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.