«Nations or individuals: out of crisis, strength». A talk with Jared Diamond
Giancarlo Bosetti 28 October 2019

Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change by Jared Diamond, is now being published 22 years after his most famous book, Guns, Germs and Steel. That book was a physiologist’s answer to “a question posed by Yali”, a New Guinean politician, who asked why wealth flourished in the West and not in his own country. Or, put another way, why did Cortès conquer the Aztec empire with just a few soldiers against tens of thousands, and not vice versa? The elaborate Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years (the sub-title of Diamond’s 1997 masterpiece) was the answer and will continue to reward generations of readers to come. This surprising American author, now 82 years old, who is also a geographer, an anthropologist, an ornithologist and, of course, a historian, has continued to apply his multi-disciplinary method to recent history and politics, addressing the issue of the environment (with Collapse, in 2005). His most recent book examines the fortunes of entire populations, comparing them to the lives of individuals.

Diamond methodically applies the individual-nation parallel – one that Enlightenment philosopher Giambattista Vico would have greatly appreciated – to seven great crises: Finland at war with the USSR, 19th century Japan of the Meiji, Pinochet’s Chile, Indonesia during the Seventies, Germany, and Australia after the War and the United States today.

Crisis is the keyword used for describing the stages of a person’s life and those of a nation. These stages may be long or speedy, provoked by external or internal events, by a natural catastrophe or by devastating man-made events. Crises can induce excruciating suffering but may also contain opportunities. “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” in the words of Nietzsche.  Or, as Churchill said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” These are two citations that Diamond invoked when we spoke to him from his study in Los Angeles.


How did this book come into being?

“It came from two main roots. One is of course, the countries that I’ve lived in. I’m now 82 years old and I’ve lived in and speak the languages of half a dozen countries. I was living in Germany on the day that the Berlin Wall was erected and I visited Finland in the aftermath of the Winter War. I began working in Indonesia in the aftermath of the genocide and was living in Chile a few years before the military coup. The second inspiration was my wife. In 1978 Marie was doing her Ph.D. in clinical psychology and during the year in which we married, she did a year of specialised training in an area of critical psychology called crisis therapy, which began in 1942 with the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston as I described in my book.”

450 people died – fathers, mothers, children, husbands, and brothers.

“What is needed on such occasions is helping out people who are faced with serious and sudden losses, but the same kind of therapy is needed after a breakdown of a relationship such as a marriage, or a health crisis, or the death of a loved one. It’s not the usual years-long analysis. A therapist has to help the patient fast because sometimes there’s a risk of suicide. So, crisis therapy typically lasts for about six weeks. The therapists involved get together to discuss the client and figure out who is making progress and who is at risk. Marie would tell me about it without naming any names. That then made me start thinking about the parallels between those outcome predictors and national crises.”

One of the most interesting case studies you discuss is the Chilean crisis and Pinochet. The inability to reach a settlement in Chile was at the root of the Italian policy of a “Historic Compromise” at the end of the 1970s.

“That inability is also the most frightening thing for us Americans today, something that upset also my UCLA students when we spoke of that in recent years. The case of Chile illustrates what can happen in a country that has been a democracy for nearly 200 years and within the course of a short time can precipitate into the nightmare of its end. That was a case of the extermination of the opposition, because it proved impossible to stop the process involving the radicalisation of the political conflict. Polarization is the greatest problem in the United States today.”

That is a very powerful comparison!

“When the president of a country brings in a foreign nation in order to investigate a rival and a former vice-president, that is something awful. Something you would expect to happen in countries which jail political opponents, not in established democracies such as the US or Italy.”

Why is it that in some cases democratic politics seems incapable of moderating the contrast and stopping the race towards polarization?

“It is happening in the United States and seems to be increasing in Europe. It is not easy to explain. I can only speculate. Having worked for a long time in New Guinea, I know how New Guineans interact with each other in a traditional society without telephones and television, face to face. Most of our interactions with people are not face to face; they take place by phones and text messages. If you don’t see a person, it’s easier to be abusive, so half of my answer is the collapse of personal relationships. The other half of the answer is that it is a shared national identity that allows political opponents to sit down and reach an agreement. In countries with a strong national identity, both conservatives and liberals see themselves as citizens of the same country. In 1965 citizens of Indonesia, which had a very weak national identity, didn’t think of each other as citizens of the same country, so it was much easier for Indonesians to kill other Indonesians.”

You explain in your stories that there are leaders capable of solving the most difficult crises. In the case of the United States, it is expressed through dialogue. Someone asks: “When will the United States be able to take its problems seriously?”. And the other answers: “When rich and powerful Americans begin to fear for their physical safety.”

“That’s right. A factor leading one to not seek compromise is the perception that you will be able to prevail and have your away. If that’s the case, then it’s tempting not to compromise, but to try to exterminate the other side. On the other hand, if you realize that you have to compromise because there’s no alternative, then yes, one has to sit down together and deal with the other side.  In 1973 the Chilean Right, including the army, had a realistic expectation that it would be able to exterminate the Chilean Left and so it tried to do so. Similarly, in the years from 1970 to 1973, the Chilean Left at that time included radicals who were arming themselves and were inspired by Fidel Castro in Cuba. And so, the Left was thinking that it too, by force could prevail. So, if one side thinks that it can get its way without compromising, that then is a factor against compromise.”

The first step towards resolving a crisis, consists in acknowledging the problem, just like acknowledging that a marriage doesn’t work or an alcoholic acknowledging his drinking problem. You also talk a lot about Italy, a country that is struggling to acknowledge the evidence of its crisis; debt, aging, low productivity, the inefficiency of the public administration. And does the English crisis that you compare to a long illness also count as such a case? Why do people not want to see it?

“In English, we have the word denial. When there’s a difficult situation, often one’s first inclination is to deny that there is a problem. In order to solve the problem, one has to acknowledge it. And secondly, one has to accept responsibility. Talking about my own country, certainly most Americans a few years ago would not acknowledge that the United States is moving towards a crisis.  In the case of Italy, where I taught for five years at the Luiss University, I think the problems have become chronic and more evident in the last couple of years. So, Italians may be more inclined than we Americans are to acknowledge our crisis. But the second factor is accepting responsibility. That is true both of the United States and in Italy. Our president, instead of accepting responsibility for America’s problems, instead of saying that we are causing our own problems, constantly talks about the bad things that Mexico, China, and Canada are doing to us. That’s denying American responsibility for solving our problems. There’s a similar tendency among many Italians to blame the country’s problems either on those African and Middle Eastern immigrants, of whom there are really very few in Italy compared to other countries, or on the European Union. So, both your country and my country are failing to assume responsibility for solving their problems.”

Another important factor for emerging from national crises consists of the strength of a country’s founding values. Here Europe has a strong point in having reinforced a lasting peace with the principles of political and personal liberty and respect for human rights. Yet the opposing forces are very strong.

“That may be helpful in overcoming the crisis. There is a great deal that Europe and all the countries belonging to the Union can be proud of. Western Europe has the technologically and educationally most advanced societies in the world. But one doesn’t hear much discussion in Europe of the good things, the things that Europe can be proud of and the things that hold the European Union together. There are lots of complaints about the European Union and even some wishing to distance themselves from it. So I think that the European Union, for all the complaints about it, is wonderful, it is almost unique. Here are a batch of countries that 70 years ago set world records for killing each other and instead of waiting for another crisis, instead of waiting for World War Three, already in the 1950s were one of the rare examples of countries acting in advance of a crisis. In the 1950s, Italian, French, and German political leaders set out the premises for the future Union.  I hope that now they are working on strengthening it, rather than weakening it. I believe that what is happening in Great Britain is tragic.”

You speak of Great Britain as a country that is suffering from a long disease, a country that has not rediscovered the power of its own ego following the loss of imperial power and the changes that came after the war.

“Britain is a prime example of denial of responsibility. I mentioned that in the United States our president is blaming Mexico, China, and Canada for the country’s problems, just as Britain is blaming immigrants and the European Union for its problems. The other half of what is leading to Brexit is that the British are forgetting what they have to be proud of. The British people who were alive in 1940 and who remember the Battle of Britain, when Britain stood alone against Hitler, belong to a generation that is dying and we get young British people today who don’t know anything. That means losing a source of national pride and identity in Britain. The same thing is happening in Finland.  Talking to a journalist there when my book was published, I discovered that young Finns are now talking about war and military action against the USSR as bad things. The generations born after 1945 are like those young Finns who are unaware that they are living in a democracy only because their fathers, their parents and grandparents fought and lost their lives to defend Finland’s freedom.”

Another key factor for solving personal and national crises is flexibility, a virtue of the young. Europe has a significant problem here with an aging and falling population compared to an expanding Africa, which is moving towards two and a half billion inhabitants.  

“To be honest, flexibility is a gift that is hard to acquire. Either one is flexible or one is not. If one is not one must at least be honest and recognize what the problem is. There is a lack of honesty in Europe concerning the immigration problem. Europe is torn between two opposing forces. On the one hand, there is the noble ideal of welcoming people as refugees, with roots in memories of World War II and the millions killed because other countries would not accept them as refugees. On the other, there is the harsh reality of about one and a half billion Africans and the reality is that the great majority of Africans would be better off if they were in Europe, but that would be absolutely impossible to achieve. Similarly, there are hundreds of millions of people living under terrible circumstances and would like to come to Europe from the Middle East and Asia. But the truth is that Europe cannot welcome hundreds of millions of migrants. How can one reconcile the noble moral impulse and reality? That is very difficult, but it seems that debates on immigration in Europe today are substantially lacking in honesty.”

The “power of the ego” is decisive in individuals faced with the most difficult trials. This also applies to nations and perhaps one could call that “national identity”.

“That is Italy’s weak point and depends on the history of the Risorgimento and the manner in which Italy came into being. National identity is strong when there are recent historical events the country can be proud of. Italy does not have any like Finland or England. Italians certainly have great things that unite them in their more distant history; the Roman Empire, the Renaissance. And they are proud of their football glory, their cuisine, their style and design, but they have a weakness here. There is a strong division between the north and the south. I did not use Italy as one of my case studies because the Italian crisis has not yet really made itself totally manifest. Events change the scenario very quickly.”

You have said that the American situation is clearer and the crisis more serious. You have mentioned the case involving two of your friends who, in spite of having a chance to win a seat in the Senate, abandoned politics because they were disgusted by the violent radicalisation of the clashes.

“American political life has gotten so unpleasant that good people, people who could be good leaders, good presidents, don’t want to enter American politics. That is why we don’t have an appealing Democratic candidate for president today. There were problems with Joe Biden, problems with Bernie Sanders, problems with Elizabeth Warren. In order to win, one needs people like Bill Clinton or Roosevelt. Talented people are not showing up, and you have a similar problem in Italy.”

Your criticism of the state of affairs finds objections amongst the modernists who believe that we live in the best of worlds ever; great global data speaks to us of poverty reduction, health improvement and longer life expectancy, growth in literacy and in general in human development. So, should one believe that those such as Steven Pinker in his Enlightenment Now are correct to see Enlightenment at its peak strength? 

“Of course I am very familiar with Steve Pinker’s ideas and he is a friend. Steve is absolutely correct that many things in the world are much better than they have been at any time in world history. There is less famine now, less war, better control of disease than at any time. That’s good news. But in thinking about the future, the question is not whether it’s better now than it was in the past. The question is what is it going to be like 30 years from now? There are important things going on in the world, which, if they continue, are going to ruin the world within the next 30 years. I am thinking of the nuclear risk, climate change, unsustainable use of resources and inequality around the world.

The comparison that I would draw for someone taking the view that the world is better now than it ever was, would be that I would compare the world now to someone whose bank account has been growing, someone who has been getting more and more money in the bank, but who has stopped earning money and is continuing to spend money. That person is going to run out of money. If the person responds by saying “I have more money than I ever had in my life”, that’s very nice, but the trend now is that you’re going to be out of money. So, stop being happy about how rich you are now and start worrying about the fact that you could be bankrupt in the next 30 years. We are living at an unsustainable rate and if we don’t fix it, we will go over the cliff.”

With regard to the subject in the final part of your book, when you speak of two horses in a race, one of destruction and one of hope, which seems the most powerful to you?

“It will depend on decisions that must be made now. We shall see, for example, what happens in the 2020 American elections. Should Trump win it would be a very bad sign for the good horse.”



A shorter Italian version of this interview was published on La Repubblica last October 16th

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