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Psychopathology and world politics


The Montreal Review, November 2010




In a recently published article, 1 Ralf Pettman, a professor at University of Melbourne, argues that the traditional analysis of world politics often underestimates psychopathological factors behind various political decisions and actions. Pettman does not reject the modernist approach that explains the choice of policy with rational and conscious decisions, but appeals for a wider inclusion in the analysis of more subtle and irrational (unconscious) factors such as mental distress, paranoia and narcissism. He notes that:

"... The most obvious example of psychopathology with regard to world affairs is that where an individual with political power, such as a state leader, becomes sufficiently mentally ill to cause large loss of human life. The reason for the leader's abnormal or dysfunctional behaviour can be either physical or psychological/psychoanalytical.

Less obvious are those instances where psychopathology does not result in large-scale loss of life but where it still has an adverse affect on a state leader's performance. Jonathan Davidson, Kathryn Connor and Marvin Swartz, for example, conclude from a review of biographical sources from 1776 to 1974 that nearly half of America's presidents suffered from a major mental illness of some kind and that more than a quarter did so during their term in office. In many of these cases, they say, the president's performance was affected 'adversely' (Davidson et al 2006, 51). Where the cause of the psychopathology is physical, there is little ambiguity about the nature of the dysfunctionality. The effect on the outcome is usually unambiguous as well.

The American President Woodrow Wilson, for example, had high blood pressure at a relatively early age that caused 'mild but progressive dementia' and ultimately a 'devastating atherosclerotic occlusion' or stroke (Park 1983, 4). This made it difficult for him to think or speak. More specifically, his 'cognitive functions' were impaired, his 'recent memory' was compromised and he manifested 'emotional responses' that were 'disproportionate and inappropriate' (Park 1983, 63). Davidson, Connor and Swarz argue that 'no national calamities appear to have occurred due to presidential mental illness' (Davidson et al 2006, 50). This is hard to sustain in the light of Wilson's stroke, however, since the latter prevented him from persuading the US Senate to ratify the League of Nations and thus from concluding the First World War with a non-punitive peace treaty (Post 2004, 51). France was then able to use the Paris Peace Conference to cripple Germany, which led in turn to the politico-economic and social conditions that made possible the rise of Adolf Hitler. Hitler himself took regularly no less than 73 kinds of medication, among which were 'sedatives, stimulants, hypnotics, tonics, vitamins and hormones' (Post 2004, 52-53). Under the supervision of his personal physician, he is said to have taken sufficient metamphetamine, for example, to seriously affect his decision-making capacity. This was augmented by cocaine in large enough quantities to induce 'restlessness, excitement, irritability, impairment of judgment, and frequently paranoid ideas' (Post 2004, 52-53). Hitler's state of mind resulted in a determined attempt to cleanse an imagined Aryan nation of polluted 'blood' and the destruction in the process of an estimated ten million European lives.

This included the infamous Holocaust. Hitler also suffered from Parkinson's disease, arguably induced by 'psychomotor epilepsy' of the 'temporal lobe'. This may have also contributed to his 'emotionality, evangelistic and messianic zeal . . . sense of personal destiny, altered sexual interest, aggressiveness, and periods of poorly controlled rage alternating with overt paranoia' (Park 1983, 160-161). Though Hitler was able to channel his emotions in a way that was sufficiently charismatic to inspire a civilized nation to dominate Europe (Langer 1973 [1943]; Waite 1977; Bromberg and Small 1983), he did so while clearly mentally handicapped..."


1 Pettman, Ralph (2010) 'Psychopathology and world politics', Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 23: 3, 475 - 492,

URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09557571003739164


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