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

Amy Chua
New York: Doubleday
A Review by Pat Sewell

Many Americans trust that unleashed markets and universal suffrage elsewhere will yield general material betterment, domestic tranquillity, and amity among democracies old and new. Thomas Friedman proclaims a “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention”, asserting “no two countries that both have McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other”.

But do freer markets and oxygenated “democracy” instead defy established expectation by mobilizing the wrath of the many? Do open markets and popular incitement sometimes kindle backlash and serve to excuse suppression by the few? Amy Chua contends that when injudiciously introduced, as most often happens, wide open markets and hot-housed majoritarianism form “a principal, aggravating cause of group hatred and ethnic violence throughout the non-Western world”. On regional and global planes, too, the dynamic of World on Fire augurs ill for stability, not to mention peace.

Chua outlines this dynamic early and with characteristic clarity: “When free market democracy is pursued in the presence of a market-dominant minority, the almost invariable result is backlash. This backlash typically takes one of three forms. The first is a backlash against markets, targeting the market-dominant minority’s wealth. The second is a backlash against democracy by forces favorable to the market-dominant minority. The third is violence, sometimes genocidal, directed against the market-dominant minority itself.”

This study illuminates widespread global patterns of violence without oversimplifying them. It exposes and highlights the ethnic underpinnings of world politics. Chua maintains that Western globalists and anti-globalists alike miss the “ethnic dimension of market disparities” by seeing only class warfare rather than recognizing ethnic struggle. She pulls no punches in arguing an array of cases buttressed by evidence carefully drawn from a variety of sources. Testimony based on her personal experience lends further strength to the work. World on Fire offers fascinating as well as luminous reading.

“Ethnicity” here invites characterization. The concept enjoys quite a wide scope in the present context. Identification with a group transcending primary face-to-face relationships keys a “shifting and highly malleable” sense of belonging to a kinship web projected over time and across space. Physical differences, geographic origin, linguistic, religious, or alternative cultural lines may mark this identity. Examples of Chua’s ethnic market-dominant minorities include Chinese in Southeast Asia; “Whites” in Latin America; Jews in Russia; Croats in the former Yugoslavia; Ibos, Kikuyus, Tutsis, Indians and Lebanese, among others, in Africa. Numerically preponderant “indigenous” peoples likewise take on distinct ethnic identities. Their persistent poverty relative to the conspicuous enrichment of others, indignities on a grand scale and in interpersonal relations, and the apparent prospect of instant change, when aroused by electoral encouragement to popular participation and heralded by a charismatic leader, provide conditions apt to trigger confrontation. “Ballot boxes brought Hitler to power in Germany, Mugabe to power in Zimbabwe, Milosevic to power in Serbia – and could well bring the likes of Osama bin Laden to power in Saudi Arabia.”

Identity in Chua’s predominantly ethnic usage faces its sternest test when applied to Americans as a planetary market-dominant minority. We become a “close cousin” of ethnic minorities, “a national-origin minority” relative to the world’s other peoples. Like the market-dominant minorities that stir reaction within state ambits, Americans, “wielding disproportionate economic power”, let alone brandishing military might and flaunting political domination, build resentment and prompt vindictive acts throughout the world. Chua suggests that, ironically, U.S.-driven laissez-faire capitalism and supercharged populism feed a polyglot global majority’s convergent anti-Americanism.

World on Fire considers Israeli Jews as a regional market-dominant minority. As such this regional minority contributes to a familiar pattern underlined by Amy Chua’s prediction: “if popular elections were held throughout the Arab world, Israel would be a common whipping boy among vote-seeking politicians.” The book does not seek to relate Middle East instability to mondial instability, or to take note of the widespread if not worldwide identification of Israeli Jews with Americans as a single global market-dominant force. A chapter entitled “Why They Hate Us” focuses upon the U.S. Chua does classify Ashkenazi Jews as a market-dominant minority within Israel, and touches upon Palestinians as a potential entrepreneurial factor throughout the region.

This book will not appeal to ideologues. Those who wish their exports of markets and democracy pure – purely American, notwithstanding the logical difficulty of embracing exceptionalist notions too – may well discount Chua’s nuanced treatment of the interplay among key variables across a wide range of situations. Or they may condemn nativist demagoguery abroad while overlooking the economic shock therapy which World on Fire cogently shows may contribute significantly to the rise of mobocracy. The book courageously advances its argument in the face of people who glorify “American parochialism” and celebrate a song that salutes “not knowing ‘the difference between Iraq and Iran’ ” in a land some of whose lawmakers pride themselves on never having held a passport.

By setting terms for a fresh debate on the dire side effects of liberalizing economies and developing polyarchies, Chua might be thought to incur responsibility for suggesting what alternatives best to undertake. A vivid and compelling alarm sounded about a raging global inferno calls for guidance on measures of containment. World on Fire introduces several: “ ‘leveling the playing field’ between market-dominant minorities and the impoverished ‘indigenous’ majorities around them;” giving majorities “a greater stake in global markets;” the promotion of “liberal rather than illiberal democracies;” and initiatives by market-dominant minorities “to forestall majority-based, often murderous ethnonationalist backlashes.”

Readers of their elaboration will differ on which of these proposals appear desirable and feasible. Some will probably find none suitable, for one reason or another. I find appealing the “controversial strategy” of majority-backed governmental intervention to “ ‘correct’ ethnic wealth imbalances” through programs similar to those called “affirmative action” within the West. This would seem effective and feasible, given a popularly-elected government. But it would violate free-market expectations and, immodestly used, threaten the individual rights (including property ownership rights) or rights of the minority that liberalism associates with majority rule. Both attributes of feasibility and those of questionable desirability may be displayed today by the Hugo Chavez presidency of Venezuela.

Desirable yet less feasible may be reliance upon acts of magnanimity by market-dominant minorities. History seems replete with instances in which such did not occur. However, Chua may have in mind rather modest concessions, at least those by market-dominant Americans. She sees the wisdom of making more beneficent contributions (toward health care, family planning, and alleviating chronic environmental problems such as lack of potable water, for instance) to lie “in their potentially far-reaching symbolism.”

Beyond her brilliant diagnosis, Professor Chua, who teaches at Yale Law School, makes an auspicious start toward rectification by broaching provocative proposals. But maybe the process of prescribing remains near its beginning, leaving the application of remedies pending. One senses that a dialogue on what to do, taking full account of World on Fire’s path-breaking findings, has only begun. Clearly this dialogue warrants urgent continuation of the work here so ably initiated.

It is the resentment of long-standing minority domination that has so much of the world's citizens ready to take up arms.
Copyright 2003 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization