Can sustainability scholars like Jared Diamond inform the debate on global inequality?

While global welfare inequality is a serious crisis, linking this to conflict, terrorism and broader planetary sustainability is a leap too far.

Aug 18, 2019
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Among the most rewarding aspects of academic life is to see one of your student's reach a level of intellectual maturity where they can take on the great doyens of the field. A decade ago, I had the good fortune of having a student named Ian Lynch in my course on environmental conflict resolution at the University of Vermont. Ian wrote an excellent term paper for the course on the linkages between a mineral processing plant and the Kosovo conflict. Subsequently, he went to Afghanistan and taught at a youth leadership school for two years and gained a keen appreciation from the field for how multiple causality operates in crisis development. From his field vantage point Ian has shared a critical review of Jared Diamond's most recent book "Upheaval" that I am sharing through this blog. 

Sustainability scholars seem to develop a certain intellectual hubris about their self-perceived ability to explain and cure panoramic maladies. Ian's review of Diamond's recent book reminds us of the need for quiet reflection and humility that even the greatest minds must submit to lest we simplify policy solutions to the point of being glib and reckless. There may be some dominant theories of causality that emerge but these require a level of depth in spatial and temporal terms to gain traction. For example, the linkage of authoritarianism to proximate peace but long-term conflict is now well-established. When considering the perennial challenge of global welfare inequality, we would be better served to consider this as a dominant variable albeit here too with nuance and care.

Book Review of Upheaval (by Jared Diamond, Little Brown &Co. 2019) - Reviewed by  Ian J. Lynch

In a world of overwhelming complexity and endless gray areas, Jared Diamond’s new book, Upheaval, is ill-suited to its goal of examining strategies for the resolution of national and global crises.  Diamond adapts his framework from the field of crisis therapy.  The comparison may be a useful metaphor to kick start comprehension in a classroom setting, but it does not adequately address intertwined national and international political, economic and social problems.  What results from Diamond’s approach in Upheaval are numerous generalizations – some of which Anand Giridharadas addresses in his review for the New York Times – that do more to obscure complicated issues than inform readers.

 Much of Upheaval focuses on Diamond’s idea that the strategies and capacities individuals use to successfully cope with personal crises can be informative for nations in crisis.  But at the end, Diamond also adds a chapter on what he sees as the foremost threats to “the continued existence of civilization globally.”  He acknowledges that on the global scale humanity lacks the common identity, past experience, and support resources that individuals and nations profitably rely on in crisis.  Of the other factors Diamond draws from crisis therapy, it is debatable whether accepting responsibility, remaining patient while testing solutions, agreeing on core values, and practicing honest self-appraisal can occur on the global level.  Indeed, it is narratives like Diamond’s that obscure the very realities humanity must examine in order to achieve honest self-appraisal to guide selective change.

The high speed flows of people, information, goods and finance in today’s globalized world have vastly complicated the practice of international relations.  State governments can no longer claim a monopoly on international affairs, and never truly could in absolute terms.  They cooperate and compete with international organizations, multi-national corporations, transnational movements, criminal networks, terrorist organizations, and others.  In this diverse environment of foreign policy actors, the lines between developed and developing countries, formal and informal institutions, and licit and illicit practices have all blurred.  Honest self-appraisal requires examining all the opaque corners of the networked world.

Of the four global challenges Diamond focuses on, his discussions of nuclear weapons, climate change and natural resource depletion adequately convey the nature and urgency of the problems.  However, his treatment of global inequality and the security threats he associates with it – also found in his article for National Geographic – is the most misleading passage of the book.

Inequality has complex effects on security threats, but Diamond’s unsubstantiated claim that the increased global visibility of wealth in developed nations causes the problems of terrorism and destabilizing migration emanating from developing nations is inaccurate.  He omits discussion of the authoritarian practices and related violence that are paramount drivers of terrorism and migration.  Desperation and anger in developing countries are more often the products of authoritarian policies that repress political opposition and limit economic opportunities for the majority of their populations.

Terrorism and Global Inequality

Terrorism, as Diamond understands it, is different in wealthy nations where the public does not widely support isolated terrorists and poor nations where anger and desperation motivate tolerance for terrorism.  There are many false assumptions in that description, although he does admit, “global inequality itself isn’t the direct cause of terrorist acts.”  He is also right that, “Religious fundamentalism and individual psychopathology play essential roles.”  But he warps the reality of terrorism by saying, “Every country has its crazy, angry individuals driven to kill.”

He seems to suggest that only psychopaths commit terrorism in the West, despite the fact that the Global Terrorism Index 2018 notes, “In North America and Western Europe, the threat of far-right political terrorism is on the rise.”  This is a trend Diamond should have considered given his analysis elsewhere in Upheaval of the many unresolved grievances and distrust in government that are fomenting crisis in the U.S.  He states, “Only in poor countries, where much of the population does feel desperate and angry, is there toleration or support for terrorists.”

 The majority of Afghan citizens detest the brutality of the Taliban as much as they abhor the corruption of the government.  Toleration and support for either is not an independently made political choice, but a necessity for day-to-day survival in poor, violent spaces.  The affluence of the West factors little in the decisions of rural Afghans who join the Taliban so they can feed and protect their families amidst ongoing conflict.

Terrorism is too often implied as popular among desperate and angry Middle Eastern populations, and that is exactly the goal of terror.  Egregious attacks on civilians and weakly guarded public and military targets are designed to capture the outraged attention of world audiences via media and other modern communications technologies. 

Diamond is right that desperation and inequality play key roles in the proliferation of terrorism, but to reduce terrorist motivation to a generalized anger with global inequality puts an inaccurate frame on individual decisions to engage in terrorism.  According to the Global Terrorism Index, more than 99% of deaths caused by terrorism in 2017 occurred in countries with armed conflict or severe government repression.  Where people have peaceful options to pursue their political goals, terrorism is rare.  Inclusive political and economic institutions reduce violence of all kinds – state, criminal and terrorist – indicating that authoritarian governance is a key part of the problem.

Religious fundamentalism is connected to the issue of global inequality, but in a more nuanced way than Diamond considers.  The contemporary revitalization of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East is, as Mohammed Ayoob suggests, a reaction to the failures in the post-colonial era of nationalism, secularism, capitalism and socialism to bring wealth, power or dignity to the Muslim people.  The embrace of international terror by Islamic fundamentalists shows that some Muslims in authoritarian countries have given up on political systems to change their fortunes.  This should come as no surprise, for the predominantly authoritarian regimes of the Middle East place severe restraints on political change.  It is important to note that despite these constraints, the majority of Islamists are political Islamists who courageously seek peaceful means of changing oppressive political orders.

The relationship between globally inequality and the continued threat of international terrorism to developed nations is also more complex than Diamond considers.   The terrorists who slip through the sophisticated anti-terrorism appendages of the U.S. and Europe do tend to be individuals who migrated from repressive societies, but radicalization often happens after they move to the West.  Faced with discrimination in their new homes, some migrants like Uzbek native Sayfullo Saipov, find belonging and purpose in radical Islam.  In 2017, Saipov killed 8 people in New York City in an ISIS-inspired vehicular attack – a tactic he learned while living in the U.S not in Uzbekistan.  Internet freedom in the U.S. means ISIS material is far more accessible than in repressive states like Uzbekistan that strictly censor access to web content.

It is inequality and social exclusion within states that produces the conditions ripe for the kind of lone wolf and copycat terrorism that intelligence services in democratic societies struggle to prevent.  Reducing the incentives and conditions that produce international terrorism will require selective changes in governance and societies in both developed and developing states.

Beyond Global Inequality: Internationally Enabled Authoritarianism

The problem Diamond says poor nations pose to wealthy ones is what – in his book Development, Security and Unending Wars – Mark Duffield said foreign policy actors from developed countries think of as “surplus life”.  He noted that, “Surplus life can be both economically and politically charged, the one superfluous to requirements, the other a threat to order.”  Duffield was critical of how international development is now wielded as a technology of containment to address the negative flows of globalization that are interpreted as threats to the homeland security of wealthy nations.

Diamond’s analysis of global inequality also locates security threats in fragile and failed states, but he helpfully does not prescribe development as the solution to insecurity.  Diamond’s prescriptions focus on over consumption in wealthy nations.  He is correct that Americans need to rethink the related, but different concepts of consumption and well-being.  We can have more with less – as many European examples demonstrate – and should endeavor to rebalance these ideas.  When he turns to developing countries though, he passively contributes to the narrative behind the merging of security and development that Duffield said actually makes problems of security and development worse.

The simplicity of the connection that many, including Diamond, make between state weakness in the developing world and global security problems like terrorism leads to compartmentalized responses.  International development, humanitarian aid and military interventions have the potential to be effective foreign policy tools, but too often they exacerbate security problems because they are not coordinated by coherent strategies informed by accurate problem definitions.

In Global Security Cultures, Mary Kaldor explains how the “new wars” are hard to contain geographically, because they are “fragmented and decentralized and yet, at the same time, integrated into global circuits of money, goods, people and communication.”  In the “new wars” context – where “violence is the principal method for allocating resources and for political ordering” – traditional peacemaking and peacebuilding interventions employed by wealthy third-party nations may halt violence between armed groups but at the cost of entrenching violent actors in political power.  Kaldor acknowledges the resulting hybrid peace may be better than open warfare, but it also solidifies predatory power structures, perpetuates crime, offers impunity for human rights abuses, and does little to resolve underlying grievances that could spark a return to conflict.

It should not be assumed that, as Diamond says, “developing countries consider an increase in living standards…a prime goal of national policy.”  All too aware of authoritarian repression and violence, there is no reason for the populations of many developing countries to “wait to see whether their government can deliver high living standards within their lifetime.”  Even in middle-income democracies, endemic criminal and communal violence can occur when complicit politicians weaken the rule of law by offering impunity to violent actors.  Economics can motivate migration, but not on the same scale that conflict and repression do, and the worst economic crises often occur as a result of conflict and repression.

A Few Selective Changes

Locating the cause of desperate migration to developed nations and terror attacks in global inequalities deemphasizes the role autocrats play in perpetuating the insecurity of their populations.  Overlooking the centrality of autocrats in security problems further misses the ways the international financial institutions of developed, liberal states enable autocrats to act free of potential domestic constraints on their abuse of power.  Namely, autocrats are able to quickly and securely amass corrupt gains in tax havens and luxury real estate out of the reach of domestic forces and they are able to use international legal and policing institutions to harass political opposition in exile.

Honest self-appraisal of over consumption in the developed world is an important piece of the puzzle, but so to are numerous other problems that Diamond’s narrative obscures.  Authoritarian governance is an underlying cause of much insecurity, conflict and violence in the world.  Inclusive political and economic institutions need to be improved and defended in both developed and developing nations for humanity as a whole to have any chance of addressing the global problems Diamond highlights.

The persistence of authoritarianism and the global security threats it aggravates has deep roots in international liberal institutions.  Leading liberal states have the power to selectively change these institutions in ways that do not require contentious discussion of regime change interventions.  The anti-money laundering regime can be strengthened in ways that make international financial institutions more transparent so autocrats can’t hide their ill-gotten gains.  International law can be reformed so autocrats can’t use it to police exiled dissidents.  Norms of non-interference and territorial sovereignty can be contested when autocrats – who show little regard for such norms in their own international behaviors – use them to defend human rights abuses.  International development and sustainable consumption rates alone cannot hope to contain negative flows of globalization like terrorism and mass displacement without reforms to the international networks enabling authoritarian repression and conflict profiteering in fragile states.

Saleem Ali

Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware, University of Delaware

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