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United States

Amy Chua on US’ blindness to identity politics abroad and at home, from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Trump’s election

In Political Tribes, a book bristling with stinging home truths, Tiger Mom author blames American exceptionalism for decades of foreign-policy disasters and failure to grasp the mind-blowing tribalism that decided the 2016 election

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 February, 2018, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 February, 2018, 9:00pm

Political Tribes: Group Instinct and The Fate Of Nations

by Amy Chua

Bloomsbury

3.5 stars

“In our foreign policy, for at least half a century,” Amy Chua writes of her homeland, America, in the introduction to her new and fifth book, Political Tribes, “we have been spectacularly blind to the power of tribal politics.”

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This statement will no doubt find little argument among non-US citizens. But there’s more to Political Tribes than this truism. Chua takes a torch to conventional American thinking on everything from foreign policy to identity politics, Nascar and narco saints in this provocative narrative.

From her initial blunt assertion that “humans are tribal”, Chua leads the reader into new thinking on old topics.

Chua, a Yale law professor, is, of course, as famous for voicing difficult, often unpalatable truths as she is for penning bestsellers. She first garnered accolades for challenging the reigning consensus in her 2004 debut, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, a New York Times bestseller.

In Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise To Global Dominance – And Why They Fall, this American-born daughter of ethnic Chinese immigrants from the Philippines examined the role of tolerance towards ethnic and religious minorities in the rise and demise of empires. But none proved more successful, more controversial than Chua’s runaway 2011 bestselling memoir about her attempt to raise her daughters the traditional, strict “Chinese” way, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. It won her death threats as well as accolades.

Not that this prevented Chua from triggering another furore in her homeland by daring to examine why some ethnic and religious groups outperform others in America in her 2015 bestseller, The Triple Package. Co-authored with her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, the book was derided as an example of “new racism”. All of which brings one to wonder what naysayers in her homeland will make of Political Tribes.

It’s a book that dares to examine what makes America, a land of immigrants, so uniquely blinkered to tribal politics at home and abroad. A book bristling with stinging home truths and apposite one-liners, any one of which has the potential to ignite controversy in a nation which has long thought of itself as exceptional.

Chua argues that American exceptionalism – America’s idea of itself as a nation uniquely defined by its ideals of democracy and personal liberty – lies at the root of America’s obliviousness to tribal identities abroad; so much so that she devotes an entire chapter to American history, its shifting post-war and contemporary demographics and to American exceptionalism.

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She does this while charting the imperfect, halting, rise of the US to become a supergroup by the 21st century, “the only one among the world’s great powers”. For while American society remains shot through with racism, “which may even be getting worse, not better”, writes Chua, “what it means to be American is not the preserve of any particular racial, ethnic or religious sub-group”.

Chua writes that it’s America’s unique supergroup status that has coloured its world view and foreign policy. “We forget how unusual it is to have an extremely diverse multi-ethnic population and a strong overarching identity capable of binding people together,” Chua says.

From the jungles of Vietnam to the mountains of Afghanistan, and on into the cities and deserts of Iraq, Chua’s clear-eyed analysis illuminates the flawed American mindset.

She writes that the pattern started in Vietnam, where “it would be difficult to come up with a more effective strategy for shooting ourselves in the foot”. Even in the wake of long acknowledged errors in prosecuting the Vietnam war, Americans still don’t fully understand what went so badly wrong, argues Chua.

She cites Thomas Friedman and others who’ve acknowledged that Washington’s decision makers interpreted events through a cold war lens, thus failing to fully comprehend the potency of Vietnamese nationalism – along with the fact that Vietnam’s Chinese minority had long dominated the lucrative commercial, trade and industrial sectors, provoking deep resentment.

This pattern of ingrained myopia continued to the Afghanistan intervention, where the US remained oblivious to the myriad ethnic, tribal and clan identities in the region. It continued on into Iraq, where US policymakers were aware of Sunni-Shia tensions but believed democratisation was the solution to them.

Her detailed dissection of the flawed thinking behind these catastrophic interventions make for compelling yet deeply disturbing reading.

Chua first coined the term “market-dominant minorities” in 2003, describing how pervasive they are in the developing world and how they represent one of the most potent catalysts for political tribalism. In one of the book’s most fascinating chapters, she illustrates how that proved true in Venezuela, where the US has pursued a “completely ineffective” foreign policy for 20 years, and where the battle between democracy and a market-driven minority proved ultimately to be catastrophic.

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In 2003 too, she reveals, she penned a New York Times op-ed piece about the way democracy catalyses instability in conditions of extreme inequality, citing racial tensions and anti-elite sentiment in Venezuela – tensions that then-president Hugo Chavez had exploited on the way to his landslide 1998 victory – only to be greeted by a deluge of hate email from Venezuelans denying the existence of any racial divisions.

Venezuela’s racial inequities are by now, widely acknowledged. Chua sees a similar social fracturing – and a blindness to it – in America, where Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency parallels that of Chavez in startling ways.

Tribalism in America propelled Trump to the White House, argues Chua, who believes her country is beginning to display destructive political dynamics much more typical of developing and non-Western countries.

She goes on to illuminate a mind-blowing array of disparate, poorly understood tribal identities, left and right, rich and poor, who call America home in an attempt to bridge the vast, growing chasm between them.

For all its biting criticism and richly referenced analysis, Political Tribes reads like a passionate wake-up call to Americans to fight for their hard-won and “precious” status as a supergroup.

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As she declares towards the start of the book: “If we don’t want to be perpetually caught off guard, fighting unwinnable wars, the United States has to come to grips with political tribalism abroad. And if we want to save our nation we need to come to grips with its growing power at home.”