorism. With Muslims poised to become a majority in Amsterdam and elsewhere within a decade, major West Europe- an cities could undergo a profound transformation. Not surprisingly, virulent anti-immigration parties are on the rise.

Not long ago, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union disintegrated when their national identities proved too weak to bind together diverse peoples. Iraq is the latest example of how crucial national identity is. So far, it has found no over- arching identity strong enough to unite its Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis.

The U.S. is in no danger of imminent disintegration. But this is because it has been so successful, at least since the Civil War, in forging a national identity – a commitment to values of tolerance, religious pluralism, enterprise, opportunity, and equality under the law – strong enough to hold together its widely divergent communities. But we should not take this unifying identity for granted. A new wave of questions presses upon us: Is our national identity today strong enough to absorb millions of new immigrants? Is immigration altering that identity? Do we have the glue it takes to keep us together?

The history of the world’s hyperpowers has much to teach us about the dynamics of immigration, the importance of tolerance, and what happens when the glue loses its grip.

Throughout history there have been only a handful of hyperpowers – nations that achieved such economic and military preeminence and projected their power on such a vast scale that they became world dominant. The list includes some, such as Rome and Great Britain, that are well known. Others are less so. The first hyperpower was ancient Persia, founded in 550 BCE by Cyrus the Great, which ruled

over a third of the world’s population at the height of its power. Another was the great Mongol Empire founded by Genghis Khan, which in the thirteenth century conquered half the known world. The U.S. is the latest member of this exclusive club.

The Secret Weapon: Tolerance

Examined together, hyperpowers reveal a remark- able pattern. For all their enormous differences, every hyperpower in history was strikingly tolerant and pluralistic, at least judged by the standards of its time. In fact, tolerance was in every case vital to the achievement of hegemony. Conversely, the decline of hyperpowers has repeatedly coincided with xenophobia. In other words, the secret to world dominance is tolerance.

“Tolerance” in this context does not mean equality or even respect in the modern, human rights sense of the word. Instead, tolerance here simply

means letting very different kinds of people – regardless of ethnicity, religion, or skin color – live, work, and prosper, even if for self-interested reasons.

Why is tolerance necessary for world dominance? Simple. To dominate vast portions of the globe, not just the bits close to home, a society must be at the forefront of global technological, military, and economic frontiers. And at any given historical moment, the most valuable human capital, whether in the form of intelligence, physical strength, skill, knowledge, networks, or creativity, is never found within any one ethnic or religious group. To pull away from its rivals on a global scale, a society must have the best and the brightest, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or background.

Persia and Rome, for instance, accepted war- riors of every ethnicity and religion into their fold, unlike the ancient Greeks who were fixated on “pure blood.” Thus, Persians and Romans built the mightiest armies of their time. Tolerance was similarly crucial for the Mongols. Only by absorbing the best human capital from conquered lands, particularly Chinese engineers capable of building massive siege machines, were the Mongols able to overcome the great walled cities of Europe and the Middle East.

In the modern era, as commerce and innovation replaced plunder and expropriation as the engines of wealth, tolerance assumed a new form – immigration. Allowing people in replaced conquest as the most effective way for a society to incorporate the world’s best thinkers and laborers.

Today’s U.S. is the quintessential example of this modern model. Relative tolerance, immigrant labor, and talent propelled U.S. growth and influence, from westward expansion in the nineteenth century, to industrial juggernaut and victory in the twentieth-century atomic race, to today’s staggering preeminence in the digital age.

National transformation and national identity have worked together. The experience of the 1800s and early 1900s was pivotal. Between 1820 and 1914, the U.S. absorbed the largest human migration in world history – more than thirty million people ar- rived. Three crucial features made nineteenth-century U.S. society welcoming to people of remark- ably diverse backgrounds. Its freewheeling religious pluralism not only permitted newcomers to worship as they wanted but sparked brand-new faiths. (By the twentieth century, at least five “homegrown” religions had been founded – Christian Science, Seventh-day Adventism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostalism and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.) The nation’s democratic system of government was capable of giving newcomers some actual political influence, at least at the local level. And its rollicking free market demanded labor, rewarded mechanical skill, and provided unprecedented opportunity to the enterprising, driving the nation’s technological and military superiority.

Too Much Diversity?

These three forms of tolerance – religious, eco- nomic, and political – were so effective in drawing in newcomers that by the mid-twentieth century the U.S. enjoyed a sheer manpower advantage over its most important rivals. In 1816, America’s popula- tion was just 8.5 million, compared to Russia’s 51.2 million. By 1950, the U.S. population topped 150 million, while Russia’s was about 109 million.

The secret to our success for more than 200 years has been our ability to attract the best and the brightest from all over the world. But the U.S. formula for success is now in danger. As with previous hyperpowers, the U.S, may have hit a tipping point where “too much diversity” becomes a liability, triggering conflict, strife, and backlash.

The greatest empire in history, ancient Rome, collapsed when its cultural and political glue dissolved, and peoples who had long thought of them- selves as Romans turned against the empire. In part, this fragmentation occurred because of a massive influx of immigrants from a very different culture.

The “barbarians” who sacked Rome were Germanic immigrants who never fully assimilated.

A backlash may now be occurring in the U.S. Increasing numbers of Americans are calling for a crackdown on immigration. Highly skilled workers from Europe and Asia find it difficult or impossible to obtain employment visas. Television talking heads often feature stories that cast a negative light on immigrants, and scholars such as Huntington warn ominously about the danger posed to the U.S. by Hispanic immigration.

This anti-immigration turn poses a serious economic threat to the U.S.. Last year, Microsoft opened a massive research and development center in Canada, in part because foreign engineers can more easily obtain employment visas there. As Google’s Vice President for People Laszlo Bock put it, “Every day we find ourselves unable to pursue highly qualified candidates because there are not enough H-1B visas.”1

Americanus Rex

There is an even larger danger – a threat to the U.S.’s international standing and national security. It has become de rigueur to compare the U.S. to Rome. But in at least one respect, the analogy is badly misplaced. Ancient Rome had an advantage in that it could make the peoples it conquered from Europe to Africa subjects or even citizens of the Roman Empire. The U.S. can do no such thing. Because it’s a democracy, the U.S. does not try or want to make foreign populations its subjects – and certainly not its citizens. When U.S. officials speak of bringing democracy to the Middle East, they are not envisioning Iraqis voting in the next U.S. presidential election.

As a result, millions if not billions of people all over the world today feel dominated by – but no connection or loyalty to – the U.S. This is a recipe for anti-Americanism, which is not only bad for business but, in its extreme form, breeds terrorism.

A relatively open immigration policy is one of the only effective ways for the U.S. to forge goodwill and close ties with the world it dominates. Through legal immigration, the U.S. offers opportunities to more than a million foreigners annually. Millions more think of the U.S. as a home to their relatives and a place they might someday also live. No one believes that immigration should be left unchecked or that national security should be compromised in the name of friendship or economic progress. But a xenophobic anti-immigration turn is a surefire way to bring down the American hyperpower. 2

The anti-immigration camp makes at least two critical mistakes.

First, it neglects the indispensable role that immigrants have played in building American wealth and power. In the nineteenth century, the U.S. would never have become an industrial and agricultural powerhouse without the millions of poor Irish, Polish, Italian, and other newcomers who mined coal, laid rail, and milled steel. European immigrants led to the U.S. winning the race for the atomic bomb. Today, American leadership in the digital revolution – so central to our military and economic pre- eminence – owes an enormous debt to immigrant contributions. Andrew Grove (cofounder of Intel), Vinod Khosla (Sun Microsystems) and Sergey Brin (Google) are immigrants. Between 1995 and 2005, 52 percent of Silicon Valley start-ups had one key immigrant founder. Vikram S. Pundit’s appoint- ment to the helm of CitiGroup last year meant that fourteen chief executives of Fortune 100 companies are foreign-born. The U.S. is in a fierce global competition to attract the world’s best high-tech scientists and engineers – most of whom are not white Christians.

Second, anti-immigration talking heads forget that their own scapegoating vitriol will, if anything, drive immigrants farther from the U.S. mainstream. One reason we don’t have Europe’s enclaves is our unique success in forging an ethnically and religiously neutral national identity, uniting individuals of all backgrounds. This is America’s glue, and anti-immigration ideologues unwittingly imperil it.

Nevertheless, immigration naysayers also have a point. America’s glue can be subverted by too much tolerance. Immigration advocates are too of- ten guilty of an uncritical political correctness that avoids hard questions about national identity and imposes no obligations on immigrants. For these well-meaning idealists, there is no such thing as too much diversity.

The right thing for the U.S. to do – and the best way to keep Americans in favor of immigration – is to take national identity seriously while maintaining our heritage as a land of opportunity.

Amy Chua is a professor at Yale Law School. Her books include Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance – And Why They Fall (Doubleday, 2007) and World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (Anchor, 2004).


1 The U.S. should overhaul its admission priorities. Since 1965, the chief admission criterion has been family reunification. This was a welcome replacement for the ethnically discriminatory quota system that preceded it. But once the brothers and sisters of a current U.S. resident get in, they can sponsor their own extended families. In 2006, more than 800,000 immigrants were admitted on this basis. By contrast, only about 70,000 immigrants were admitted on the basis of employment skills, with an additional 65,000 temporary visas granted to highly skilled workers.

This is backwards. Apart from nuclear families (spouse, minor children, possibly parents), the special preference for family members should be drastically reduced. As soon as my father got citizenship, his relatives in the Philippines asked him to sponsor them. Soon, his mother, brother, sister and sister-in-law were also U.S. citizens or permanent residents. This was nice for my family, but, frankly, there was nothing especially fair about it. Instead, the immigration system should reward ability and be keyed to the country’s labor needs – skilled or unskilled, technological or agricultural. In particular, we should significantly increase the number of visas for highly skilled workers, putting them on a fast track for citizenship.

2 I believe it is important to stress that immigrants should embrace the nation’s civic virtues. It took my parents years to see the importance of participating in the larger community. When I was in third grade, my mother signed me up for Girl Scouts. I think she liked the uniforms and merit badges, but when I told her that I was picking up trash and visiting soup kitchens, she was horrified.

For many immigrants, only family matters. Even when immigrants get involved in politics, they tend to focus on protecting their own and protesting discrimination. That they can do so is one of the great virtues of U.S. democracy. But a mindset based solely on taking care of your own factionalizes our society. Like all Americans, immigrants have a responsibility to contribute to the social fabric. It’s up to each immigrant community to fight off an enclave mentality and give back to their new country. It’s not healthy for Chinese to hire only Chinese, or Koreans only Koreans. By contrast, the free health clinic set up by Muslim-Americans in Los Angeles – serving the entire poor community – is a model to emulate. Immigrants are integrated at the moment when they realize that their success is linked with everyone else’s.

The Newest Wave of Citizens
Last year, 660,477 foreign-born persons became naturalized u.S. citizens, a drop by 6 percent since 2006, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The leading countries of birth of new citizens were Mexico (122,258), India (46,871), Philippines (38,830), China (33,134), and Vietnam (27,921). Despite the overall decrease, the number of Mexican nationals who became American citizens increased by 46 percent between 2006 and 2007. One reason for the increase, according to some media reports, was the stepped-up efforts of advocacy groups to encourage Latinos to apply for citizenship. Overall, DHS says the number of naturalization applications nearly doubled last year, jumping from 730,000 in 2006 to 1.4 million in 2007.
Homeland Security defines naturalization as the process by which U.S. citizenship is conferred upon foreign citizens or nationals. Requirements set by Congress “specify that a foreign national must be at least 18 years of age; has been granted lawful permanent residence in the U.S.; and has resided in the country continuously for at least five years. Additional requirements include the ability to speak, read, and write the English language; knowledge of the U.S. government and history; and good moral character.” Once naturalized, “foreign-born citizens enjoy nearly all the same benefits, rights, and responsibilities that the Constitution gives to native-born U.S. citizens, including the right to vote. Naturalized citizens can also apply for a U.S. passport to travel overseas and receive u.S. government protection and assistance when abroad.”

Source: Department of Homeland Security