Jared Diamond Puts Countries on the Couch

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Jared Diamond’s new book succeeds even though it really has no right to. The theme of “Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis” is that insights from crisis therapy for individuals can also be applied to nations under stress. This is a quixotic undertaking, and the idea remains a stretch as the author applies it to a set of case studies.

Yet the virtues so abundant in Diamond’s previous “The Third Chimpanzee,” “Guns, Germs and Steel” and “Collapse” are again on display, and within a few pages they stifle any doubt about whether “Upheaval” is worth one’s time. Diamond’s amazing breadth of knowledge, intellectual ambition, unbounded curiosity and relaxed, engaging style more than make up for the weaknesses in the theory.

It helps that Diamond is appealingly relaxed about it. He’s no expert on crisis therapy, he explains — what he knows about it is mainly thanks to his wife, a clinical psychologist with training in the technique. And he isn’t a political historian with academic credentials to be discussing, as he does, Finland’s war with the Soviet Union, the origins of modern Japan, Pinochet’s Chile, German post-war reconstruction, Indonesia’s post-independence traumas, and Australia’s supposed identity crisis as a fragment of Europe dwelling in Asia. He chose these instances, he says, because he has lived in these countries, or speaks the language, or has strong family connections.

The pitch, in effect, is charmingly modest: Here’s an interesting thought about nations in crisis — perhaps they’re not that different from individuals in crisis; let’s test that notion against some cases I happen to know something about, and see if it sheds any light. Could be interesting.

And it isn’t just interesting, but consistently fascinating. The narrative chapters on each of those historical episodes are well done. Further chapters on what Diamond calls “crises under way” — Japan’s economic and demographic challenges, inequality and political polarization in the U.S., climate change, and other global issues — seem more hasty and less substantial but are highly readable nonetheless. And the framing conceit, limits notwithstanding, succeeds in tying the whole together and in raising some excellent thought-provoking questions.

Not one for half-measures, Diamond states and explains 12 principles for the resolution of personal crises. Acknowledge that you’re having one; accept your responsibility to deal with it; fence off what needs attention from what’s irrelevant; get help; look to others as models; and so forth. He then posits 12 parallel principles for the case of nations. Getting help from other people becomes getting help from other countries. (That seems to work.) “Flexible personality” becomes “situation-specific national flexibility.” (Yes, well.) And “ego strength” becomes “national identity.”

That last analogy is the most intriguing, and also the most intellectually dangerous. Ego strength, encompassing various aspects of psychological resilience, is almost by definition tied to ability to overcome a personal crisis. (Given a sufficiently broad definition, by the way, it would absorb many of Diamond’s other 11 personal-crisis factors.) But the analogue — national identity — is much out of favor in the West these days. U.S. politics, left and right, is currently devoted to dismantling the country’s national identity and framing politics as a fight among competing and possibly irreconcilable factions. Europe’s future prosperity is widely seen as depending on the suppression of national identities and the development of a post-national character. And nationalism, which you might call the strongest political expression of national identity, is almost everywhere disdained by polite opinion.

Diamond doesn’t engage with this head-on. Previously criticized in some quarters as an environmental or genetic determinist, he might be wise to be cautious. But the question keeps intruding. His examples of internally generated national crises typically involve domestic divisions — that is, lack of a sufficiently unifying national identity. And where countries overcome externally induced national crises, that same sense of national identity seems to play a central role.

What the parallel between personal and national crises can’t fully contend with is politics, of course. At the national level, Diamond’s quasi-psychological factors operate through citizens en masse and their governments. Form of government (liberal-democratic, pseudo-democratic or non-democratic, as the case may be) matters enormously. And quality of leadership is usually crucial. That’s implicit in all 12 of his factors, but he discusses it only in passing, mentioning a couple of studies that show, contrary to one strand of historical analysis, that leadership counts (a notable concession from a suspected environmental determinist). It’s a pity he doesn’t say more about what good leadership entails.

The impressive thing is how little the book’s failings seem to matter. The reader is in the company of a remarkable and captivating intellect, playfully grappling with widely divergent historical episodes, and unafraid to render them more intelligible by means of a simple and improbable master theory. The theory doesn’t quite pan out, but so what? The book is a treat from start to finish.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times, a correspondent and editor for the Economist and a senior editor at the Atlantic.

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