Top nations like Denmark do well without pushing others around


The satirical history of England, 1066 And All That, explained that history came to a full stop after the first world war, when America overtook England as Top Nation.

The concept of Top Nation was very much on the agenda at a Königswinter conference I attended recently. Guests were preoccupied with the contest between China and the US to become the Top Nation of the 21st century. And yet, as parallel sessions debated the future of the EU, I realised that there was an underlying debate between two different views of the world. For foreign policy experts, America is Top Nation. But, from an economic perspective, perhaps it is Denmark.

In 1066 And All That, Top Nation is defined by its ability to push other people around. The British empire, on which the sun never set and in which Queen Victoria was empress of an India she had never even visited, epitomised Top Nationhood.

But Denmark has lost interest in pushing other people around. In the past two centuries the kingdom has lost Norway, Schleswig-Holstein and Iceland, and Greenland will probably find its own resource-rich independence before long. No one much minds. Denmark is small, socially cohesive, and very rich. In international surveys of happiness, the country is usually at or close to the top.

Of course, Denmark is also rather boring. Michael Booth’s The Almost Nearly Perfect People describes “Jante Law” — the crushing conformity and self-satisfaction of small towns in his adopted country. Still, after a century in which the European continent was riven by two catastrophic wars that now seem both distant and absurd (there was something surreal about travelling to that Königswinter conference through a landscape that still bore the scars of the 1945 battle for Berlin), most Europeans think boring is good.

We once suffered from Norman Angell’s “Great Illusion”: the British journalist and Labour MP argued in his 1909 book against the myth that prosperity was the product of aggressive control of territory and resources — and now we know better. The wealth of Denmark is instead built on exporting bacon and drugs to control diabetes — an appropriate combination — around the world. That kind of global engagement is now enough for most Europeans. Last year’s Scottish independence referendum was, to a degree, a choice between political and economic concepts of Top Nationhood. Did Scots want to renew the UK’s Trident nuclear submarines — the enfeebled modern assertion that Britannia rules the waves — or would they rather be like Denmark?

As aspects of that Scottish debate showed, complacency and insularity can be taken too far. In the 1970s Mogens Glistrup’s Progress party, which proposed to replace Denmark’s defence forces with a recorded announcement in Russian saying “we surrender”, became the second-largest party in the country’s parliament. Another candidate for economic Top Nation is Switzerland, which has for centuries maintained the slightly more assertive principle of “If you do not bother us, we will not bother you”. Glistrup went too far when he sought to declare Denmark a Muslim-free zone. Yet in last week’s election, the Danish People’s party, successor to his Progress party, won more than 20 per cent of the vote.

Some economists view Top Nationhood in a different way: has Chinese gross domestic product yet overtaken that of the US? ; will India’s burgeoning population and economic growth eventually give it the largest GDP of all? But I have never understood why this competition is interesting, except as a guide to the resources available to support a military version of Top Nation. And that is not a competition that India, like Denmark, seems to want to enter. To the benefit, not just of Indians and Danes, but of the whole world.


This article was first published in the Financial Times on June 24th, 2015.

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