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 psychological 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.
It would have made more sense to have a museum dedicated to civil rights portraying it from slavery to the present thereby encompassing the whole struggle and the (millions) who (not just the one guy) did not struggle in vain.
It would have been a learning experience for those too young to know and a reminder for those who are old enough to remember.
Instead we got a politically correct monstrosity.
This statue stands for appeasement in my view. Not a stark reminder of a shameful part of our history.
"During dinner one night at Dog Brothers camp, a guy asked about injuries and how we rebound from them and why we fight. Crafty turned towards me and said "ask Toki, he is healing from an injury, he Never turns down a fight and will fight men a foot taller and 100 lbs heavier..ask him why he fights". As I started to explain and somewhat intellectually ramble..what I should have said is that ..I couldn't imagine the pain of simply watching my fellow Dog Brothers fight without me. I think that pain is deeper then any physical pain that I endure. It is also the motivation to heal for the next Gathering.
C-Mighty Dog, your explanation about your motivation was amongst my favorite memories of the Training Camp. I thought you discussed the sense of remaing true to self and to your fellow warriors in a way that really connected with me, and I suspect many others who sat at the table with you.
Congress is traditionally the lowest regarded branch of government, no matter who is in power, and no matter who is asking the questions (and the article says as much). It wouldn't matter, almost certainly, if the president had been Republican and the Congress had been split. That said, if you look at MOC reelection rates, constituents LOVE their elected officials.
So, the Bush administration is to blame for the terrorist dining in the Pentagon?
I don't understand the point of the nationalism article you posted. It doesn't refute the idea of Marxism. You can have Marxist nationalists.
Are Mexico and Canada part of the US? If not, why would you think I meant to exclude them? I do not approve of the United States assassinating (or just regular murdering) its own citizens. It depends on the SEAL team's current situation. If it needed to deploy, I'm not sure why a SWAT team couldn't be deployed instead (unless a Fort Hood type attack). If it reacted informally, like the Marines did in the recent story that made its rounds on the internet, where they apprehended a shop lifter.
I'd like to see you discuss Guro's question about the cultural differences between China and the US. No more question dodging just by asking more questions!
So, are you calling for the prosecution of those SEALs that punched OBL's ticket, BD? If not, why not?
I don't really understand the context of your question. SEALs were taking action internationally.
I also am not sure what led you to ask this question. I have no problem fighting to win a war, GM. I do have a problem with ignoring the rights of Americans, by Americans, on American soil. See the discussion of the BOR's I asked you about above. If you will recall, by questions about UBL's killing was not about the military personnel, it was about your favorite target, President Obama. The difference here is mostly that I respect the office enough to call him by his title, and not take liberty with his name.
Also, nearly everytime we've gone a few rounds, my issue has had to do with domestic agents (or the possibility of domestic action) taking liberties, that are spelled out in the Constitution, from the citizens of the United States.
As I pointed out, there was once a time where Americans had civilizational confidence, of course that was before the marxists infiltrated academia and the media. Now we have a large number of self-hating loons that think America is evil, of course they'd never leave this country and still expect it's protections while they work to undercut the nation from within.
That clarification took too many days and too many questions. It's interesting you made this point with the article you did, and mentioned "outlaw biker gangs" in a prior "rebuttal" when you didn't mean domestic actions in the U.S.
This doesn't really answer Guro's question, which is much the same as I have been asking you for a couple days. I want to know explicitly how you tie Halsey's actions (not single line quote) to China's domestic crackdown. I then want to know, explicitly, why you think China's domestic crackdown should be emulated in the United States. I then want to know, explicitly, how that domestic crackdown would not violate several constitutional amendments.
I'm advocating that we stop being the bunch of weak, spineless Oprah-audience members this country has turned into. If you asked the average Han Chinese about the "root causes" of muslim violence in Xinjiang, they'd tell you they don't give a cao and they were glad the People's Armed Police was crushing them.
I'd be willing to bet a large amount of money that right now, there are lots of muslims in the custody of the Ministry of State Security going through things that make waterboarding seem like a walk on a spring day. Some of them won't ever been seen again.
Where is the UN? Where is the EU? Where are the protests? Flotillas?
We had the kind of government that gave civilian trials to German sabateurs, GM. Is this what you are advocating?
And, yes I do. Are you aware of the difference between foreign and domestic affairs?
The article you posted was about the Chinese POLICE killing militants in CHINA. Why would you bring up a military officer? Are you now arguing that, like the Chinese, the war on terror is better dealt with by the police?
Like it or not, we still have the 4th, 5th, 6th, and 8th amendments.
Were you not posting the article because you are pleased with the manner in which the Chinese dealt with the Islamic militants? Do the US and Chinese have a similar governing ethos? Do the Chinese have the individual rights that Americans have?
If you were pleased, as you insinuate; since the US and China do not have a similar governing ethos; and because the Chinese do not have the rights that Americans have (as discussed in the governing document) then the US would have to adopt a similar government to that of China (or at least alter the government we do have in a similar vein) to fight Islamic militants in the same manner that the Chinese do.
From GM: "I'm not arguing, I really don't understand how a driver's license from a different state is given "full faith and credit" yet a concealed weapon license is not. The issuance of a license (driver or CCW) seems to to me to fall under the definition of a public act, thus a "shall" and not a "may" catagory.
I asked a state trooper that was teaching a class I was in on traffic code (Troopers really know traffic code, they sleep, eat and breathe it in my state) about out of state drivers who are in technical violation of state traffic code while in our state (in this case, the display of a front lic. plate). My state statute say all vehicles on public roadways MUST (not may) display a front license plate when operating a vehicle on a public roadway. The statute does not make allowance for out of state vehicles. We have a bordering state where only the rear plate is required. The trooper and every other person I've asked has never explained why that statute doesn't apply to the out of state vehicles. Is that a "full faith and credit" thing?"
First, GM, let me apologize for assuming that you were being argumentative and not seeking information. I did indeed, manage to make an a$$ of myself.
Second, the answer, as I understand it, to the question is that Congress has taken action in this area. I will post 2 Wikipedia articles below that provide some background information, but please note that the cooperation began at least by the 1950's (Beemer Resolution) and has supported sine by a variety of congressional actions (ex: funding the Joint Executive Board).
GM, While I agree with you that the CCW rulings should be recognized nationwide, you need to read the whole clause:
Full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state. And the Congress may by general laws prescribe the manner in which such acts, records, and proceedings shall be proved, and the effect thereof (my emphasis).
There is major difference between may and shall. And according the clause, it would seem, it leaves the enforcement to the discretion of Congress.
Wait, are we sure this wasn't the Tea Party or people upset about Obamacare?
You were right, GM. It seems that the early reports of an aQ connected group claiming responsibility were wrong.
"A 32-year-old Norwegian was arrested and charged with terrorism, but police have not officially released his name. Local media has identified the man as Anders Behring Breivik, who has been described as a right-wing Christian fundamentalist."
I have taught my children never to assume that a person with a badge at the door is a police officer and to call the police if someone knocks on the door when I am not home. This is common practice, because safety experts realized a long time ago that people can pose as police officers to enter the home.
It was while authorities were searching for survivors of the mid-afternoon bombing in Oslo that a man wearing a police uniform and identifying himself as a officer arrived by boat at Utoya island, where word was spreading among the campers about the explosion in the capital, Pracon said.
The hundreds teens and young adults attending the camp were gathered in a large meeting room where camp organizers were sharing information about the bombing in Olso when the police officer asked if he could address the group, Pracon said.
"We, of course, allowed him to come" in and address the group, Pracon said.
I find crimes of any type against children to be especially emotional for me. This is one of the worst that I am of aware of some time. I share sadness for the child and the parents... and the community.
"The great object of my fear is the federal judiciary. That body, like gravity, ever acting, with noiseless foot, and unalarming advance, gaining ground step by step, and holding what it gains, is ingulfing insidiously the special governments into the jaws of that which feeds them." --Thomas Jefferson, letter to Judge Spencer Roane, 1821