Courtesy Reuters

Well in evidence in Herodotus and Thucydides, the idea that peoples have an aggregate moral character and political temperament is one of the foundations of Western statecraft. It appears in a modern version in Machiavelli, who asserts that prediction of human events, for the purpose of making foreign policy, is facilitated if one observes that "nations preserve for a long time the same character, ever exhibiting the same disposition to avarice, or bad faith, or to some other special vice or virtue." At its worst, the "national character" approach consists of a litany of ethnocentric stereotypes which tells us more about the prejudices of the observer than about the characteristics of the observed. At its best, as in Tocqueville's analysis of the character of Americans, it seeks to derive from historical experience and observable cultural patterns features which are likely to have a lasting effect on the formation of habits

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