Jared Diamond: Why Nations Fail Or Succeed When Facing A Crisis

An interview with Jared Diamond about his latest book, “Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis.”

John Karborn for Noema Magazine

The following interview, between Noema Magazine Editor-in-Chief Nathan Gardels and author (previously of “Guns, Germs, and Steel”) Jared Diamond, has been edited for clarity and length.

Nathan Gardels: In assessing how nations manage crises 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, a capacity to learn from others while still preserving core values and flexibility that allows for social and political compromise.

How do you see the way various nations addressed the coronavirus pandemic through this lens?

Jared Diamond: Nations and entities doing well by the criteria of those outcome predictors include Singapore and Taiwan. Doing poorly initially were the government of Italy and now, worst of all, the federal government of the U.S.

Gardels: What is the main lesson from how nations dealt with this pandemic?

Diamond: The main new lesson concerns an extension of national identity, which is important for nations facing a crisis. The current crisis may help us develop a global identity by making it obvious that we are all in the same boat, all people everywhere in the world. We are realizing now that COVID-19 is everyone’s problem — as is climate change, resource depletion, inequality and the risk of nuclear weapons.

Gardels: In the historical frame, what are some examples of nations successfully navigating challenging experiences?

Diamond: Germany is high on my list. Over decades, it came to grips with the legacy of World War II, while at the same time laying the groundwork 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. I remember 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, 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 reunification later on. This is another element in how nations resolve crises: the qualities of leadership at historic junctures.

So Germany has exhibited both the qualities of realistic historical self-appraisal and national identity, while adjusting to evolving geopolitical circumstances.

“The current crisis may help us develop a global identity by making it obvious that we are all in the same boat, all people everywhere in the world.”

Gardels: In 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, an overbearance and an overconfidence on the part of the military elite after the Russo-Japanese War, in which an Asian nation bested a European power for the first time. 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.

But then, 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. The Japanese did the opposite of Germany by not achieving a meaningful reconciliation with Korea and China. The remaining hostility seems dangerous. As a result, Japan remains relatively underequipped compared to heavily armed neighbor countries that have good reason to loathe it.

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 OK for any country to decide whether it wants to take in immigrants. There are pros and cons. But in a shrinking nation, who will provide childcare so women can reenter the workforce, or eldercare in a society where people live longer on average than almost anywhere else? 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 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 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. In this way, Germany is a clear 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. In your book, you cite the story of a Japanese businessman who 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. 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, 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. Isoroku Yamamoto, who had been the naval attaché in Washington and knew better than to risk challenging America’s industrial capacity, which dwarfed Japan’s, warned against the consequences of the Pearl Harbor attack — to no avail. 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 the part of it that fits with their inclination.

“What matters is whether those in charge in the governing class share a worldview based on knowing the world, not just the 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 has 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 Donald Trump and his team, who fought back with a trade war.

Xi’s problem is that he seems to have moved too soon — China’s technology advances still depend heavily on the West, for example with 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. Despite its faults, in a democracy, you can debate big ideas and alternative scenarios. There is no real 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 in 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 to power by a tiny margin — 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 a third of the vote, he made the big mistake 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 president in 1970, getting the Chilean parliament to vote for 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 U.S. 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, and for other divided democracies, 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: restrictions on the ability of people to register to vote, decreasing voter turnout, executive interference with the judiciary, struggles between the executive and the Congress. I don’t take it for granted that democracy in the U.S. is going to overcome all obstacles. I see a serious risk.

Yes, things have accelerated since Trump’s election, but the decline of compromise in the U.S. has been happening for some time, dating back to when Newt Gingrich was the speaker of the House. 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 U.S. — more than in any other country and before any other country. This was a result both of the culture of mobility — people moving far from their original communities, often to the other end of this large country — as well as growing inequality resulting from de-industrialization in the Rust Belt and the rise of the global economy that had the impact of segregating communities along class and educational lines.

John Karborn for Noema Magazine

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 intervening in politics from time to time. So there was a precedent, though not at the scale and scope of what Pinochet did in 1973. The army in the U.S. has never intervened, so that’s something in our favor.

But in the U.S., we have a long-standing low level of social capital and trust compared to other countries, partly because of our geographic distances. Sometimes when Americans move, they move 3,000 miles away, from coast to coast. When Germans move, they move a short distance, like 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, for example, move less often, and their 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 birthplaces. In the upper Midwestern 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 “somewheres,” who remained local. The mobile folks voted to remain in the European Union, while the locals voted to exit.

Diamond: This is not at all surprising. And it is worsening since the anywheres and the somewheres have 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 didn’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 than Allende.

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 smallpox. To eradicate the threat of smallpox 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, an agreement was reached by international treaty.

All nations also joined an agreement to eliminate chlorofluorocarbons 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.

Still, in the end, what has enabled nations to face and surmount a 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.

“What has enabled nations to face and surmount a crisis is a sense of common identity that can mobilize allegiance to a course of action.”

Gardels: 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 rose 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 a 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, which 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 lies 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 U.S. 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 from 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 U.S. 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.