Book in the news: countries in therapy

Cover of Upheaval by Jared DiamondUpheaval

How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change
Jared Diamond
Allen Lane, £25
Buy on Amazon

Jared Diamond has written several books on what makes nations successful. Originally he was a “geographical determinist” who believed that an “abundance” of food gave inhabitants of ancient Eurasia “the time and energy to invent the guns and steel that they used to conquer much of the rest of the world”, says Peter Coy on Bloomberg. However, his latest book downplays geography in favour of therapy. In particular, he “likens nations in trouble to individuals going through a recovery” and tries to draw lessons from case studies of countries that have been through trauma.

Diamond’s approach of “drawing direct parallels between personal and national” contrasts with conventional historians, who “tend to emphasise the particularity of circumstance and the intricate unrepeatability of events”, says Colin Kidd in The Guardian. Still, he manages to make a convincing case for “the imperatives of taking responsibility (without scapegoating), honest national self-appraisal, a willingness to learn from other nations and a capacity to compromise, sometimes, indeed, to swallow the unpalatable”. He also effectively provides some hints as to how those lessons could be usefully applied to contemporary problems, such as climate change.

Upheaval is a “curious, highly personal book”, says Andrew Marr in The Sunday Times. While the idea “sounds a little glib”, it actually “turns out to work surprisingly well”, as the author manages to find “intellectually stimulating and unusual examples that provide much food for thought”. In particular, the story of how Finland “managed to find a way to live with Soviet Russia on its border, while maintaining a free-market society” is an “exemplary” story of “political compromise and realism, lack of self-pity and strong national character”. Britain “could also learn a lot from the 19th century Japanese in looking outside Japan for inspiration”.