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Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

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Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

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Jared Diamond wrote the book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Summary of Jared Diamond’s argument: 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.

Here is a Harvard Professor’s write-up on that book:


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.


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Written by S Ibrahim

Jun 25, 2011 at 12:38 am

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