Nations are prone to devastating crises: political chaos, economic calamities, civil war, natural disasters, pandemics. Countries enduring crises right now include Syria, Yemen, Venezuela and Congo. Crises are complex and multifaceted and strike in wealthier countries, too. In Britain, there’s Brexit. In Spain, there’s the drive for Catalonian independence. In 2008, a financial crisis engulfed the world. Today, America reels over a threat to its long-standing democratic conditions.
In his new book, “Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis,” Jared Diamond, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” wants us to believe that national crises are much like personal ones and, therefore, can be treated with an approach similar to that used by some psychotherapists. Diamond goes to great lengths to show that, despite the enormous differences between individuals and nations, his approach can be usefully applied to diagnose and solve national crises. But are nations and individuals in the throes of crisis really comparable? His analysis fails to persuade.
Of the many flaws in Diamond’s approach, three stand out. First, without explicitly stating it, Diamond makes willpower a critical factor in determining success or failure in the management of crises both by individuals and by nations. Some people have the will to do all that is necessary to overcome their crisis, while others don’t. From Diamond’s perspective, the same can be said of nations; some have what it takes to overcome a crisis, and some don’t. But assuming that results mostly depend on the will to achieve them is debatable. Can a teenage mother stranded in a refugee camp resolve her crisis by a mere exertion of will? Describing will as a variable that drives the behavior of an entire country is even more problematic. The will of a nation is too fuzzy a concept to explain the course of a national debacle. Diamond’s argument implicitly assumes — or prescribes — national unity. The possibility of building a national consensus, in his view, is a critical precondition for successful crisis management. The problem is that national unity is rare and hard to create, while its absence is more common and often the very cause of a crisis.
A second flaw in Diamond’s analysis is his assumption about the role of international altruism in aiding a country in crisis. Surely, the disinterested support of others is often indispensable in the management of a personal crisis. Diamond argues that altruism is also a key success factor in the case of national crises. The problem is that national behavior, including helping other nations in need, tends to be motivated more by interests and politics rather than disinterested altruism. While altruism does sometimes drive international aid, the more common reality is that outside help is often late, is insufficient, has harsh strings attached, or is simply and tragically nonexistent.
A third weakness is Diamond’s limited reliance on the vast and rich body of research on the causes, prevention and remedies of national crises. While the book includes references to some of the main works in the field, their findings are conspicuously absent from Diamond’s discussion and recommendations.
Instead, Diamond relies on a list of 12 factors developed by one school of therapists to predict how well an individual will cope with a crisis. These include “acknowledgment that one is in crisis, acceptance of one’s personal responsibility to do something, getting material and emotional help from other individuals and groups.” Diamond then adapts this list to nation-states, explaining that “the factors recognized by therapists as related to outcomes of individual crises shows that most factors on one list have recognizable analogues on the other list.” His list of the 12 factors that drive the outcomes of national crises includes the existence of a “national consensus that one’s nation is in crisis, the acceptance of national responsibility to do something, getting material and financial help from other nations.”
To demonstrate his theory in real-world examples, Diamond analyzes crises that have hit Finland, Japan, Chile, Indonesia, Germany, Australia and the United States. He explains that his book is “a comparative, narrative, exploratory study of crisis and selective change operating over many decades” in these seven countries “and viewed from the perspective of selective change in personal crises.”
The case studies of these seven very different nations and their very different crises offer a tour of these societies, guided by an insightful 81-year-old Sherpa who combines the talents of a polymath, a fluid writer and a master storyteller. He takes us through Finland’s crisis in 1939, when the country of 3.7 million people was attacked by the Soviet Union and abandoned by its allies. The fighting was uneven and fierce, and Finland lost 5 percent of its male population, a proportion that would be equivalent to 9 million Americans killed in a war today. Yet the Finns managed to remain independent from the Soviet Union, even though they were outnumbered 40 to 1.
Diamond’s portrayal of Finland’s travails is fascinating, but his attempt to fit that country’s crisis into his 12-step framework falls short. He skirts alternative explanations for Finland’s success and elevates the personal anecdotes of his Finnish friends to the level of definitive evidence.
Diamond vibrantly narrates a 19th-century crisis that struck Japan, unraveling the tale like a fascinating dinner guest. But he concludes his story by force-feeding his therapeutic framework into it. The crisis that shook Japan erupted in 1853 when an American flotilla of warships led by Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived in Tokyo Bay. His mission was to force the Japanese government to sign a treaty that, after 200 years, would open its ports to foreign trade, especially with the Western world. This unleashed wide-ranging changes that threatened to undermine many traditions that underpinned Japanese culture and society. Diamond concludes that Japan successfully managed the crisis and was able to protect its culture while also opening to the world.
Diamond’s discussion of the crisis that Chile faced in 1973, when Gen. Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected president Salvador Allende, also suffers from the pitfalls of his analysis. It is light on economics and the international political environment and heavy on the views and anecdotes of Diamond’s friends in the country. He overstates the quality of the democracy before the 1970s and the role of agriculture in an economy heavily dependent on mining; he only superficially touches on the pressures that the Cold War brought on the left and the right. The resolution of the crisis and Chile’s return to democracy were through an admirable and uncommon political compromise and a willingness of the parties to share and alternate power. Diamond understates the role of the international human rights community and the importance of world copper prices in the success of the economy, and he underplays the impact that the end of the Cold War had on the outcome.
Diamond’s vigorous but ineffective effort to show that Chile’s management of its crisis fits his list is more a distraction than a contribution to our understanding of what happened in the South American country in the early 1970s. In the same way that his previous and far more rigorous work, “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” suffered from an excessive reliance on geography to explain complex, multidimensional events, “Upheaval” suffers from an overreliance on psychology.
But in some ways, it doesn’t matter. Though the analysis stumbles, the virtues of Diamond’s storytelling shine through. Ignore his attempts to force the therapeutic 12-step onto history. Ignore also his correct but unsurprising musings about the dangerous threats facing humanity (nuclear weapons, climate change, resource depletion and inequality ). Instead, let this experienced observer with an uncanny eye for the small details that reveal larger truths take you on an expedition around the world and through fascinating pivotal moments in seven countries. “Upheaval” works much better as a travelogue than as a contribution to our understanding of national crises.
Turning Points for Nations
By Jared Diamond
Little, Brown. 502 pp. $35