Jared Diamond’s “Upheaval” – book review

What better time to read Jared Diamond’s Upheaval? After all, the world is having a crisis of some sort at the moment. Sadly, the book doesn’t lay out a ten-step-plan to get ourselves out of the COVID-19 crisis, as it was published in 2019, a world away from what is actually going on now.


Jared Diamond’s Upheaval is a case study of 7 nations experiencing different crises. Diamond uses the psychological framework of assessing factors that affect the outcome of an individual going through a crisis to assess the responses of nations in crisis. These factors are:

  1. Acknowledgment that one is in crisis
  2. Acceptance of one’s personal responsibility to do something
  3. Building a fence to delineate one’s individual problems needing to be solved
  4. Getting material and emotional help from other individuals and groups
  5. Using other individuals as models of how to solve problems
  6. Ego strength
  7. Honest self-appraisal
  8. Experience of previous personal crises
  9. Patience
  10. Flexible personality
  11. Individual core values
  12. Freedom from personal constraints

Diamond starts by describing the history of Finland in the 20th century by analyzing it according to these criteria. By these standards, so-called Finlandization or the complete subordination of Finland’s policy to the U.S.S.R was a completely rational decision – given the relative sizes of the two countries (Principle 12. Geographical constraints)  and Finland’s loss of Karelia to the U.S.S.R in World War II. However, Diamond also credits the strength of Finnish patriotism and Finland’s initial resistance to the U.S.S.R in 1939 (Principle 6. Strong national identity,  Principle 8 Experience of previous crisis), with the fact that they were not straightforwardly incorporated into the Soviet Union.

As long as Finland was a pain to conquer and easy enough to deal with as an independent country, it was safe from Soviet power machinations.

The choice of Diamond’s countries is not exactly random — they are places he has had the experience of living in or traveling in extensively. Therefore Finland is followed by 19th- century Japan, 20th-century Chile, 20th-century Indonesia, post-WWII Germany, and 20th-century Australia.

I was glad to read about all of those, as my knowledge is limited about each of them. I had some of the detail about post-WWII Germany, but not much else. At times I found myself wondering what an expert historian would think of Diamond’s analysis – it must be quite summary and simplified, I think. But then, he is an expert in unifying theories, so it would be quite strange to expect anything else.

19th-century Japan seems a bit of a haphazard choice among all the other 20th-century representatives, although I see the great temptation of analyzing it since the partial Westernization of Japan is a fascinating case of upheaval – not many countries invent ancient traditions to justify foreign innovations.

Chile and Indonesia are more typical examples of what I would usually think of as upheaval: dramatic military coups ending in dictatorships (Pinochet and Suharto) and an attempt at completely eliminating the opposition. Diamond’s method of analysis provides an interesting angle for comparing the two. Chile’s coup ended in the relatively peaceful reestablishment of democracy – “Chile for all Chileans”. There was not a great reckoning for past crimes, however, museums and memorials for those murdered were established. There is an awareness of what happened to leftwing activists under Pinochet.

By contrast, in Indonesia, the people who gained power in the coup never completely lost it. No-one talks about the murders they committed.

Diamond gives two more examples of historical upheavals. These were peaceful transformations rather than rapid revolutions.

Post-WWII Germany, according to Diamond, benefitted not only from the Marshall Plan but –  thanks to the student revolts of 1968 – from a reckoning and acknowledgment of past Nazi crimes. It is this self-aware approach to politics that enabled Germany to rebuild relationships with its neighbors and become a world economic power.

Australia’s transformation is described as the evolution of its identity – from perceiving itself as primarily a white British island to recognizing its geographical position close to Asia, and slowly breaking off ties with Britain.

Diamond identifies the British troops’ surrender of Singapore to Japan as a moment regarded by Australian’s as abandonment by their mother country. That said, it took till 1972, for the Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to embark on a program of reform. (Coincidence or not, the Sydney Opera house – now often seen as a symbol of Australia was opened in 1973). It was only in 1999 that the UK was declared “a foreign country”. However, the Queen still remains the Australian head of state, and Australia is still a member of the Commonwealth.

The next part of the book focuses on crises currently underway in Japan, the US, and the rest of the world.

The current crisis in Japan contrasts with Diamond’s description of Germany’s response to WWII. Unlike Germany’s penitent approach to Nazi crimes, Japan still continues to deny responsibilities for a number of atrocities committed during the war. This does it no favours with either China or Korea. Other identified problems include huge national debt, an ageing population, overusing natural resources,  and a largely unequal treatment of women.

Diamond doesn’t provide a recipe for solving these problems. Instead, he points to Japan’s strengths: its strong sense of national identity, the experience of previous crisis, and relative geographic isolation and warns of its weakness – a lack of honest self-appraisal.

He takes a similar approach to his own country – the United States, to which he devotes two chapters.

The main problem in the US as Diamond sees it is the polarization of its politics and the willingness of politicians on each side to use radical measures.

“Under our first 43 presidents and for our first 220 years of constitutional government, our Senate opposed only a total of only 68 presidential nominees for government positions by filibusters. But when the Democratic President Obama was elected in 2008, Republican leaders declared their intent to block anything he proposed. Tha included blocking 79 Obama nominees by filibusters in just four years, more than in the entire 220 years. Democrats responded by abolishing the supermajority requirement for approving presidential nominees other than Supreme Court justices, thereby making it possible to fill government jobs but also reducing the safety valve available to a dissatisfied minority.”

Diamond sees various causes for this problem – including the costs for senators’ election campaigns, which make senators beholden to their biggest buyer and less likely to compromise.

He also suggests that because senators no longer live in Washington D.C. and instead fly back to their state at the weekends, they are less likely to know other senators personally — and therefore less likely to compromise.

But political polarization is not the US’s only problem. Diamond points to the US’s lack of social mobility. No-one likes to admit that the American Dream of going through rags to riches is simply a dream with no substance to it. Diamond also suggests that despite massive spending on education and healthcare, the US is lagging behind other countries in these domains.

As for the main crises facing the world, Jared Diamond is emphatic about the threat of climate change, global inequality, and that of a nuclear crisis.

Pandemics do not really play a major role in his analysis – and he thinks that a nuclear crisis more likely to originate from terrorist threats than outright nuclear war – which seems an optimistic perspective given the current political situation. North Korea, China, Russia, Pakistan, India, Iran, and the US all have their own reasons to feel somewhat trigger happy.

However, the framework that Diamond uses does provide a useful perspective for analyzing nations’ responses to the current COVID-19 crisis. Britain’s response to the crisis, with constant references to the Blitz, reminds one of Principle 8″ Experience of previous crises”.

Likewise, the comparison Britain makes between its own COVID-19 response and the responses of other nations, particularly Germany, speaks to Principle 5 “Using other nations as models of how to solve problems.”

At its most bizarre, the UK seems to exhibit a lack of honest self-appraisal – as the world watched the UK’s death toll soar to the highest number in Europe, the British Government was busy telling the nation how pleased they were with their COVID-19 strategy.

If the UK’s lack of self-appraisal can be astonishing at times, the US’s approach to the COVID crisis can be downright myopic. President Trump refuses to acknowledge that he has any responsibility for handling the crisis, repeatedly denying Principle 1 “Acknowledgement that one is in crisis”,  Principle 2 “Acceptance of one’s personal responsibility to do something”, and arguably even  Principle 3. “Building a fence to delineate one’s individual problems needing to be solved”. After all, Trump is doing anything but putting boundaries on the problem. He tried repeatedly to blame it on China and then on Obama. He is treating COVID-19 as part of his election campaign.

I think Diamond intends his book to provide a sort of framework for future analysis. In his conclusion, he writes “we would need operationalized measures of the outcomes and of the postulated factors that I discussed… I put effort into trying to use these data sources to devise operationalized measures for some of my variables, before reluctantly concluding that that would require a large project beyond the scope of this book’s narrative survey. ”

These operationalized measures of the book’s hypotheses would prove a fascinating insight into our current process of crisis analysis. I hope some PhD students are working on them… Without this data, this book remains a thoughtful but slightly speculative comparison of crisis responses between different nations.

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