Are nations really like people?

 Niall Ferguson asks: are countries really like people?

One of the oldest ideas in Western political thought is the analogy between the individual human and the body politic – think only of Abraham Bosse’s justly celebrated frontispiece for Hobbes’s Leviathan. A giant crowned figure towers over the landscape, his torso and arms made up of over 300 men.

Few historians think about states in this way today. But few historians have had even a tenth of the impact on the popular understanding of history that has been achieved by the polymath Jared Diamond, whose Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) has outsold most, if not all, history books published since. If Diamond now ventures to revive the idea that nations are individuals writ large, we should all pay attention.

“Nations undergo national crises, which … may or may not get resolved successfully through national changes”, he writes. “There is a large body of research and anecdotal information, built up by therapists, about the resolution of personal crises. Could the resulting conclusions help us understand the resolution of national crises?” Diamond believes that they can. Here is the final twist to an extraordinarily eclectic academic career, which began with physiology and seems to be concluding with pop psychology: Diamond has reinvented himself once again, this time as shrink to the nations.

“Successful coping with [crises caused by] either external or internal pressures requires selective change”, he explains. “That’s as true of nations as of individuals.” On close inspection, Upheaval turns out to be the self-help answer to Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail (2012). Unlike Acemoglu and Robinson’s book, which rested on a broad foundation of social scientific data (of varying degrees of reliability), Diamond’s book is free of datasets and models. In the great American tradition of self-help books, however, it is rich in anecdotes.

In the United Nations General Assembly today, 193 sovereign nations are represented. But Diamond considers the histories of just seven – Finland, Japan, Chile, Indonesia, Germany, Australia and the United States – all of which he knows well, having lived in six of them and learnt all the relevant languages, save Japanese. As he acknowledges, this sample is “too small for extracting statistically significant conclusions”. His approach is therefore narrative and comparative. The book is not archivally researched, but a work of synthesis based on secondary sources. There is nothing wrong with any of that. It is only when Diamond organizes his material by importing insights from the realm of personal experience – his own divorce, the death of a cousin, a friend’s anxieties about her love life – that the historian winces.

Upheaval has twelve organizing ideas drawn from modern psychotherapy and applied to modern history:

1. The first step to dealing with a crisis is acknowledging that you are in crisis, whether you are an individual or a nation.

2. The next step is acceptance of your personal/national responsibility to do something about the situation.

3. Step three is to “build a fence [not necessarily physical] to delineate one’s individual/national problems needing to be solved”.

4. It may then very well help to get material and emotional help from other individuals/nations.

5. You may benefit from using other individuals/nations as models of how to solve problems.

6. You are more likely to succeed if you have “ego strength”, which for states translates as a sense of national identity.

7. Diamond also recommends for both individuals and states “honest self-appraisal”.

8. It helps if you have experience of previous personal/national crises.

9. It also helps to have patience.

10. Flexibility is a good idea.

11. You will benefit from having “core values”.

12. It also helps to have freedom from personal/geopolitical constraints.

Now, there is much in Upheaval to enjoy, especially the more autobiographical passages which radiate Diamond’s own insatiably curious, enquiring, genial personality. But there is a fundamental, inescapable problem with this book, which is that it runs counter to the obvious reality that nation states are not that much like individual people. It would be much more accurate to say that they, like any large-scale polity, are complex systems. As such, they are not governed by the same broadly Gaussian rules as individual members of our species.

For example, we human beings at adulthood are all roughly the same height. A histogram of human stature is a classic bell curve, with most of us somewhere between 5 and 6 feet tall and nobody shorter than a foot or taller than 10. There are no ant-sized people and no human skyscrapers.

This is not true of nation states, a form of polity that became dominant only relatively recently in history. Two mega-states – China and India – account for 36 per cent of the world’s population. Then come eleven big states, from the US down to the Philippines, each of which have over 100 million people, accounting for just over a quarter of the world’s population. Seventy-five medium-sized states have between 10 and 100 million inhabitants: another third of the world’s population. But then there are seventy-one with between 1 million and 10 million (5 per cent of the humanity), forty-one states with between 100,000 and 999,000 (0.2 per cent) and a further thirty-three states with fewer than 100,000 residents.

Of Diamond’s seven case studies, three (the US, Indonesia and Japan) are in the 100 million category; Germany is just below that threshold (82 million); Australia (24 million) and Chile (18 million) are medium-sized; Finland is small but not tiny (5 million).

Just as the sizes of states are not normally distributed, so too are the crises. The major upheavals – wars, revolutions, financial crises, coups – that historians love to study are technically “tail” events, low-frequency, high-impact events located in the tails of the distributions. Again, these very big crises happen more frequently than if they were normally distributed. The incidence of war, for example, would seem to follow a power law. That said, one should not overstate the disastrousness of history. Most days in the history of most countries are quite dull. Even the cataclysmic wars that affected all of Diamond’s countries left most places unscathed. The great revolutions of history – the English, the American, French, the Russian and the Chinese – did not happen everywhere. Some countries (think Argentina) have had vastly more financial crises than others.

Individual human histories are not like this. We may not all have adolescent and midlife crises, but enough of us do for the terms scarcely to need definition. We nearly all have health crises of one sort or another. And we all die – mostly in a relatively narrow age range, again normally distributed.

Some nation states, by contrast, live a very long time. The United Kingdom is more than 400 years old (its constituent parts are much older), the US approaching 250. Others have been subject to tremendous institutional discontinuity. Chinese leaders love to claim that China is 2,000 years old, but this is a fairy tale: the People’s Republic of China is about to celebrate its seventieth birthday, making it twelve years younger than Jared Diamond. And the majority of the world’s nation states are not much older, as they were formed, like Indonesia, in the period of decolonization that followed the end of the Second World War. What is the life expectancy at birth of a nation state? No one can say.

In short, it is surely a giant category error to expect nation states to behave like humans – as if one tried to extrapolate the incidences of pile-ups and traffic jams on motorways from an understanding of the internal combustion engine. At best, Diamond’s book is a sustained metaphor. But precisely because complex polities are not subject to the same constraints as individual people, it is a misleading one. It is even more misleading when, in a final chapter, Diamond attempts to apply his framework to the entire human race and planet.

In each of his cases, the nation in question overcame the crisis or crises that afflicted it. Missing from the sample is one or more of the cases of polities that irrevocably fell apart – such as the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia – or the former protectorates that didn’t make it to independent statehood, or the ethnic groups who never achieved self-government. If nation states are scaled-up individuals, what are these? There are options open to polities, for which dismemberment need not be fatal, which we humans don’t have. The US might not have undone the secession of the Confederacy; the Australian colonies might never have formed a federation; the UK may not come out of its current agonies in one piece.

This brings us to Diamond’s reflections on the contemporary US. He identifies four “fundamental problems now threatening American democracy”, beginning with “our accelerating deterioration of political compromise”, due not just to the well-documented decline of bipartisanship in Washington, but also to the effects of eroding social capital and expanding social media. The other problems he identifies are low electoral participation, not all of it voluntary; rising inequality and declining social mobility; falling educational investment and standards.

How is the patient coping with this slow-burning crisis? “Factors that stand in the way of a good outcome”. observes Dr Diamond, “are our current lack of consensus about whether we are indeed entering a crisis, our frequent blaming of our problems on others rather than recognizing our own responsibilities, the efforts of too many powerful Americans to protect themselves rather than working to fix their country, and our unwillingness to learn from the models of other countries.”

Taking up the challenge of the last point, Diamond seeks to compare the US case with others. But the first rule of comparative history is not to liken apples to lemons, and this is what Diamond proceeds to do by repeatedly likening the US to Chile on the eve of the military dictatorship established in 1973. This analogy overlooks so many differences – not least in terms of the distribution of wealth, especially but not only land – that it is impossible to take seriously. Although Diamond knows that a military coup in the United States is far less likely today than it seemed to some observers in the 1960s, he nevertheless “foresee[s] one political party in power in the U.S. government or in state governments increasingly manipulating voter registration, stacking the courts with sympathetic judges, using those courts to challenge election outcomes, and then invoking ‘law enforcement’ and using the police, the National Guard, the army reserve, or the army itself to suppress political opposition”. This is the kind of febrile thinking that these days pervades American campuses, where professors seem collectively incapable of assessing the politics of their own country in a sober way and predictions of the imminent collapse of the republic are made on a weekly basis.

The reader’s confidence is further undermined by a number of errors. Germany’s last military offensives on the Western Front had failed long before October 1918. Britain voted in 2016 not 2017 to leave the European Union. And it is absurd to assert that Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile “smashed previous world records for government-perpetrated sadistic torture”. The crimes of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao dwarf those of Pinochet by three orders of magnitude. Even Suharto, as Diamond shows, killed vastly more people in Indonesia in 1965.

It is not only in political thought that the tradition of anthropomorphizing the state can be found. Politicians through the ages have spoken of their fatherlands and motherlands, endowing them with the personalities of usually heroic individuals. Uncle Sam and (to a lesser extent) Britannia are still staples of the cartoonist’s craft. (By contrast, Germany has had a severe personality disorder, worse even than Dr Jekyll’s. After the self-inflicted catastrophes of the first half of the twentieth century, its self-image has reverted under Angela Merkel to the stolid but a little simple deutsche Michel of the pre-Unification era.) Yet if there is one thing the historical profession has achieved over the past fifty years, it has been to dismantle such national stereotypes and expose the extent to which they have been instrumentalized nefariously by demagogues and press barons.

In that sense, Upheaval seems as much of a step in the wrong direction as Guns, Germs and Steel was a step in the right one. The older book taught us historians to think more seriously about geography and climate, and not to be afraid of writing world history over long timescales. Those of us who sought to rise to those challenges cannot help being a little disappointed to find Jared Diamond – of all people – telling the kind of nation-as-person stories we thought we had discarded.

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