Paul Johnson: Power of the Irrational is Formidable

International ranking and prestige are not the abiding parameters of a great nation

Published: Sep 1, 2012 06:20:43 AM IST
Updated: Aug 31, 2012 11:12:43 AM IST
Paul Johnson: Power of the Irrational is Formidable
Image: Thomas Kuhlenbeck for Forbes

What are we to do about Europe? Can the euro survive? Is the EU doomed? Far from promoting Continental prosperity, does this institution now constitute the principal reason the world is still bogged down in the longest recession in half a century?

Everyone asks these questions, but no one provides any answers. In Brussels the thousands of well-paid bureaucrats, who thus far have escaped any cuts or austerities, keep their heads down and quietly get on with the job of enforcing countless minute regulations.

Recently a senior European figure warned the British that unless they became more deeply involved in the EU, Britain would sink to the level of significance of Norway or Switzerland.

If this was intended as some kind of rhetorical threat, it was ill-judged. These countries are prosperous, law-abiding, peaceful and well-governed. Their standards of living are higher than Britain’s, their homicide rates are lower and in most statistical criteria they score high. It’s true that neither country is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, as Britain still is. Nor are they automatically invited to most meetings where the future of the world is discussed. Britain still sits at the top table for most purposes, though in increasing discomfort. It certainly isn’t a superpower—although it can be argued that Britain is still a great power. But what good does that do its people?

I wish questions about international ranking and prestige were asked more often. No other subject produces such irrational judgment. For instance, Iran has been striving to become a nuclear power for a decade, though its government denies any such intention. Presumably Iran’s driving motivation is to increase its power in the region. But the penalties, in the form of sanctions, for its people have been high.

Iran has the world’s fourth-largest oil reserves and second-largest natural gas reserves. Had it devoted itself to developing its oil and natural gas potential, Iran’s clout in the region—and beyond—would be much greater than any notional power gained from creating a nuclear bomb.

Look at neighbouring Pakistan. It has been a nuclear power for some time, but this has imposed a huge burden on its defense budget, not least in keeping the nuclear arsenal secure from terrorists. It’s unclear whether possessing nuclear weapons adds appreciably to Pakistan’s security or if it merely adds a new dimension of problems to governing this unruly and unstable country.

Two advanced industrial nations that have flatly refused to enter the nuclear club are Germany and Japan, yet it’s hard to see how they’ve suffered from the decision. Both are doing pretty well in their respective regions. Japan could point to the curious case of its neighbours, North and South Korea. The North possesses nuclear weapons yet has one of the world’s lowest standards of living. The South has no nuclear ambitions yet basks in remarkably high—and rising—prosperity.

Which brings us back to Norway and Switzerland. Neither has nuclear weapons, yet both, all things considered, have populations who seem happy to remain comparatively insignificant, provided they can also stay at arm’s length from the bureaucrats in Brussels.

Nevertheless, the world for the most part is not run by reason. The power of the irrational is formidable. I had to admit this while taking great delight in a recent photograph of François Hollande shot during a visit to London, when he was inspecting a Coldstream regiment guard of honor. Hollande was accompanied by a gigantic major, with drawn sword, who towered a distance of 2 feet or more above him. This infuriated the French, who accused the British of arranging the contrast deliberately.

Not so, I’m sure. But we Brits do not envy the French their diminutive president. And we’re glad we still have some redcoats to do a bit of towering.

Paul Johnson is an eminent British historian and author

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(This story appears in the 14 September, 2012 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Sachi Mohanty

    Is it that Germany and Japan have \"flatly refused to enter the nuclear club\" or they have been refused permission to do so by the victors in the Second World War. Even if it\'s \'voluntary\', I think that\'s only an eye-wash and superficial. Also, they are under the safety umbrella of the United States. Twitter: @sachi_bbsr

    on Sep 1, 2012
    • Swamy

      Quite irrelevant - whether voluntary or not, the issues cited by the authors still remain! Furthermore, the \"safety umbrella\" would extend to where significant other interests also exist - would it not? So, what is your point really?

      on Sep 11, 2012
      • Sachi Mohanty

        I suppose there are many points. Or many faults really with this article. For example, I am concerned that there are only two comments on this important article which presents a shallow analysis of realities. You can\'t look at the present state of nuclear haves and have-nots without looking at the historical context. You can\'t \'forget\' to mention or make sense of the fact that America maintains military presence in Japan and Germany. I also could not ascertain from the article whether the author is in favor of the U.S., Britain, and France maintaining their nuclear stockpiles or not. As to the lack of comments on the article, it seems to show that Indians are only interested in making tiny bits of money and stashing that away or doing whatever else that they do ... worshiping some stupid god, may be. My point is that if the author wants to talk about inequality and injustice, he should point to the BIG absurdities. One of the funny things I note about the world is that tiny Britain and France are permanent members of the UN SC. More powerful economies such as Japan and Germany are not. India with 1.2 billion people is being dangled lollipops as far as the issue of permanent membership of the UN SC is concerned. If Britain and France had ANY shame at all, they should immediately resign their permanent memberships and apologize profusely to India and make way for it. I mean, how and why in hell did we get so complacent and stupid as to accept things as they are as if they that was a law of nature. My point is also this: why does the IMF MD position seem to be reserved for French men and/or women? Is it because they\'re especially sexy and have fun and liberal attitudes towards sex? My point is this: should not the world be debating whether Gujarat and Bihar and UP and Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have the right to be nuclear \'states\' or not.

        on Sep 11, 2012
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