How tribalism causes problems at home and abroad.
In a biting critique of American foreign policy and analysis of the nation’s divisive culture wars, Chua (Law/Yale Univ.; Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, 2011, etc.) argues that tribal affiliation exerts a crucial, powerful force on individuals’ behaviors and identities. Humans’ need for “bonds and attachments,” she asserts, fulfills an instinct to belong but also to exclude. People “will sacrifice, and even kill and die, for their groups.” Reprising some ideas from her book World on Fire (2002) on the negative consequences of exporting free market democracy, Chua examines America’s failed involvement in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Venezuela as well as responses to terrorist groups. The author blames blindness to tribalism for the disastrous outcomes. That blindness comes, in part, from America’s unique success in assimilating diverse populations into its “ethnicity-transcending national identity.” Assessing other countries, Americans have failed to recognize tribal affiliations and rivalries or the existence of a repressive “market-dominant minority” that controls major sectors of the economy. Instead, the U.S. has fixated on its mission to foil communism and export democracy. Focused on the Cold War, “U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan never saw the potent anti-American, anti-Western group identity fueling the Islamic fundamentalist fighters.” In Iraq, foreign policy was shaped by a belief in “markets and democracy as a universal prescription for the many ills of underdevelopment.” In reality, the downfall of Saddam Hussein incited rivalries among tribal groups and the rise of ethnic conflict and fundamentalism. In Trump’s America, cohesion has splintered “into ever more specific subgroups created by overlapping racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual orientation categories” that feel threatened by one another. Inclusivity, hailed by the left, has devolved into exclusivity as groups seek to exert “exclusive rights to their own histories, symbols, and traditions.” Nevertheless, Chua is heartened by individuals’ efforts to bridge divides and to undermine “purveyors of political tribalism” on the left and right.
A persuasive call to rethink foreign policy and heal domestic fissures.