War Zone Optimist

By Wazir, Burhan | The World Today, June/July 2019 | Go to article overview

War Zone Optimist


Wazir, Burhan, The World Today


War zone optimist

Burhan Wazir finds a study of how states cope with crisis rather frustrating

Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change Jared Diamond

Allen Lane, £25.00

Politics rarely allows for a nuanced conversation about why countries fail. For a period of time in the 1950s, Afghanistan was relatively peaceful and courted by both the United States and the Soviet Union. Less than 30 years later, millions of Afghan refugees would flee after being invaded by Soviet troops. Iraq would experience similar cataclysms in the 1980s and again after the US-led invasion of 2003. Populist politicians should be mindful of the fact that national moods might change, but geography stays the same.

A list of fragile nations, annually updated by the Fund for Peace, an American think tank, makes a strong case for reviewing the tectonic shifts in global security, economic implosions and human rights violations which determine the fate of nations across the world. Countries such as Venezuela and Syria can suddenly be imperilled by global winds that strike overnight or gather speed over decades.

Jared Diamond is a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the bestselling author of the 1997 Pulitzer-Prize-winning book Guns, Germs and Steel. That work traversed anthropology, archaeology, genetics, technology and social and military history to explain why some European societies prospered, while non-western populations such as the Incas failed. Its examination of the 'chains of causation' of success and failure was both enthralling yet also frustrating: Diamond relied heavily on citing aspects of geography and the agricultural capabilities of cultures as a proof of dominance, sometimes overlooking the interventions of politics and conflict.

His latest book, Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change, looks to bring a sense of intellectual order to an equally daunting subject. The author uses the examples of six countries to demonstrate how nations can find renewal after they have experienced traumas induced by wars and coups.

Diamond writes of Finland's accommodation with its neighbour the Soviet Union after the Second World War; the collapse of the feudal order to western powers in 19th century Japan; the coup in Indonesia in 1965; the overthrow of the Chilean president Salvador Allende in 1973; the post-1945 rebuilding of Germany; and Australia's economic growth after its outgrew its penal colony beginnings.

Upheaval begins with Finland - a country which shares a border of 1,340 kilometres with Russia - and examines the years between the start of the Second World War and the 1950s. Two long-ruling presidents, Juho Kusti Paasikivi and Urho Kekkonen, cautiously realized that all attempts to repel Stalin's influence would most probably lead to war or occupation. By the end of the Second World War, Finland had already lost around 100,000 people, or 5 per cent of its male population, most of whom had been killed in action. Instead, a decadeslong strategy, derisively called Finlandization in the West, allowed the country to make peace with the USSR's strategic aims while preserving democratic and free market norms. The balancing act ultimately protected Finland from becoming a satellite state such as Poland or Hungary.

One of Upheaval's most insightful chapters can be found in its analysis of Chile, where Diamond spent a sabbatical in 1968. Protected from its neighbours by mountains and deserts, Chile's problems were mostly internal. By the time Allende was overthrown in 1973, political and economic power was concentrated in the hands of a few Chilean oligarchs. Their failure to relinquish any control to the country's left-wing alliance ultimately fast-tracked a chain of events that led to economic collapse, US intervention, a coup against Allende and nearly two decades of military junta rule under General Augusto Pinochet. …

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