Amy Chua's World on Fire: Worldwide Ethnic Conflict and Its Implications for the United States

Article excerpt

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

Amy Chua

Anchor Books, 2004

Amy Chua's World on Fire: Worldwide Ethnic Conflict and Its Implications for the United States

Amy Chua is a Yale Law School professor whose family has been among the wealthy Filipino Chinese ethnic elite that, even though only 1 percent of the Philippine population, has for centuries dominated the islands' commercial economy. (Similarly almost all rural land is controlled by another ethnic minority, a Spanish-blooded gentry class.) In 1994, Chua's aunt was murdered at her home in the Philippines by her chauffeur with the collusion of other servants - a crime that is not at all uncommon in light of the ethnic hatred that exists.

The murder might have caused Chua to take a highly subjective, ethnically partisan view of such ethnic conflict. Instead, it stirred her scholarly instincts, leading her to a study of ethnic hatred on a worldwide basis. The result is a book that is encyclopedic in its information about one of the most potentially explosive aspects of the world today.

In much of the world, she reports, minority ethnic groups have long dominated the economies and often the politics of nations otherwise inhabited by much larger impoverished masses. The market domination is exacerbated today by the globalization of trade, with the dominant minorities reaping the benefit and the rest of the populations being raised some, but relatively far less. At the same time, the worldwide move toward "democracy" provides the fulcrum for populist appeals to the ethnonationalism felt by the impoverished peoples. (This reviewer doesn't like the word "masses," which depersonalizes and seems to belittle. It is a word Chua uses, however; and in the context of her book it is a useful shorthand term.)

The United States and the international institutions such as the World Bank and the I.M.F. that it sponsors have for several years been militating for what Chua calls a "raw" form of laissez-faire free markets. These lack the redistributive features that have historically come to be felt essential in Europe and the United States. Those same sources have simultaneously militated for a "raw" form of democracy consisting of immediate universal suffrage - again in a form of ideological violation of the historical experience of Europe and the United States, which saw suffrage granted gradually and in contexts that safeguarded the rights of individuals and of minorities. The result, Chua says, as she does in the subtitle to her book, is that "exporting free market democracy breeds ethnic hatred and global instability."

A reader will note that although some of the peoples involved are Islamic, the problem Chua describes is much more universal. In an even broader context than the current face-off between a worldinterventionist United States and the vast span of Islamic peoples, we see that there are, across the globe, ethnic cauldrons into which the United States should step, if at all, only with fear and trepidation. Again, we are reminded that the messianic ideology that has for the most part held sway in the United States since 1898 and that makes the United States the policeman and social worker of the world is a dangerous one. We are reminded, too, that American ignorance of the historical and cultural specifics of the societies in which it intervenes is profound; and that there is considerable moral presumption in wading into the countless situations in which the people who live there insist that they, not the United States, are the ones who have an inherent right to take care of their own business.

Although the overarching importance of Chua's discussion is apparent from such considerations as these, much additional value comes from the information she imparts about a wide range of countries. The book isn't long (346 pages) and is easily readable, but neither of those qualities detracts from its scholarship and informative content. …