Monday, July 15, 2019

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis

First the bad: Upheaval is an academic book pitched at a popular audience. The narrative can be very long and detailed for a popular book. (But at the same time lacking in details for an academic book.) The audiobook narration further emphasizes the dryness. The author from the outset states that it is not a comprehensive analysis, but just a focused view of case studies of modern upheaval in a few countries that he is familiar with.
With the bad out of the way, the book has a nice story to tell. Countries and people got through periods of significant "stress". Sometimes this comes from the outside. Other times it is purely internal. It may happen in response to a single event, or it may be something that happens gradually over time. Using a "crisis framework", he analyzes the different ways that they react.
Finland shares a very long border with Russia and has a language and culture very different from the Russian and Scandinavian neighbors. When attacked by Russia, Finland did not give in, but fought back against overwhelming odds. This allowed them to remain independent (even as other Baltic States were subsumed by Russia.) After the war, Russia demanded reparations and trials of Finnish leaders for "war crimes". Finland acknowledged their week position relative to Russia and complied. (By charging the leaders with war crimes, they were also able to dictate the "punishment") The reparations paid to Russia were a sacrifice that benefited the country by forcing industrialization. Finland was further able to maintain good relations with Russia and western Europe by self censoring. They willingly sacrificed some democratic principals in order to maintain freedom and democracy. This seemed an anathema to many in the west, but it served Finland quite well.
Other countries did not have such a positive experience. Chile was one of the most stable democracies in South America. However, democratically elected Allende moved too far to the left for his military, thus setting the position for a coup and the rise of Pinochet. He stayed in power longer than expected and killed a large number of leftests. However, he still allowed for a peaceful transition, even though only a narrow majority voted to not extend his term. The new government allowed for Chile for all Chileans and kept many of Pinochet's positive reforms. The country had to go through the challenging experience to realize that compromise is the best policy.
Similarly Indonesia found itself ripe for a dictator after the leader became too involved with external affairs at the expense of internal needs. Unlike Finland, Indonesia had very little national identity, and needed to foster one. Corruption was a big problem and needed to be reined in.
Australia had a national identity tied up in England. Despite being in a totally different part of the world, Australians thought of themselves as British. Only after the fall of Singapore in World War II, did Australia realize they had to depend on themselves more. They gradually moved away from the "white Australia" to a more cosmopolitan, independent country. (They there was a shock of policy changes that were carried out at the start of one government.)
Japan had change thrust upon them. After Perry sailed in, Japan was no longer isolated. The leaders realized they could not compete with the western powers, so they spent time trying to learn what they could from them. They picked and chose to adopt the best policies. They realistically knew what they were capable of. However, by World War 2, they had built up a significant military and the new "young guns" lacked they global insight of their elders. Thus, they went on a multi-front war that would be difficult to win, and ended up being defeated. Today, Japan still has some trouble with introspection. History courses treat Japan as a "victim" in World War 2 (due to the nuclear bombs) without regarding that they were the aggressor. This has lead to weaknesses in relationships with its neighbors. (Germany, on the other hand, has apologized profusely and done much to prevent the Nazi past from resurfacing.) Japan also faces on oncoming demographic crisis with a very low birth rates and almost no immigration.
Countries and individuals got through many crises in their lifetime. Being honest in the approach to them can be the difference between a positive growth experience and a long struggle.

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