Jared Diamond: Why Nations Fail or Succeed When Facing a Crisis

The WorldPost interviews Jared Diamond about his new book, Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis.

Nathan Gardels, Nicolas Berggruen

Voters cast ballots during the early voting period on October 18, 2018 in
Atlanta, Georgia. (Jessica McGowan/Getty)

WorldPost editor in chief, Nathan Gardels, and Berggruen Institute chairman, Nicolas Berggruen, recently sat down with author Jared Diamond to discuss his new book, “Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis.”

Nathan Gardels: Why did you write this book at this time about turning points of nations in crisis?

Jared Diamond: I wrote it not because of anything associated with this particular time in history.  All my books have been about subjects gestating for a long time.

When I look back on the last 50-60 years, every country that I’ve lived in and where I speak the language has either been in the aftermath of, or the leadup to, a crisis.

I’ve been interested for a long time in why and how countries have precipitated crises or slowly rippled into them. Additionally, my wife Marie is a clinical psychologist. She and

fellow therapists would often discuss warning signs or indicators of crises in personal lives. Some people were able to deal with and transcend those crises, while others weren’t, even resulting sometimes in suicide. It gradually dawned on me that these experiences could serve as a metaphor when applied to national crises.

Gardels: In assessing how nations manage crisis and successfully negotiate turning points — or don’t, you pass their experience through several filters. Some key filters you use are realistic self- appraisal, selective adoption of best practices from elsewhere, capacity to learn from others while still preserving core values, and flexibility that allows for social and political compromise.

What are some examples of failure and success of the nations you consider?

Diamond: All the cases I discuss in my book are relative successes. I don’t discuss any nation that’s failed to deal with crises. If I had, I would have noted Papua New Guinea, which has not done well since independence. It has failed to establish a national identity, which would enable it to pull its people and resources together into common policies, because of a selfish clash of interests unwilling to compromise with each other. There are thousands of ethnic clans, each pursuing their own interests, and 700 different languages.

By contrast, Indonesia, though a mixed picture, was able to establish a national identity after it became independent in 1949, even across thousands of islands. In large part, that was due to the nationalist struggle for independence against the Dutch, which produced a worldview whose unifying politics were forged in that struggle.

On the successful side, Germany is high on my list. Slowly, and over decades, it came to grips with the legacy of World War II, while at the same time laying the groundwork piece by piece for reunification when the Cold War ended. Germany acknowledged the Holocaust in such a convincing and thorough way, including in its education system, that it left no doubts about all those “never again” pledges. One thinks of Willy Brandt kneeling in humility and penance in 1970 at a monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  By contrast, though Japan has been successful on other counts, it has really failed in this respect.

Though no West German chancellor alone was able to bring about reunification, Willy Brandt’s “Ostpolitik” in the 1970s prepared the way. If he had not opened to the East, Russia and even France and Britain would not have tolerated the reunification later on. Here there is another element in how nations resolve crises: the qualities of leadership at historic junctures.

So, Germany has exhibited both the qualities of realistic self-appraisal of its historic role and national identity given that role, while flexibly adjusting to evolving geopolitical circumstances.

Gardels: Speaking of Japan, there has been a kind of seesaw experience. First, you had the Meiji reforms of the 19th century, which had the quality of a realistic self-appraisal and selective adoption: its leaders understood they had fallen behind the West in industrial modernization, but gradually renovated their system by borrowing from the West, cognizant of the restraints of local resistance from the traditional political order. They didn’t go too far, too fast.

Then within decades, you had the next stage, which was an overbearance and an over-confidence on the part of the military elite after the Russo-Japanese war, in which an Asian nation for the first time bested a European power. That led in turn to overreach, which resulted in the disaster of World War II, total defeat and the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

And then, yet, after the war and the American occupation, you had yet another phase of adaptation based on realistic self-appraisal, making Japan a prosperous member of the advanced nations.

Is there a pattern there?

Diamond: Well, yes, in the sense of recurrent crises. The fact that Japan succeeded so well in the Meiji era didn’t guarantee that it would succeed or fail later on in the period between the wars. And the jury is still out on how Japan will fare in the years ahead.

There are some major areas where Japan has been dragging its feet. As I mentioned, the Japanese are the opposite of Germany with respect to not achieving a meaningful reconciliation with Korea and China. The remaining hostility seems to me really dangerous going forward. As a result, Japan remains relatively unarmed facing heavily armed countries in its neighborhood which have good reason to loathe Japan.

Japan has also never really come to terms with the role of women in modern society. Then there is Japan’s policy of immigration or, rather, of non-immigration. It’s perfectly okay for any country to decide whether it wants to take in immigrants. There are pros and cons. But in their shrinking nation, who will provide childcare so women can reenter the workforce, or elderly care in a society where people live longer on average than almost anywhere else at 84 years?

Then, of course, there are the large fiscal issues of how to pay for pensions when the active workforce is shrinking. I’d say Japan is at yet another turning point.

Gardels: At one point in your book, you raise the generational factor in change, noting that a succeeding generation may either complete or reverse the changes of the previous generation.

Diamond: Yes and no. The pattern is not always consistent. Let’s look at the case of of Germany where there were four intervals of generational change.

Otto von Bismarck, the conservative Prussian statesman who came to be known as the “Iron Chancellor,” learned from the Revolution of 1848 that Germany, then a confederation of small states, was not going to become unified as one nation unless it became a military power. He made this clear in his “iron and blood” speech in 1862. Germany’s consequent rise as an economic and military power in Europe led to wars with the other powers, France and Austria, and finally to the World War I.

It took a generation for Hitler and the Nazis to attempt to reverse the defeat of World War I. Then after the end of World War II, it took the post-war generation of students born after 1945 who revolted against their parents — like Joschka Fischer, a radical student leader in the 1960s who became foreign minister in 1998 — to come to power. So, Germany is the clearest example of the effect of a generational change.

Yet, I don’t think one can generalize about some cause and effect of successful and then failing generations. In the case of Japan, you’re correct that, after their victory in the Russo- Japanese War, the Japanese learned the wrong lesson. But there is the opposite case: after being defeated in Vietnam, the U.S. nonetheless didn’t learn the lessons and went on to invade Iraq and suffer many of the same consequences.

Gardels: The Japanese military leaders misread not only how America would react to being attacked at Pearl Harbor but also woefully underestimated the industrial might it could mobilize behind the war effort. You cite one Japanese businessman in your book, who had visited the U.S. in the prewar years and was astonished to learn it had 50 times the capacity for steel production than Japan. He knew then and there that Japan would never prevail.

The essence of realistic self-appraisal is to know others and how, as a nation, you fit into the balance of power that exists. How did Japan’s leaders miss this before the war?

Diamond: Realistic self-appraisal was lacking for a particular reason, namely, in the Meiji Era, the reformist leaders had all been to the West after the opening of 1853. One of the first things that Meiji Japan did was to send out an observer team that spent a year and a half going around the West and studying best practices. They made a conscious effort to learn from the West. In the 1930s, many of those in the Japanese military who took control had not spent much time in the West. Yamamoto, who had been the naval attache to Washington and knew better than to risk challenging America’s industrial capacity that dwarfed Japan’s, warned, to no avail, against the consequences of the Pearl Harbor attack. Nonetheless, he designed and carried out the attack as instructed.

What matters is whether those in charge in the governing class share a worldview based on knowing the world, not just part of it that fits with their inclination.

Gardels: Clearly, the Japanese militarists, with little understanding of the U.S. mindset or the depth of its industrial bench, misread the challenge they were inviting.

A parallel strikes me today. While Deng Xiaoping followed the notion of “bide your time and hide your strength” as China developed, Xi Jinping has discarded any such restraint and boasted that the Middle Kingdom had returned to the center of the world stage and would even overtake the U.S. in technological supremacy. This proved too much for the Washington foreign policy establishment, no less Trump and his team who are fighting back with a trade war.

Xi’s problem is that he seems to have moved too soon — China’s tech advances still heavily depend on the West for semiconductor chips. This seems a costly misapprehension not unlike the Japanese militarists vis-à-vis American steel production capacity before World War II.

Diamond: What was true of the Japanese militarists and may be true of Xi as you suggest, also applies to the U.S. today — people’s mindset, the narrative they choose to believe, often overrides their perception of reality and the facts in front of their faces. This is likely true of the virtual paranoia many Americans feel today about China and the prospect of an Asian Century in which it dominates.

China’s disadvantage, however, is that, having never been a democracy, it is much harder to challenge any misperception of reality. Whatever its faults, in democracies you can debate big ideas and alternative scenarios. There is no experience of the body politic as a whole debating big ideas in China. What springs from the top rules.

In the millennia since state government was first established in the Fertile Crescent, the record certainly shows that dictatorships can do things faster. Yet no one has yet figured out how to ensure that the faster decisions of dictatorships are good ones. China seems a good illustration of the problem.

Democracies also make bad decisions, of course. But they can more easily correct them — or at least we have been able to do so in the past because of the checks and balances of our governing institutions.

Gardels: Yet, as you point out in the book, democracies can, and have, unraveled virtually overnight. The most chilling example is Chile, Latin America’s longest-standing democracy, where in only the matter of a few years, polarization led to social breakdown and a brutal military coup that lasted 17 years.

Diamond: That’s true.  I saw it all unravel quickly between the time I lived in Chile in 1967 and the coup on September 11, 1973. But polarization had been building up for quite a long time before those years. In 1967, tension was already in the air. Eduardo Frei, the president at the time who was respected then and respected also in retrospect, was too conservative for the radicals and too radical for the conservatives. Salvador Allende came into power by the small margin of 36 percent of the vote versus 35 percent of his closest challenger, followed by 28 percent of the next candidate. Though he had only a bit more than one third of the vote, he made the big mistake of trying to lead Chile in a direction most Chileans rejected.

Allende was perhaps deluded in what he could accomplish by his popularity as Minister for Public Health and his early success when he was elected in 1970, getting the Chilean parliament to vote in major measures such as nationalization of the copper mines within a few months of his coming into office. So that’s part of it. The other part is that Allende’s supporters themselves were polarized —  shadows of the United States today, not just Republicans versus Democrats but splits within the parties. He felt he had to satisfy the radical wing of his party, even though he should have known better that this was not going to fly with the Chilean military.

Gardels: But the lesson for the U.S. these days, or for any of the democracies that are so divided, is that peril beckons when the spirit of compromise evaporates. Compromise and the ability to arrive at a governing consensus fails when the civic discourse is degraded and there’s no trust in impartial institutions. The whole thing can collapse.

Diamond: I see the possibility of that in the U.S. today. It is a process of erosion that at some moment reaches a point of no return. If democracy ends in the U.S., it’s not going to be the way it ended in Chile with a military coup. It will end through a slow erosion, a continuation of trends we see now of restrictions on the ability of people to register to vote, on low voter turnout, on the executive interference with the judiciary and struggles between the executive and the Congress. I don’t take it for granted that democracy in the United States is going to overcome all obstacles. I see a serious risk.

Yes, things have accelerated since the election of Donald Trump, but the decline of compromise in the United States has been happening from some time, dating back to when Newt Gingrich was the Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1995-1999. He explicitly embarked on a policy of “no, no, no” in his relationship with the Clinton administration. Gingrich, of course, was only one person. He was leveraging and amplifying what had become sharp divisions in the political culture.

So we must ask, why the breakdown? My best analysis all these years later is that we had then

already entered a period of sharp decline in face-to-face communication in the United States more than in any other country and before any other country. This was a result in my estimate both of the culture of mobility — people moving more than anywhere else far from their original communities, often to the other end of this large country — and growing inequality resulting from de-industrialization in the Rust Belt and the rise of the global economy that had the impact of segregating communities and parts of the country along class and educational lines.

Gardels: I would add that, today, you have two elements reinforcing each other: the demise of socializing institutions and the rise of polarizing ones. For example, we don’t have a military draft anymore, or nearly universal attendance in public schools, where once all ethnicities, races and classes were thrown together in face-to-face interaction. At the same time, the mainstream media plays to cultural niches in highly competitive markets while the big social media conglomerates promote virality among the like-minded as their business model.

Diamond: I agree. There are things that were worse in Chile, and there are things today worse in the U.S. In Chile, the army had a history of, from time to time, intervening in politics. So there was a precedent, though not at the scale and scope of what General Pinochet did in 1973. The army in the U.S. has never intervened, so that’s something in our favor.

But in the United States, we have a long-standing low level of social capital and trust compared to other countries, partly because of our geographic distances. As I mentioned, when Americans move, they move 3,000 miles away, from coast to coast. When Germans move, you move the short distance from Hannover to Berlin. You can still take the train for the day and see your friends in Hannover.

An example: At my 65th high school reunion this year, there’s not a single member of my class of 23, who lives within 600 miles of me. Most are scattered all over the country. That’s pretty typical of the U.S. We move often, and we move long distances. Whereas Germans and Italians move less often, and the countries are small so they go shorter distances.

I stress this because spatial mobility in America is so common we take it for granted and don’t grasp its social consequences. Now they are coming to bear.

Gardels: In the last presidential election, analyses show that one indicator of sympathy with Trump’s populist agenda was how far voters moved from their birthplace. In the upper mid-Western states, there was a clear correlation between Trump voters and those who hewed to home. The British journalist David Goodhart discovered the same correlation in the Brexit vote between the “anywheres” — mobile elites — and the “somewhere,” who remained local. The mobile folks voted to remain in the European Union, while the local voted to exit.

Diamond: This is not at all surprising. And it is worsening since the “anywheres” and the “somewheres” have very little crossover in their daily life experience.

Gardels: To return to the Chilean case, do you see an analogy between Allende pressing ahead with a more radical agenda that much of society doesn’t support and Trump’s radical policies, for example on the environment, immigration and international relations? After all, he lost the popular vote and won by only a few tens of thousands of votes in the key upper Midwestern states.

Diamond: I’d say Allende was more unrealistic than Trump, especially as a small country taking on the U.S., large multinational companies and stoking the fears of the conservative military establishment. Trump has a better chance of getting his policies across then Allende.

Nicolas Berggruen: What’s the remedy for what ails American politics today?

Diamond: Not to be too simplistic, but let’s go to basics. The remedy I see is getting more people to register to vote, and then vote. Why do we make it so difficult? I believe that in Italy, if you make yourself known to the state by, say, getting a driver’s license or paying taxes, you get a letter from the Italian government telling you where to vote in the next election.

Yet, in the U.S. today, the majority of those who are actually registering to vote don’t do so, except in presidential elections. Even so, the highest turnout we had in any presidential election was when about 61 percent turned out in the 2008 election. By contrast, when Indonesia resumed democracy in 1999, the first turnout they had was 93 percent. In Italy, the turnout fluctuates between 85 and 93 percent. Here in Los Angeles, voter turnout for the mayoral election, which is one of the most important positions in the United States, was a mere 20 percent of those registered! So, if Americans complain about their government, it’s largely their own fault because most of us can’t be bothered to vote.

We have learned, both in Trump’s election and in the standoff between Gore and Bush in 2000 that voting matters. The city, state and country can turn one way or another depending on a few votes one way or the other.

Gardels: Let’s move on to the planetary crisis of climate change. You note in your book that the ability to properly assess realities and take effective action is most successful for those individuals and nations who have a precedent for coping with a crisis. “We were challenged in the past and surmounted the challenge, so we can again,” goes the logic.

There have been empires, superpowers and multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations and the G20, that faced international challenges. But on the planetary scale, there is no precedent for all nations and societies facing a common crisis and overcoming it. What resources or experience can we draw on in this present challenge to civilization as a whole?

Diamond: When I discussed this issue in the first version of the book, I was pessimistic because I said that there is no precedent; the world has never faced and dealt with a challenge of the scope of climate change. However, I revised my thinking by the time I finished the book.

In fact, the world has a track record over the last 40 years of having solved really difficult problems in diffuse and unflashy ways — for example, eradicating small pox. To eradicate the threat of small pox contagion, you had to eradicate it in every country in the far reaches of the world, including Somalia, where the last cases appeared.

Then there was the agreement about defining economic zones in shallow waters. So many countries in the world have overlapping zones to which they claim sovereignty. Nevertheless, though it took quite a while, agreement was reached by international treaty. All nations also joined an agreement to eliminate chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, from the atmosphere to reduce damage to the ozone layer. Mining the seabed is another case where international agreement was reached, even by landlocked countries. It took 20 years to reach a frame, but the framework was reached as part of the same framework that reached agreement on the partitioning economic zones in shallow seas. The legal framework came into place in the 1990s, and now with legal framework plus the technical frame, mining the seabed by common rules is on its way.

Take a case of less scope. It turns out that birds are a major cause of plane crashes in both Israel and Lebanon, which lie on the East Mediterranean flyway, where in the fall, big birds from Europe fly through to Africa. In the spring, they fly back. It took years to do it, but eventually Israeli and Lebanese birdwatchers reached an agreement where they would not discuss politics but just call each other up to report on the state of the migrations. The Israeli birdwatchers would call up their Lebanese colleagues and say, “We have a flock of 72 pelicans coming your way,” and then in the fall, the Lebanese birdwatchers would call up the Israelis and say, “We have a whole batch of cranes coming your way.” That’s an example of how countries that continue to be hostile on other grounds have nevertheless reached a well-defined agreement.

Still, in the end, what has enabled nations to face and surmount crisis is a sense of common identity that can mobilize allegiance to a course of action. Today, especially given the revival of nationalism, there is no such solid global identity. That is the chief challenge in battling climate change.

Gardels: Do countries ever achieve breakthrough before breakdown, or does it take a crisis to prompt action and forge a common front to face challenges?

Diamond: As in our own personal lives, such as a failed marriage, there is nothing like crisis to rivet attention. “I’m getting a divorce,” is certainly more of a prompt to try to fix things than chronic unhappiness over time.

Countries, too, most often react in response to crises. But there are some cases of nations acting to forestall crises before they materialize. I would argue that the whole idea of the European Union is such a case. From the early days of the Coal and Steel Community in the 1950s to the present-day integration of 28 states, the aim has been to prevent the kind of wars that devastated the continent twice in the 20th century. I cite one statesman who pithily put the European Union’s driving logic this way: “We want a gun whose barrel is made in Belgium, whose stock is made in France, whose cartridges are made in Germany, whose trigger is made in Italy, so it would be impossible for us to make war again.”

Gardels: Another one of the filters you use to look at how nations navigate turning points is flexibility. We often don’t think of consumer society itself as a rigidity, but in the case of climate change, it can be considered as such. In consumer democracies, the public wants immediate gratification. Convenience overcomes any sense of urgency about something that may happen far off in the future. Climate change is experienced as a kind of rumor instead of a pressing reality. So it is very difficult to wean society off of the habits that fuel global warming.

Diamond: That is a valid point and points to why this question of flexibility is the most difficult to pin down with respect to the behavior of nations. Naively, I used to think of Japan as rigid. Like in Germany, at the personal level, people can be quite conservative and narrow in their habits, yet the whole society has adapted in the post-war world, for example, to a peaceful disposition instead of an aggressive one.

Gardels: Kato Shuichi, the chronicler of the history of Japanese literature, argued that Japanese think in concrete contextual terms rather than organize reality around abstract concepts. Even the meaning of words in the language depend on the context in which they are spoken.

Thus, the Japanese are not ideologically rigid but practical when facing challenges.

Diamond: Though as a consumer society there may be the rigidity of the short-term focus you mention, we also regularly alternate political parties, even shifting to opposite poles as was the case with Obama and then Trump.

American civil society is very flexible — over time. Think of how vastly attitudes toward race, the role of women and same-sex marriage have shifted in recent decades. It’s a huge transformation from the 1950s.

Gardels: How would you describe the key methodology in all your works?

Diamond: I’m not a typical historian and did not train as one. My approach is to always look for and distinguish between approximate and ultimate causes. My book “Guns, Germs and Steel” went through three steps. The proximate cause of the kind of world we live in today was the world of 1492. If anyone could have visited the world of 1492, it would have been clear that Europe would end up as top dog. Where did the world of 1492 come from? It came from the big lead of the Fertile Crescent already in 3500 B.C. Where did that world come from? It came from the birth of agriculture. So the proximate derives from the ultimate cause.

The first formulation of this I know was when Thucydides wrote about the Peloponnesian War. There is a wonderful, very brief passage. The proximate cause of the war, he notes, was when Athens and Sparta were drawn into conflict in defense of relatively marginal allies. But the ultimate cause of the war, the real cause, was the fear the rising power of Athens inspired in Sparta.

To assess the large movements in world history, we have to keep our eye on the ball of the ultimate causes.

Berggruen: What about the fundamental cultural attributes that contribute to a failed or successful nation? I’m thinking of how the Confucian-influenced societies of East Asia — Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, China — all have risen from underdevelopment to prosperity over recent decades. Yet many nations in Africa or Latin America seem to have stalled.

Diamond: This is a valid point, though mainstream anthropology disdains any talk of “sick societies,” only those with different cultural roots and practices.

Confucian cultures have a low level of individualism and higher level of community compared to others. There’s an interesting argument that attributes this to the development of rice agriculture, a form of economic activity that requires cooperation and collective effort, in contrast to wheat agriculture that needs only individual farmers.

As a geographer, I have other thoughts on North America and Latin America. In my undergraduate geography course, I have one session on North America and then a session on South America in which I discuss why North America is more successful economically. There are several factors involved.

One factor is that temperate zones in general are economically more successful than the tropics because of the higher productivity and soil fertility of temperate agriculture, which in turn relates to the public health burden. All of North America is a temperate zone. South America only has a small temperate zone. It’s in the far south in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. Those are the richest countries in Latin America. The richest part of Brazil also lays in the temperate zone.

The second factor is a historical one related to the sailing distance from Europe to the Americas. The sailing distance was shorter from Britain to North America. It was longer from Spain to Argentina and still longer from Spain around the horn to Peru. A shorter sailing distance meant that the ideas and technology of the Industrial Revolution spread much more quickly from Britain, where it originated, to North America than from Spain to Latin America.

Still another factor is the legacy of Spanish government versus the legacy of British government. One could argue why democracy developed in Britain rather than in Spain, but the fact is that democracy did develop in Britain rather than Spain, and so North America inherited British government and British democracy while Latin America inherited Spanish centralist government and absolutist politics.

Then still another factor is that independence for the United States was a more radical break than it was in South America. After the Revolutionary War, all the Royalists in the U.S. either fled or were killed. So there was a relatively clean break with Great Britain. Canada did not have that break, and the break in Latin America was much less abrupt and came later.

Gardels: Octavio Paz, the Mexican Nobel laureate poet, always added the cultural element when he spoke about “the border of time” between North and South. The United States was a child of the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment, he often said, while Latin America was the child of the Counter-Reformation. This imprinted a distinctive mentality on each culture, one with a mind open to the future and less enamored by authority, the other closed and traditional.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

composed by Arswain
machine learning consultation by Anna Tskhovrebov
commissioned by the Berggruen Institute
premiered at the Bradbury Building
downtown Los Angeles
april 22, 2022

Human perception of what sounds “beautiful” is necessarily biased and exclusive. If we are to truly expand our hearing apparatus, and thus our notion of beauty, we must not only shed preconceived sonic associations but also invite creative participation from beings non-human and non-living. We must also begin to cede creative control away from ourselves and toward such beings by encouraging them to exercise their own standards of beauty and collaborate with each other.

Movement I: Alarm Call
‘Alarm Call’ is a long-form composition and sound collage that juxtaposes, combines, and manipulates alarm calls from various human, non-human, and non-living beings. Evolutionary biologists understand the alarm call to be an altruistic behavior between species, who, by warning others of danger, place themselves by instinct in a broader system of belonging. The piece poses the question: how might we hear better to broaden and enhance our sense of belonging in the universe? Might we behave more altruistically if we better heed the calls of – and call out to – non-human beings?

Using granular synthesis, biofeedback, and algorithmic modulation, I fold the human alarm call – the siren – into non-human alarm calls, generating novel “inter-being” sonic collaborations with increasing sophistication and complexity. 

Movement II: A.I.-Truism
A synthesizer piece co-written with an AI in the style of Vangelis’s Blade Runner score, to pay homage to the space of the Bradbury Building.

Movement III: Alarmism
A machine learning model “learns” A.I.Truism and recreates Alarm Call, generating an original fusion of the two.

Movement IV: A.I. Call
A machine learning model “learns” Alarm Call and recreates A.I.Truism, generating an original fusion of the two.

RAVE (IRCAM 2021) https://github.com/acids-ircam/RAVE