Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations by Amy Chua

Amy Chua identifies the American Establishment’s atrocious blindness to tribal politics as the root cause of four great foreign policy disasters since the 1960s, and of its inability to see that at home, Donald Trump, or someone like him, was on his way.

Chua, a Professor of Law at Yale, is best known as the author of a memoir about being a Tiger Mother, and addresses her compatriots as if they were a class of silly children who should have known better, which indeed they should.

Her book has the advantages, seldom found in works on foreign affairs, of being short, lucid and readable. It is not a masterpiece – for that one should turn to The Quiet American by Graham Greene, which explored the same phenomenon in the early 1950s – but it is extremely good.

She begins with admirable directness:

“Humans are tribal. We need to belong to groups. We crave bonds and attachments, which is why we love clubs, teams, fraternities, family. Almost no one is a hermit. Even monks and friars belong to orders. But the tribal instinct is not just an instinct to belong. It is also an instinct to exclude.”

American policymakers are oblivious to this truth:

“In our foreign policy, for at least half a century, we have been spectacularly blind to the power of tribal politics. We tend to view the world in terms of territorial nation-states engaged in great ideological battles – Capitalism versus Communism, Democracy versus Authoritarianism, the ‘Free World’ versus the ‘Axis of Evil’. Blinded by our own ideological prisms, we have repeatedly ignored more primal group identities…

“Take the Vietnam War, arguably the greatest and most humiliating military defeat in the history of the United States. It’s by now well known that we underestimated the extent to which the Vietnamese people were fighting for national independence, as opposed to Cold War Marxism. But here’s something most Americans, experts and novices alike, don’t know, even today. Inside Vietnam, a deeply resented one per cent Chinese minority historically controlled as much as 70 or 80 per cent of the country’s commercial wealth. Thus, a hugely disproportionate number of Vietnam’s ‘capitalists’ were ethnic Chinese, despised by the Vietnamese, both northern and southern.

“Because we completely missed the ethnic side of the conflict, we failed to see that virtually every pro-capitalist step we took in Vietnam was guaranteed to inflame popular resentment. If we had actively wanted to turn the Vietnamese people against us, we could hardly have come up with a better formula.”

In Afghanistan and Iraq, to each of which she devotes a chapter, the Americans made versions of the same blunder. Since Britain went along with those blunders, albeit as a junior partner, this is not something we can feel in the slightest bit complacent about.

And in both those countries, we long ago demonstrated that we were more than capable of blundering under our own steam. Chua nevertheless thinks London used to appreciate the significance of local loyalties much better than Washington now does:

“Great Britain’s acute group consciousness during its imperial heyday contrasts jarringly with America’s group blindness today. The British were minutely knowledgeable about, almost obsessed with, the ethnic, religious, tribal, and caste differences among their subject populations. They studied and catalogued, harnessed and manipulated, often deliberately pitting groups against each other. They also left behind time bombs that are still exploding today.”

That’s true, and an unfortunate consequence of the exploding time bombs is that imperial expertise is itself despised. It seems to me that Chua is not just writing about an American phenomenon. The contempt for local attachments, and preference for preaching (though usually not practising) universal values – democracy, equality, human rights – is found just as much in Europe.

Foreign countries are very difficult to understand. After living for five and a half years in Germany, I felt I had only started to acquire some glimmerings of knowledge about the place.

And how to convey those glimmerings? In the form of news reports for the foreign pages of my newspaper, it was impossible to explain what German coalition politics were really about. As soon as I started to use those three-letter terms – CDU, CSU, FDP, SPD – each followed in brackets by an explanation – Christian Democratic Union, Christian Social Union (sometimes varied to “the CDU’s Bavarian allies”), the Free Democrats (or small free-market liberal party, often holding the balance of power), the Social Democrats – I knew I was losing the few readers who had started the piece.

The more scrupulous one was about giving the official version of what was going on in German politics, the less sense one conveyed of what was actually going on in that wonderful country, which still, to me, breathed the last enchantments of the 1950s. In London, of course, the main point of reference was the horrors of 1933-45, which imposed yet another barrier to comprehension.

Even the Germans were not ready (as it seemed to me) to understand what kind of a nation they were in the process of becoming. The whole subject was muffled beneath an impenetrable layer of European verbiage. Sometimes an angry pedant, in a letter to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, would cast things in a different light, and sometimes I would get shafts of insight from my newsagent, Frau Lorenz, a former East German rowing champion.

I had some dear friends at the Free University in Berlin who specialised in the study of divided countries. They enjoyed admitting that at a conference held in I think 1988, they had confidently predicted that North and South Korea would be reunited long before East and West Germany  – which were reunited in 1989-90, after the East German people had taken the initiative by walking through the Berlin Wall, an event which took the experts, both German and foreign, by surprise.

Successful reporters are obliged to develop a kind of shorthand in which to give, in a few hundred words, an unilluminating précis of what is happening in Libya or Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan or Venezuela (another country to which Chua devotes a chapter, outlining 20 years of “completely ineffective” American policy which turned “vast numbers against us, through our blindness to the…ethno-nationalist resentment that Chavez harnessed and gave voice to”).

Successful intellectuals are no better. Indeed, they may be worse. For they render some unfortunate country comprehensible by applying an ideology to it which does not fit how the inhabitants of that country actually think and feel about things – Vietnam, with its ancient struggle to assert its independence from China, being a good example.

Successful politicians are perhaps worst of all. How Tony Blair prated about bringing the blessings of democracy to whichever fortunate country had just attracted his or Washington’s attention. If you doubted this Blairite tosh, you became someone who did not believe in eradicating the drugs trade, or educating women, or whatever the week’s good cause happened to be.

In The Places in Between, his astonishing account of walking across Afghanistan in 2002, Rory Stewart (currently Minister of State for Courts and Justice) describes the attempt at that time by United Nations policy makers, who a year before had been in Kosovo or East Timor and a year later would be in Iraq or New York, to create “a centralised, broad-based, multi-ethnic government committed to democracy, human rights and the rule of law”, while knowing next to nothing about the villages where 90 per cent of the Afghan people lived.

Stewart supplies the following footnote:

“Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neo-colonialism. But in fact their approach is not that of a 19th-century colonial officer. Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing. They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation. They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language. They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite and continued the countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geographical societies and royal botanical gardens. They balanced the local budget and generated fiscal revenue because if they didn’t their home government would rarely bail them out. If they failed to govern fairly, the population would mutiny.

“Post-conflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism. Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices. There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility. Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organisation long enough to be adequately assessed. The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neo-colonialists have no such performance criteria. In fact their very uselessness benefits them. By avoiding any serious action or judgment they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation and oppression.

“Perhaps it is because no one requires more than a charming illusion of action in the developing world. If the policy makers know little about the Afghans, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan.”

History is always being forgotten, as well as written. Chua’s work, like Stewart’s, recalls us to a time when running someone else’s country, and preparing it for eventual self-government, was recognised to be a serious responsibility requiring dedicated officials.

Indeed, running one’s own country is a serious responsibility. But America’s cosmopolitan elite slipped into an attitude of sour disdain for America’s poor. Once again, the people running the show were actuated by high-sounded ideals, but knew less and less about what was actually going on in small-town America, and especially among small-town whites, who felt themselves being pushed, both culturally and economically, to the margins.

These two tribes – the cosmopolitans and the poor whites – developed a contempt for each other which has become self-sustaining. Hence the election of so unedifying a figure as Trump. Chua thinks all in the end will be well, and Americans will learn to like each other again. Perhaps her book, and other accounts of how polarised American society has become, are signs that they will.