Jared Diamond is phoning it in. The legendary author of Guns, Germs, and Steel—the epic 1997 account of how Earth’s geography helped to determine the fates of the peoples who inhabit it—has produced a genuine mess of a book.
The shtick of his new tome, Upheaval, is to draw a connection between personal crises and national crises. Diamond’s wife is a clinical psychologist trained in crisis therapy, and largely through her he discovered 12 techniques that professionals try to encourage among their patients. Someone facing a crisis should mentally build a wall separating the actual problem from other things in life that are fine, seek help from friends, model one’s response on solutions others have found effective, decide which of one’s values are truly non-negotiable, etc., etc. Diamond adapts these techniques for national use, explores some case studies in which countries faced crises, and effectively grades each country on how well it applied the techniques—the last of which is an unenlightening exercise, rarely providing insights the reader didn’t already pick up from the case study itself. Then, after a few chapters on current crises such as climate change, nuclear war, and . . . political polarization . . . the book mercifully ends.
Those final chapters focused on the current day are the book’s weakest aspect; they are bland except when they antagonize the reader with bold—or downright laughable—assertions backed up with little evidence. Diamond is very confident that another round of urban riots lurks in America’s near future, thanks to inequality; he thinks we are closer to nuclear war than we have been since the Cuban Missile Crisis; he says the United States is failing his criterion of “honest self-appraisal” because there isn’t “widespread agreement that our fundamental problems are polarization, voter turnout and obstacles to voter registration, inequality and declining socio-economic mobility, and declining government investment in education and public goods.” (Not all of these “fundamental problems” are even real!)
The rest of the book is less aggravating but fails to cohere. His sample of countries, as he admits, is not meant to represent the world as a whole, or even to spotlight the biggest national crises that modern nations have dealt with. Instead, it’s just a handful of nations Diamond happens to know well, and some of the “crises” stretch the meaning of the word. It’s interesting, for example, that after World War II Germany and Japan dealt with the legacy of their horrific war crimes in very different ways. But coming to terms with a disturbing national history over a period of several generations isn’t really a crisis.
What’s a reader to do, if not skip Upheaval entirely? The best option is to read the book selectively. Diamond’s first two case studies, that of Meiji Japan and that of Finland after World War II, are fascinating accounts of nations that were abruptly forced to deal with far stronger foes—and that got through it with a careful, if sometimes humiliating, application of realist foreign policy. Both countries did what was in their national interest, and operated on the assumption that other nations would do the same. As Finland’s President Urho Kekkonen once put it, the goal was “to reconcile the existence of our nation with the interests which dominate [our] geopolitical environment.”
On July 8, 1853, everything changed in Japan. The country was more or less isolated, with little foreign influence and little need for trade; it was led by a shogun and divided into feudal domains. But on that day, at the behest of President Millard Fillmore, Commodore Matthew Perry arrived with technologically advanced gunships and an offer one can’t refuse: Japan would open its ports to American use, or it would be attacked with overwhelming force, and the Japanese had until the following year to decide.
Perry’s return voyage arrived in February 1854, and Japan relented, knowing it could not win a war with the United States. It soon ended up opening its ports to the British, Dutch, and Russians, too—and starting in 1858 was forced into “unequal treaties” with these countries that relegated Japan to second-class status. (The most insulting detail was that foreigners on Japanese soil were not bound by Japanese laws, a concession these countries did not grant to Japan in return and did not require of each other.) But after a tumultuous period that included a wave of domestic assassinations, a coup, and a civil war, Japan set about developing itself so that it could stand up to the West.
Japan’s Meiji Restoration, which began with the aforementioned coup in 1868, is a striking illustration of how a country can bend to reality without fully breaking with its traditions. It was a crash course of modernization in which Japan borrowed the elements of other societies best suited for Japanese life: a British-style navy; a German-style army, constitution, and schools; some experimentation with other Western nations’ practices too. Yet other aspects of its culture remained the same: it kept its emperor and its strong religious traditions. And soon enough, Japan was able to build up its military and industrial capabilities, thereby gain better footing in negotiations with the West, and throw off the unequal treaties. No one wants to abandon a way of life under physical threat from abroad, but Japan avoided a war it was bound to lose by giving into demands it lacked the power to resist, and eventually restored its honor.
Finland’s experience is similar but even more harrowing. As World War II approached, Finland was a poor country that only recently had begun to take note of the USSR, with which it shared a long border to its east: a problematic geography, because the Soviets feared an attack by European powers via Finland. When in 1939 Stalin demanded Finnish territory (to push its border further away from Leningrad) and a naval base, the Finns resisted, suspecting the true goal was to take over Finland entirely. At the end of November that year, the USSR attacked.
The Finns held back the Soviets by taking advantage of their knowledge of the geography—hoping that allies would come to help eventually. That didn’t happen. After a renewed Soviet push in 1940, Finland gave in to harsher demands than it had rejected the year before. The following year, though, it was at war with the USSR once again, alongside the Nazis, whom it termed “co-belligerents” rather than “allies.” What followed was a series of victories and defeats that ended with more concessions to the USSR and a campaign in which Finns drove the once-useful Germans back out of their country. All told, the Finns lost 100,000, or about 5 percent of the male population.
The question was how to deal with the post-war reality, and Finland’s solution inspired the derisive term “Finlandization”: It bent over backwards to keep the USSR happy, being keenly aware that (A) it could not win a head-on war against the Soviets to stave off annexation, if it came to that, and (B) it also could not depend on other Western powers to help, if history was any guide. This approach allowed Finland to exist as a liberal democracy right next door to the Evil Empire.
But it involved swallowing a whole lot of pride. By way of a retroactive law, Finland prosecuted the leaders who’d been in charge during the war against the USSR. It paid “reparations” to the Soviets, which in Diamond’s words involved “individual Finns contributing their jewelry and gold wedding rings.” It agreed to import inferior Soviet goods. A Finnish publishing house backed off from its plans to publish The Gulag Archipelago. In 1971, the Finnish government chastised a newspaper for publishing a truth that offended the USSR (that the Soviets had occupied the Baltic Republics in 1939), but in general journalists needed no such chiding because they self-censored any criticism of the country’s eastern neighbor.
It is lost to history, of course, what would have happened had Finland taken a less pliant stance—whether other Western countries would have been more helpful in the context of the Cold War, whether the USSR would have risked military action with nuclear war hanging in the air. What’s undeniable is that Finland avoided a Soviet takeover, maintained its capitalist system, and preserved most of its liberalism as well. American readers will mostly be grateful that immensely powerful countries rarely have to consider such tradeoffs.
Upheaval is a bizarre jumble of anecdotes and ideas that fails to leave readers with a clear message. But at times it manages to tell stories that are worthy of careful reflection.
Robert VerBruggen is a deputy managing editor of National Review.