May 21, 2019

Can you psychoanalyse a nation? The question sounds preposterous — but only, perhaps, because it hasn’t yet been addressed by a brain the size of Jared Diamond’s.

If we analysed historical moments in Japan, Germany, and other countries through the lens of ‘crisis therapy’ of the kind offered to individuals, we might get a better idea of how countries can respond to challenging events in future, and so draw up a kind of geopolitical playbook or 12-step program for leaders around the world.

So, at least, runs the programme of Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change, in which Diamond, having become famous for applying geography and ecology to the history of human civilisation in his bestselling books Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, now turns for a framing discipline to therapy. When an individual is in a personal crisis, he explains, there are a dozen factors (yes, 12 steps) that predict how successful he or she will be at emerging from it, the first being “acknowledgment that one is in crisis”, and other being things such as “individual core values”, “ego strength”, “flexibility”, and so forth. 

The way in which Diamond translates these into qualities of nations near the start of the book is already telling. Britain refused to negotiate with Hitler in 1940, he says, because of a “core value” which was “We shall never surrender”. It’s not clear why this is defined as a core value rather than as an example of splendid obstinacy, except that his scheme requires “flexibility” always to be a virtue, and this is an example where flexibility would have been bad.

So far, then, an arbitrary framework filled with vague bromides has been imposed upon international politics. The next stage of the book is to examine some historical moments in detail and then read off some vague bromides from them in order to validate the imposed framework.

So Diamond proceeds to do. Happily for the reader, the series of historical stories that follow are brilliantly told and may be read with pleasure and profit regardless of the uses to which they are put. Diamond narrates Finland’s war with the Soviet Union and its subsequent clever accommodation with it; the modernisation of Japan after the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century; how Chile recovered democratic norms after the Pinochet dictatorship; the troubled birth of Indonesian independence and nation-building; the rebuilding of post-war Germany; and Australia’s post-war abandonment of its “white Australia” immigration policy.

All these discussions are masterpieces of narrative synthesis; at the end of each, however, we are told how the stories “illustrate” aspects of the therapeutic scheme, which rarely adds much. In particular, some of Diamond’s keys to successful crisis management are so vague as to fit every possible case. It’s very important, he stresses, that a nation be able to make “selective change”, but no government in history, even Stalin’s or Pol Pot’s, has ever changed absolutely everything about a nation’s culture as well as foreign policy: all possible change is necessarily selective.

Diamond is not a writer burdened by excessive modesty. He reminisces here about how he “became a very successful physiologist”, and remarks fondly that “I’ve learned to recognise important scientific questions that can be addressed with simple technologies”. He has allowed his author’s biography to describe him as “a noted polymath”, and his introduction explains that “this is a book expected to remain in print for many decades”. That is by way of warning the reader that there will be nothing in his book about Trump and Brexit, for he will soar above the merely topical. And yet the last two-fifths of the book is devoted to forecasting the future for (some of) the nations under his microscope, beginning with what he views as their problems today. 

So, for example, he argues that Japan has an ageing population and not enough immigration, but one can be cautiously optimistic because of its “history of success in resolving crises”. Of course, the Japanese people of the 21st century are not the Japanese people of the 19th, and so a pedant might argue that this history counts for much less on a national scale than it does on the personal scale of a patient in therapy, but never mind that now.

The United States, meanwhile, has excellent geography and good immigration but an “accelerating deterioration of political compromise”, a gerrymandered voting system, underfunded public education, and a wildly expensive and inefficient healthcare system. Plus, wouldn’t you know, people use their phones too much.

“Most Americans no longer experience one another as live humans whose faces and body movements we see, whose voices we hear, and whom we get to understand,” Diamond laments, which is surely important if true. There follows a section confidently asking “What Lies Ahead for the World?”, which discusses global warming, water, war, and so forth.

As the quantum physicist Niels Bohr said, prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future. When Diamond turns pundit, he is as erratic (as well as grumpy) as any other non-expert, and there are some highly eccentric claims on display here: that, for instance, the US and Russia are now closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Whatever you think of Putin and Trump’s relationship now, it is well documented that the countries came much closer to a nuclear exchange in the 1980s.) In the mean time, on the global rise in nationalism Diamond has nothing to say, as he is constrained by his own framework to treat “national identity” as an uncomplicated good that should be built up when lacking.

Perhaps most naively, Diamond at the end expresses the hope that his concepts such as “successful crisis resolution” and “honest self-appraisal”, in what he grandly calls the “data-set” of his examples, can one day be translated into numerical measures for objective data-driven analysis. We can be certain that they won’t be, because the noticeable void in Diamond’s analysis is politics itself. And this is a problem because politics is precisely how the differences between individuals and nation states are managed.

Much as liberal readers may agree heartily with his analysis of the US, for instance, as endangered by inequality of wealth, conservatives would take the opposite view. In general, different people will always disagree on what kind of national self-appraisal counts as an honest one, just as they will disagree on which other nations and periods to use as models, or what counts as the proper amount of flexibility. And as long as people can’t agree on such things, they can’t be magically turned into hard data.

Diamond’s ambition that his scheme can, even so, be “operationalised” is effectively a dream of realising psychohistory, the science at the centre of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series of novels that combines history, sociology, and statistics to enable predictions of the future actions of large numbers of people. This was a fascinating and provocative sci-fi idea in the 1950s; to think it achievable now represents a triumph of hope over experience, of the kind an unrealistic patient in therapy might be gently advised to reconsider.

Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change, by Jared Diamond, Allen Lane, £25

Sign up to UnHerd's new weekly email, in which Will Lloyd selects the best (and occasionally worst) writing from around the web.

Free, every Friday morning.