Saturday, April 13, 2019

Book Review: 'Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis' by Jared Diamond

Diamond in the rough

Albert Einstein spent the last half of his life trying to fit the universe into one elegant formula. He did not succeed.  Jared Diamond is trying to do the same with national political crises in Upheaval. He has developed a list of 12 factors that show up in times of crisis at the nation level. The degree to which the nation deals with those factors (if at all) determines how successful it will likely be in dealing with it.

The book exists at three levels: the individual, the nation and the world. The factors relating to their crises can be quite similar. The bulk of the book is on seven countries Diamond has had relationships with, having lived and/or worked in them. They are Indonesia, Japan, Germany, USA, Australia, Chile and Finland. They’re all different, and they all handled their crises differently. Some are still in crisis.

A crisis is a serious challenge that cannot be solved by existing methods of coping, Diamond says. The examples include foreign invasion, internal revolution, evolving past previous bad policy, externalizing problems, and denial of problems.

As for the US, Diamond sees it entering a crisis of identity and survival, riven by self-centered Americans who only care about themselves and today – right up to the top. Perspective, reflection and especially co-operation and compromise are absent from this crisis.

These are Diamond’s 12 factors for national crises:
  1. National consensus that one’s nation is in crisis
  2. Acceptance of national responsibility to do something
  3. Building fence, to delineate the national problems needing to be solved
  4. Getting material and financial help from other nations
  5. Using other nations as models of how to solve the problems
  6. National identity
  7. Honest national self-appraisal
  8. Historical experience of previous national crises
  9. Dealing with national failure
  10. Situation-specific national flexibility
  11. National core values
  12. Freedom from geopolitical constraints

The Chinese word weiji means crisis. It component characters are wei for danger and ji for opportunity. As in many clouds have silver linings. The example he gives first is Finland’s stunningly rapid industrialization when faced with $300M in war reparations after negotiating peace with the invading Soviet Union. Finland only had four million people at the time.

Things get dicier at the global level. Looking forward to potential crises like nuclear winter and climate change, Diamond’s model shows the nations of the world, and in particular the USA, are not set, ready or equipped to make the efforts the model stipulates to come out the other side of the crisis decently.

The structure of the book is standardized: a lot of history, some insight from personal relationships, and how the historical crisis fits the parameters Diamond set out. Mostly, it’s a lot of international history; interesting, and probably new to most readers. By far the best chapter is the epilogue, where he tackles the real issues: do national leaders make a difference in crises, and do nations need a crisis to act, or can they anticipate. The answers are sometimes to all the questions.

Diamond has created an interesting matrix for future study, but its application to the real world remains a question mark. It was a good exercise, but of indeterminate value.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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