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 The Asian Reporter's

Author Amy Chua. (Photo/Jerry Bauer)


From The Asian Reporter, V14, #2 (January 6, 2004), page 16.

 Nation-building and nations burning

 World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market
Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability

By Amy Chua
Anchor Books, 2004
Paperback, 346 pages, $14.00

By Andrew J. Weber

Mickey Mouse, cars, and wheat notwithstanding, America’s most vital export must surely be free market democracy. No other product ships to so many world destinations with such high expected returns.

However, as Amy Chua effectively argues in World on Fire, the bitter fruits of this policy are violence and destruction, arising wherever globalization lays its hand. At the heart of this failure lies the dangerous linkage between what Chua calls the “most powerful forces operating in the world today: markets, democracy, and ethnic hatred.”

This stunning thesis will not be easily accepted by either political camp. Market proponents who view globalization as a panacea for the world’s ills will find a bitter pill to swallow here; their solution instead inflames the very issues it is supposed to eliminate and causes some of the world’s greatest atrocities.

At the same time, globalization’s foes, typically focused on the perceived ills of capitalism, will be at odds with Chua’s clear belief that globalization does offer many tangible benefits. The problem is that those benefits do not flow equally to all. Instead, a market-dominant ethnic minority typically reaps the lion’s share of the gains, leading to intense envy and hatred from the local majority.

The sudden expansion of democracy only exacerbates the problem. Empowering the poor, resentful masses opens the door for the rise of charismatic demagogues, who promise “equality” but deliver revenge. With their new political power, the aggrieved majority specifically targets the market-dominant minority and their wealth, resulting in seizures and nationalizations. In the worst cases, the conflict escalates to expulsion, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. 

Chua’s criticisms may sound radical in a political climate where globalization is accepted as gospel, but they actually reflect a tension between democracy and capitalism identified by Adam Smith as far back as 1776. Smith noted the potential conflict between the power of numbers (held by the majority poor) and the power of property (held by the minority wealthy) and wondered whether the two could peacefully co-exist.

But Smith never addressed the issue of ethnicity, which, Chua argues, increases the volatility of the situation exponentially. And, as Chua eloquently and clearly displays, in countless locales around the world ethnicity could not be more important.

For the American reader, some of the nations detailed will be familiar, if only from the unfortunate headlines, but many others will be largely mysterious. The dominance of whites in South Africa is likely known; the dominance of Lebanese in Sierra Leone, Jews in Russia, or ethnic Chinese throughout virtually all of Southeast Asia probably not, yet the explosive results are the same. Known or unknown to the average citizen, nonetheless American foreign policy is actively involved in such “hot-spots,” exporting free market democracy to them all, often with disastrous results.

Yet perhaps the undesirable outcomes should not be surprising, since the political and economic package we sell to the developing world is one that ironically has never been adopted in the west. Universal suffrage took centuries to attain, following long struggles by initially disenfranchised groups, and pure laissez-faire capitalism is nowhere to be found in any developed nation, as elaborate tax-and-transfer schemes ameliorate its inherent disparities.

But if instant free-market democracy is not the answer, what is? Chua argues that a long process of building stable economic and political institutions, mirroring the way they arose in the West, is the path to prosperity for the developing world. Successful nation-building requires a careful tailoring of solutions to the specific places where they are delivered, along with targeted programs to spread the benefits of capitalism beyond market-dominant minorities and to develop democracy as a form of power-sharing, rather than simply empowering “the mob.”

These solutions demand a deep understanding of each nation’s particular situation; what works in one place may not work in another. The West will have to engage the world on a case-by-case basis, in a way far different from the “one-size fits all” model in use today.

If that sounds like a rather obvious solution, then that is the brilliance of World on Fire: this “obvious” conclusion is actually a radical departure from prevailing political philosophy in the West. Yet the West does recognize the destabilizing power of pure free market democracy; that is why it was abandoned here long ago. Surely injecting a dose of this destabilizing force into already unstable developing nations and expecting a positive outcome is mostly a dangerous fantasy. Chua shows us the dark side of this fantasy, and the nightmare it can become.

As America becomes increasingly involved in the shaping of the world, we would do well to heed her warnings.


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