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Contrary to Thomas Barnett, Vietnam does not consider itself a teenager, or the US a grown-up

I hate to criticize a book I haven't read, but judging by Dwight Garner's NY Times review, the new book by Thomas P.M. Barnett, "Great Powers: America and the World After Bush", is pretty seriously wrongheaded. Garner writes:

“We are modern globalization’s source code — its DNA,” [Barnett] declares. We should “take everything we’ve learned along the way and sell it across the planet at suitably discounted prices.”

This is basically, as a general rule, going to be wrong. First of all, who is "we"? The U.S.? Or the U.K.? Or France? Japan? South Korea? These countries all have very different "DNA" (the UK has no Constitution, France has a unicameral legislature and a top-down centralized system of government, Japan is...well, Japan), and it would be hard to say which is the most modern.

Even if you could answer that question, this is still the wrong way to think about things. If you think about us as having globalization's "DNA", you'd imagine the way to spread effective governance would be to just copy large chunks of our DNA and transplant it to other countries: our laws, our system of governance, our institutions. And this has, indeed, been tried many times, and in general it works pretty badly. For example, Russia had much of its commercial law rewritten in the early '90s by American advisers. And Russia wound up with a lot of nice commercial law which nobody paid any attention to, and the actual practice of business proceeded in its own fashion, which was better suited to Russian institutions and culture but meant that much of the economy was taking place extralegally, with consequences that have become abundantly clear. Another place that had a lot of law copied from American textbooks dumped on it all at once was postwar Iraq — not a big success. And, of course, during the Vietnam War the U.S. tried to force its South Vietnamese client state to create a lot of institutions modeled on American ones, most of which became empty shells and never functioned at all.

A much better way to think about these issues is presented by Harvard development economist Dani Rodrik in his book "One Economics, Many Recipes". As Rodrik puts it: "There is no unique correspondence between the functions that good institutions perform and the form that such institutions take." Property rights, for example, are important everywhere, but the institutions that protect property rights may be completely different in different places. Rodrik points out that Latin America has done much more wholesale adoption of the "Washington consensus" of specific policy packages since the 1980s than China, India or Vietnam have. But China, India and Vietnam have all grown much faster than Latin America, partly because they evolved local solutions that work better given their specific cultures, institutions, and resources.

Finally there's this:

When it comes to globalization’s rough patches, particularly when America is confronting emerging countries or belligerent would-be superpowers, Mr. Barnett suggests that we need to realize that “we’re playing against ‘younger’ versions of ourselves in many instances.” He counsels a kind of parental Zen patience.

Most Vietnamese do not consider their country to be a "'younger' version" of America. I doubt there are many peoples around the world that do. If there were, they have quite likely revisited their views in light of the tremendous irresponsibility revealed in the US's economic and political system over the past year. There are aspects of American governance, business and society which Vietnamese do very much want to adopt. But in many other ways Vietnamese often see Americans as goofy, inexperienced, lightweight jokers who themselves have a lot of growing up to do.

But don't all Vietnamese really want their country to be just like America? Isn't it inevitable that, in the end, they will all adopt our DNA? Such thinking is perhaps best encapsulated by the character of Col. Pogue, in Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket":

"We are here to help the Vietnamese, because inside every gook there is an American trying to get out."

There's a tremendous condescension implied in the view that other countries are "younger" versions of America. It's bad enough that such condescension was always ineffective. What's  worse is that, as the past year has made abundantly clear, the U.S. hasn't earned the right to condescend.