Books interview with Jared Diamond: “With countries, as with people, crises attract attention”

Jared Diamond talks to Matt Elton about his new book, exploring how nations deal with crises – and how we can use lessons from psychotherapy to understand them

Based at UCLA, historian and geographer Jared Diamond has published a number of bestselling books, including 'The Third Chimpanzee' (1991), the Pulitze-winning 'Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies' (1997), 'Collapse' (2005) and 'The World Until Yesterday' (2012). (Photo by Tom M Johnson)

Matt Elton: Why did you decide to use ideas from psychotherapy as a way to understand countries’ historical traumas?

Jared Diamond: My wife, Marie, is a clinical psychologist with a speciality in crisis therapy. As its name suggests, this tackles the effects of a crisis, and the risk that the person will flounder and even take their own life. Marie and her fellow therapists would meet to talk about how clients were doing, who was making progress and what the outcome measures were. It dawned on me that similar measures might also apply to national crises, even if only metaphorically.

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What factors from personal trauma have you applied to the ways countries deal with national trauma?

Anyone who has gone through a personal crisis – everyone, in other words – will be familiar with what makes it more likely you will cope. The first step is to acknowledge that you’re in a crisis, because if you deny it, you’re going to get nowhere towards resolving it. The next step is to acknowledge that you can do something and that you have some responsibility. If you are overcome with self-pity, or see yourself as a victim, you won’t take action.

Other factors that affect whether one gets through a personal crisis include being honest about what’s gone wrong, defining what does and doesn’t need changing, getting help from other people, and referring to how those other people have dealt with similar problems. All of them map on to national crises: only some nations get help, only some nations use other countries as models, and only some nations are honest about their responsibility.

Was it difficult to choose which nations to explore? It can sometimes seem as if there are crises everywhere.

It was not so difficult once I made the decision to write about only nations in which I’ve lived: Australia, Chile, Finland, Germany, Indonesia, Japan and the US. This does mean it’s a skewed sample: most of those countries are first-world democracies, for instance.

Let’s focus on some of those countries. You argue, for instance, that Finland’s national identity was shaped by its 20th-century experiences. What happened, and how do you see the events in these terms?

Finland’s national identity is strong partly because Finnish is such a difficult language. It’s related to Hungarian, but so distantly that there’s no mutual comprehension. As a result, Finns know they are different, and that they have a distinctive history.

This helped when Finland experienced a bloody civil war in 1918. The percentage of its population killed per week during the conflict was among the highest of any modern war, so it was devastating. Yet, when it ended, Finland elected a prime minister drawn from the losing party and all Finns, whichever side they were on, pulled together. The fact that they all spoke Finnish really helped bolster their sense of national identity.

This proved hugely important in unanimously resisting Soviet Union forces when they invaded during the Winter War in 1939. Finland was the only country in Europe attacked by a major power in the Second World War that managed not to be occupied. It came at a horrible cost, with a large fraction of the population killed, orphaned or widowed, but the Finns preserved their independence.

You compare Finland’s external shock with another experienced by Japan in 1853. What was that earlier crisis about?

For Japan, the shock was a US fleet, led by Matthew Perry, sailing into Tokyo Bay with military technology, including guns and steamships, that the Japanese didn’t possess. Perry demanded a trade treaty and, when it didn’t happen, said he would return with a much bigger fleet ready to attack. The Japanese had witnessed China being attacked by the west a decade earlier, so they had a model of what could happen if they made the wrong decision.

Is it right to see Japan’s resulting reforms as a self-conscious programme of change in the face of an external threat?

Absolutely. There was discussion in Japan about what to do, with some people arguing for resisting the west. Yet a couple of cases of the Japanese shelling western ships and the ships killing significant numbers of people quickly proved that such resistance wouldn’t work. As a result, the Japanese consciously recognised that they had to build up their strength, both militarily and through adopting western-style institutions, as quickly as possible.

To what extent do these kinds of decisions come down to national character?

My guess is that it must play a part. Germany, for instance, was able to acknowledge guilt and apologise after the Second World War, and has been strident about making sure that schoolchildren visit concentration camps. Germany is the extreme case of acknowledging this trauma, whereas Japan is at the opposite end of the spectrum. I have Japanese relatives by marriage, and they tell me that Japan’s schools teach very little about the Second World War, on the grounds that it’s just five years in two millennia of Japanese history.

Deciding which aspects of a national identity to change and what to retain during a crisis is also a situation that you explore in relation to Australia. What crisis did that nation face?

For the first decades of the 20th century, Australians viewed themselves as an outpost of Britain: loyal British subjects who happened to be close to Asia. But the nation’s people were shocked by the fact that Britain was not able to defend it during the Second World War.

Two other things changed, too. Australia wanted immigrants, but not enough British people wanted to emigrate, so the country began taking people from elsewhere in Europe. They did not share loyalty to the British Queen and were more receptive to Asian immigrants, of whom the first settlers from Britain had been much less tolerant. Additionally, although a large amount of Australia’s trade had been with Britain, when Britain joined the EEC it had to erect trade barriers with its former colony. This, for Australians, felt like a real betrayal.

So, from the 1960s onwards, the nation weaned itself off its British identity. This crisis was many decades in the making, but it resulted in a sudden, incredibly rapid set of changes when prime minister Gough Whitlam came to power in 1972. He launched sweeping reforms [including withdrawing from the British honours system and increased spending on the nation’s Aborigine population]. It was, Whitlam said, a “recognition of what [had] already happened”. In other words, unlike Japan and Finland, this is an example of a nation tackling a gradual crisis, rather than one that exploded with a bang.

Do you think that Britain is currently struggling with its national identity in comparable terms?

I think that, just as Australia went through a long struggle to rebuild its national identity, Britain is currently battling with that issue. Is it a part of Europe, albeit a distinctive part, or is it separate? An outsider such as myself would say it went through a similar process in the 1950s and 60s, as it watched what was happening to its empire and increasingly recognised that it was, in some way, part of Europe.

The analogues of personal crisis here are that, just because a couple have resolved a marital crisis, it doesn’t mean they will live happily ever after. The same issue may recur, and that’s happened with Britain.

At the time of this conversation, Brexit negotiations are still ongoing. Can this book offer any insight into that process?

British friends tell me there hasn’t been a sufficiently honest discussion of the possible consequences of Brexit – and honesty is one of the factors we can apply from personal trauma. This lack of honesty also extends to the EU in its handling of areas such as immigration policy.

Another lesson is that the breakdown of political compromise has consequences. When I lived in Chile in the 1960s, the idea that the most stable democracy in Latin America would end up in a sadistic dictatorship was unthinkable. That’s an extreme example, though: unlike in the US, where I do see it as a real possibility, I don’t think it’s likely that democracy will come to an end in Britain.

Do you think that nations can genuinely change without a crisis? Or are crises the best way for a country to develop?

With countries, as with people, crises attract attention. There’s a quote attributed to Samuel Johnson: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

So nations do often benefit from recognising a crisis, but there are also cases of countries taking steps proactively to avoid them. The Finnish government has a crisis planning branch, which meets every month to explore what might go wrong with the country. A recent meeting asked what might happen if the electricity grid was knocked out by a cyberattack. That’s not something that has happened, but they have still made plans for how they would react if it did.

So there are cases in which countries take action in advance of a crisis – but the fact remains that, as with people, nothing attracts attention like something massively going wrong.

How can studying national stories such as these help us prepare for potential global crises, such as climate change or pandemics?

At first I was inclined to be pessimistic, because the world doesn’t have a shared identity or shared values, and there aren’t other examples we can refer to for help. We can’t look to the inhabits of Mars for a model of how to resolve our global problems! But the world does have a track record of solving difficult global problems. We have eliminated smallpox and protected the ozone layer, to cite just two examples. That should give us confidence that we can do it again in the future.

So would you say that, the more world history we have to learn from, the better we’ll be at coping with the next set of disasters?

That’s one part of it. More people today read than ever before. When Thucydides wrote The History of the Peloponnesian War in approximately 400 BC, there were perhaps a few hundred copies; when you publish a book today, there could be millions of copies all over the world. So there’s much more opportunity to learn today than in the past. And the fact is that EU countries have not fought each other since 1945, which is grounds for optimism.

Based at UCLA, historian and geographer Jared Diamond has published a number of bestselling books, including The Third Chimpanzee (1991), the Pulitzer-winning Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997), Collapse (2005) and The World Until Yesterday.

Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change (Allen Lane, 512 pages, £25) by Jared Diamond is on sale now.

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This article was first published in the June 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine