- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Earlier this summer I mentioned that I was reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, and I promised to sum up the insights that I had gleaned from it. The book is well-worth reading — if not quite on a par with his earlier Guns, Germs, and Steel — and you’ll learn an enormous amount about a diverse set of past societies and the range of scientific knowledge (geology, botany, forensic archaeology, etc.) that is enabling us to understand why they prospered and/or declined.
The core of the book is a series of detailed case studies of societies that collapsed and disappeared because they were unable to adapt to demanding and/or deteriorating environmental, economic, or political conditions. He examines the fate of the Easter Islanders, the Mayans, the Anasazi of the Pacific Southwest, the Norse colonies in Western Greenland (among others), and contrasts them with other societies (e.g., the New Guinea highlanders) who managed to develop enduring modes of life in demanding circumstances. He also considers modern phenomenon such as the Rwandan genocide and China and Australia’s environmental problems in light of these earlier examples.
I read the book because I am working on a project exploring why states (and groups and individuals) often find it difficult to "cut their losses" and abandon policies that are clearly not working. This topic is a subset of the larger (and to me, endlessly fascinating) question of why smart and well-educated people can nonetheless make disastrous (and with hindsight, obviously boneheaded) decisions. Diamond’s work is also potentially relevant to the perennial debate on American decline: Is it occurring, is it inevitable, and how should we respond?
So what lessons does Diamond draw from his case studies, and what insights might we glean for the conduct of foreign policy? Here are a few thoughts that occurred to me as I finished the book.
First, he argues that sometimes societies fail to anticipate an emerging problem because they lack adequate knowledge or prior experience with the phenomenon at hand. Primitive societies may not have recognized the danger of soil depletion, for example, because they lacked an adequate understanding of basic soil chemistry. A society may also fail to spot trouble if the main problem it is facing recurs only infrequently, because the knowledge of how to detect or deal with the problem may have been forgotten. As he emphasizes, this is especially problematic for primitive societies that lack written records, but historical amnesia can also occur even in highly literate societies like our own.
By analogy, one could argue that some recent failures in U.S. foreign policy were of this sort. Hardly anybody anticipated that U.S. support for the anti-Soviet mujaheddin in Afghanistan would eventually lead to the formation of virulent anti-American terrorist groups, in part because the U.S. leaders didn’t know very much about that part of the world and because public discourse about U.S. policy in the Middle East is filled with gaping holes. Similarly, the people who led us into Iraq in 2003 were remarkably ignorant about the history and basic character of Iraqi society (as well as the actual nature of Saddam’s regime). To make matters worse, the U.S. military had forgotten many of the lessons of Vietnam and had to try to relearn them all over again, with only partial success.
Second, societies may fail to detect a growing problem if their leaders are too far removed from the source of the trouble. Diamond refers to this as the problem of "distant managers," and it may explain why U.S. policymakers often make decisions that seem foolish in hindsight. As I’ve noted here before, one problem facing U.S. foreign policymakers is the sheer number and scope of the problems they are trying to address, which inevitably forces them to rely on reports from distant subordinates and to address issues that they cannot be expected to understand very well. Barack Obama doesn’t get to spend the next few years learning Pashto and immersing himself in the details of Afghan history and culture; instead, he has to make decisions based on what he is being told by people on the ground (who may or may not know more than he does). Unfortunately, the latter have obvious reasons to tell an upbeat story, if only to make their own efforts look good. If things are going badly, therefore, the people at the top back in Washington may be the last to know.
Third, serious problems may go undetected when a long-term negative trend is masked by large short-term fluctuations. Climate change is the classic illustration here: there are lots of short-term fluctuations in atmospheric temperature (daily, seasonally, annually and over eons), which allows climate change skeptics to seize upon any unusual cold snap as "evidence" that greenhouse gases are of no concern.
Similarly, it’s easy to find short-term signs of American primacy that may be masking adverse long-term trends. Optimists can point to U.S. military predominance and the fact that the American economy is still the world’s largest, or to the number of patents and Nobel Prizes that U.S. scientists continue to win. But just as the British Empire reached its greatest territorial expanse after World War I (when its actual power was decidedly on the wane), these positive features may be largely a product of past investments (and good fortune) and focusing on them could lead us to miss the eroding foundations of American power.
A fourth source of foolish decisions is the well-known tendency for individuals to act in ways that are in their own selfish interest but not in the interest of the society as a whole. The "tragedy of the commons" is a classic illustration of this problem, but one sees the same basic dynamic whenever a narrow interest group’s preferences are allowed to trump the broader national interest. Tariffs to protect particular industries or foreign policies designed to appease a particular domestic constituency are obvious cases in point.
Ironically, these problems may be especially acute in today’s market-oriented democracies. We like to think that open societies foster a well-functioning "marketplace of ideas," and that the clash of different views will weed out foolish notions and ensure that problems get identified and addressed in a timely fashion. Sometimes that’s probably true, but when well-funded special interests can readily pollute the national mind, intellectual market failure is the more likely result. After all, it is often easier and cheaper to invent self-serving lies and distortions than it is to ferret out the truth, and there are plenty of people (and organizations) for whom truth-telling is anathema and self-serving political propaganda is the norm. When professional falsifiers are more numerous, better-funded, and louder than truth-tellers, society will get dumber over time and will end up repeating the same blunders.
Fifth, even when a state or society recognizes that it is in trouble, Diamond identifies a number of pathologies that make it harder for them to adapt and survive. Political divisions may make it impossible to take timely action even when everyone realizes that something ought to be done (think gridlock in Congress), and key leaders may be prone to either "groupthink" or various forms of psychologi
cal denial. And the bad news here is that no one has ever devised an effective and universally reliable antidote to these problems.
Moreover, if a group’s identity is based on certain cherished values or beliefs, it may be hard to abandon them even when survival is at stake. Diamond suggests that the Norse colonies in Greenland may have disappeared because the Norse were unwilling to abandon certain traditional practices and imitate the local Inuits (e.g., by adopting seal hunting via kayaks), and it is easy to think of contemporary analogues to this sort of cultural rigidity. Military organizations often find it hard to abandon familiar doctrines and procedures, and states that are strongly committed to particular territorial objectives often find it nearly impossible to rethink these commitments. Look how long it took the French to leave Algeria, or consider the attachment to Kosovo that is central to Serbian nationalist thinking, and how it led them into a costly (and probably unnecessary) war in 1999.
To sum up (in Diamond’s words):
Human societies and smaller groups make disastrous decisions for a whole sequence of reasons: failure to anticipate a problem, failure to perceive it once it has arisen, failure to attempt to solve it after it has been perceived, and failure to succeed in attempts to solve it."
That last point is worth highlighting too. Even when states do figure out that they’re in trouble and get serious about trying to address the problem, they may still fail because a ready and affordable fix is not available. Given their remarkably fortunate history, Americans tend to think that any problem can be fixed if we just try hard enough. That was never true in the past and it isn’t true today, and the real challenge remains learning how to distinguish between those situations where extra effort is likely to pay off and those where cutting one’s losses makes a lot more sense.