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Do countries have a DNA?

March 17, 2013

George Walden in TLS:

Hetalia_countries_and_bosses_by_PhobsAlmost every year for four decades Alain Minc – economist, businessman and leading public intellectual – has produced a book, or rather long essay, a lively French format at which he excels. With its Carlylean overtones last year’s title exudes a whiff of the forbidden. Nations, souls? Next thing he’ll be trying to persuade us that we have national characteristics.

The fact that Minc is a very modern man (his first book was on cybernetics) who gives his subject scientific cover (in the book he speaks of DNA rather than souls) will do little to soothe misgivings: “The feeling has anchored itself in my thinking ever more strongly that countries, like individuals, possess a DNA, and that even if there too a division has established itself between the innate and the acquired, their behaviour on the international stage has been largely conditioned by their underlying nature [leur nature profonde]”.

Gene-speak in foreign affairs, he knows, will expose him to a “volée de bois vert” from the “academic tribe”. The caning duly came. Confining himself to 500 years of European history, with a brief chapter on America, may perhaps temper the assault, since Westerners are permitted to characterize themselves and each other more freely and more negatively than other peoples.

Britain’s DNA, in his unexceptional view, includes control of the seas in the service of empire, the power of money and business, the cult of Parliament, and the obsession with frustrating the emergence of a dominant Continental power. The transformation of piracy into patriotism in the sixteenth century, and a relative political stability, were to turn a minor, insular folk into the mistress of half the world. Echoing Niall Ferguson, he writes that Britain’s rise after 1600 depended on robbing the Spanish, copying the Dutch, beating the French and pillaging India. Positive national traits include Britain’s tax base (from which the aristocracy, unlike in France, was not excluded), an intensive debate about protectionism and free trade, and the involvement of local elites in colonial government, as distinct from France’s simple extension of the prefectoral system. [More]

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