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Sunday, 22 April 2012

Psychos in charge of World Politics

A fascinating peek into the heads of world leaders.

Psychopathology And World Politics Author: Ralph Pettman
Publisher: World Scientific
Publishing, 250 pages

THE list of apparently “unhinged” national leaders is distressingly lengthy. The 20th century gave us the maddest and baddest of all time, Adolf Hitler. But there were many others.

Among them, Jean Bedel Bokassa (or to give him his full title: “His Imperial Majesty Bokassa the First, Emperor of Central Africa by the will of the Central African people, united within the national political party, the Movement for the Social Evolution of Black Africa).” Myanmar’s crackpot dictator Ne Win, who changed the denominations of his country’s banknotes to his lucky numbers: 15, 35, 45, 75 and 90. Alleged cannibal Ida Amin of Uganda. And the absurdly vain, self-proclaimed “Genius of the Carpathians,” Nicolae Ceauescu of Romania, who died in a hail of bullets fired by his own soldiers, whose loyalty and patience he had finally exhausted by 1989.

Mental illness and abnormal or maladaptive behaviour has all too often shared and sharply affected the stage of global politics. Prof Ralph Pettman looks at why this is so. And what the consequences might be, or have been.

What happens when a leader’s mind ceases to function in what we might call a proper or normal manner? How does this impinge on world affairs? What is to be done, for example, when a statesman ceases to act in a seemingly sane fashion and yet still commands the loyalty of those who keep him or her in power? What to do when a leader’s advisers have a less than sufficient grasp of political realties themselves? Indeed, how can we react when a whole society goes insane, as happened in Pol Pot’s Cambodia in the late 1970s?

Prof Pettman is an informed voice on such matters, and well positioned to inspect the broader canvas on which these questions have been painted. He is a member of the editorial board of advisers of Global Change, Peace and Security, a member of the international advisory board of the European Journal Of International Relations, and a member of the advisory boards of International Politics and Religion. And he brings a wealth of insight to this multi-disciplinary topic.

Rather than provide a comprehensive account on this unwieldy realm of study, which would be beyond the scope of a single work, what this book does is first describe psychopathology in general terms and its relationship to world affairs in the first two chapters. Prof Pettman then deftly moves on to the four lynchpins of this penetrating work, chapters three to six, entitled: Denial, Truth, Delusion, and Reality, respectively.

The author cleverly cherry-picks case studies to illuminate his points, and through this methodology we learn just how fragile sanity in the halls of power can be. Hitler, the most disturbing figure in Prof Pettman’s rogues gallery, was beset by a range of psychopathological conditions, which his doctors treated with no less than 73 kinds of “medication” including sedatives, hypnotics, tonics, vitamins, hormones, cocaine and methamphetamine. Der Führer’s brain chemistry was also adversely affected by Parkinson’s disease.

Britain’s most illustrious-ever leader, Winston Churchill, was prone to bouts of bipolar depression, Prof Pettman notes. And he theories that US President Ronald Reagan was already suffering from the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s when he made the authorisations that resulted in the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s.

The life and times and mental ailments of the psychologically paranoid US President Richard Nixon get especially rigorous attention from Prof Puttman. While the Vietnam War was raging over 13,000km east of Washington DC, another war was taking place inside Nixon’s head. One between the man who regarded himself as a bold statesman and moral leader, battling the “insecure loner who always thought people were looking down on him or out to get him.”

We also get to read about the psychological frailties of Woodrow Wilson, the only world leader to have ever attracted the scholarly attention of Sigmund Freud (Freud, the “father of psychology”, crops up a lot in this book). Wilson’s passivity at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference was apparently due to feeling of inadequacy brought about by an over-dominating father.

This is all powerful heady stuff, and is pure gold for readers who have ever wondered how so many world leaders – past and present – tick with such a peculiar and menacing tok.

In general, Prof Pettman seems to concur with Lord Acton’s famous maxim: “Power corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But he doesn’t seem to go as far as the stance held by the late Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek, who said: “In government, the scum rises to the top.” Nevertheless, the professor does skate close....

While not answering all the questions it presents – quite an impossible task – this book is a valuable contribution to the field of how international politics intertwines with modern psychology, and will also likely be instructive not only for better understanding of current world affairs, but also concerning the perennial issue of conflict resolution.

 Review by NICK WALKER

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