The Realist Bibliophile

Professor Chua's book is a dash of cold water in the face of those who endlessly repeat the mantra that globalization and the spread of American-style free-market democracy will solve the world's intractable conflicts.

Professor Chua's book is a dash of cold water in the face of those who endlessly repeat the mantra that globalization and the spread of American-style free-market democracy will solve the world's intractable conflicts.  She makes the case that since resources and entrepreneurial skills are not evenly distributed across populations, liberalization inevitably produces "market-dominant minorities" who often become the target of hatred on the part of the majority of society.  Add political democratization--with its premises of citizen equality and majoritarian rule--and an explosive mix is created.

Chua adds her voice to others who have cautioned about being carried away by the rhetoric of democracy and the markets, to focus instead on the importance of creating institutions capable of giving people real stakes in their economies and societies.  Since the book, Chua's thesis has been validated, most recently by the mixed results of the elections among Turkish Cypriots--where the desire to enter the EU and partake of the benefits of globalization were balanced by fears about security--and her points about unequal distribution of wealth and power in multiethnic societies contains very clear warnings about things that need to be avoided as Iraq is put back together as a sovereign state.

There can also be important geostrategic considerations.  The "overseas Chinese" in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines play crucial roles not only in the economic life of their native countries, but also increasingly in facilitating investment in China itself.  So these communities may find themselves increasingly "squeezed"--citizens of their native countries yet perceived as outsiders and potential agents of a rising hegemon for East Asia who may take a greater interest in the welfare and safety of their ethnic compatriots.

While an interesting book, it does have the problem of taking shades of gray and making them more "black and white" to support its thesis.  There is the strong temptation to want to shape facts to the thesis to make it more compelling. 

The section dealing with Russia is a case in point.  Chua relies a great deal on secondary sources--with no major references to Russian material--to make the case that Jews form a "market-dominated minority" in Russia and takes as her starting point the "Jewishness" of six of the seven "oligarchs."  But there are several problems with this approach.  Two of the six "Jewish oligarchs" are baptized Orthodox Christians; most of the others consider themselves to be Russian by language and culture, and only one has explicitly supported Russian Jewish communal life.  There is no cohesive and separate "Jewish" community to which the oligarchs belong.  One might also question the focus on the "seven oligarchs" given that a number of key economic-political players (among them Moscow's mayor Yuri Luzhkov and LUKoil's president Vagit Alekperov) are not listed; nor is there much discussion about the rising business class.  But most importantly, in a country where Russian identity is itself in flux, juxtaposing "Jews" and "Russians" in the same way that one might juxtapose Syrians and Lebanese businessmen against native Africans is a problematic approach indeed.

The book ends with the proposition that globalization across borders is insufficient if there is not greater integration within societies--especially the creation of majority-group middle classes--and greater attention paid to the question of private gain versus public welfare.  So, for Chua, American foreign aid is not expected to solve the problem of global poverty, but to serve as a symbolic gesture that the U.S. is genuinely concerned with the fate of others, a strategy she hopes that market minorities will also adapt within their host societies. 

A reader will walk away from this book with useful warnings and a host of facts but may feel that the issue is left incomplete.  There is a sense that the present manuscript contained too much information and analysis for an article but needed to be stretched into a full book.  One also gets the sense that ethnicity is pushed forward as the dominant factor in explaining behavior even when it might only be one of many factors.  No doubt, Chua would interpret the success of the Rodina bloc in Russia's December 2003 parliamentary elections as confirmation that anti-Semitic sentiments were being directed against Jewish oligarchs. While it might be tempting to equate the success of Rodina to anti-Semitism, it overlooks the fact that Rodina's success derives in part because Russia, as a society, has not yet settled on its post-communist social contract, including the tradeoff between the freedom to get rich (or become poor) versus a more socially-oriented welfare state redistributing resources.  Rodina voters don't want "ethnically pure" Russian oligarchs; they just don't want oligarchs at all.

This book is important and should be read for including what the great pundits of globalization left out in their paeans to the success of markets and democracy to bridge gaps and end conflicts.  Its strongest conclusion--and one that needs to be reiterated given the nation-building project now underway in Iraq--is that it is "essential to try and devise measures and create institutions restraining the worst excesses of markets and democracy."  In other words, too much of a good thing ends up being counterproductive.