Essays in History, Politics and Culture Copyright R. James Ferguson © 2004
Political Realism, Ideology and Power: -
A Discussion and Critique via Machiavelli, Morgenthau and Sun Tzu
1. Introduction: From Machiavelli to Realism
2. The Philosophical and Historical Background of The Prince
3. Central Themes of The Prince
4. Morgenthau and Power Politics Among Nations
5. Critical Discussion: Contradictions and Implications
6. Broader Implications and Alternatives
7. A Brief Comparison With Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War'
1. Introduction: From Machiavelli to Realism
Several world-views underlie the main strands of thought in politics and international relations. How power is defined, used and assessed is one fundamental theme in the analysis of states, nations, diplomacy and war. Likewise, the guiding role of ideas is also crucial in analysing historical trends and their meaning. Today, we will look at 'realism' in it political sense in some detail. Realism focuses on several claims and which are held to limit the 'utility' of idealism, values and ideals. Some of the key components of the realist position in plitics and international relations include: -
The classic statement which helped established these values in the modern Western tradition is found in the short work called The Prince, written by Niccolo Machiavelli. We will approach Realism by looking at his works, plus one main representative of modern realism, the thought of Hans Morgenthau. It is no accident that both these books were written during periods of crisis, when nations in Europe were under major turmoil.
Niccolo Machiavelli lived in the later 15th and early 16th century and died in 1527. The Prince studies the way that principalities should be ruled. Principalities are states ruled by a single leader, who may be a prince, a duke, or a king. Here, Machiavelli is making a direct contrast with Republican forms of government, which have some level of representation of the other classes in society, and issue which he took up in another, lesser known work, Discourses on Livy, which seems to show his preference for this form of government. Indeed, Machiavelli had been an adviser to the Florentine republic and upon the takeover of the Medici was tortured and then exiled (Lukes 2001, p570, footnote 40). The fact that Machiavelli wrote both these works suggests we need to carefully assess the context of The Prince rather than take it at face value as a political prescription. It is not enough to suggest that Machiavelli is 'the sycophant who solicits his republican soul for aristocratic patronage' (a point made in Lukes 2001, p561). Nor is it enough to suggest that the Prince is a 'practical handbook' whereas the Discourses are a more reserved historical and intellectual text (as suggested by Lukes 2001, p569) - the two texts offer divergent approaches and recommendations.
Machiavellianism is the adjective often given to the doctrine that the end not only justifies the means, but that all political actions and policies can only be properly judged through their outcomes. In such a theory neither intentions nor ideals are important except in so far as they allow persons or nations to reach their goals. In such a context, a ruthless and manipulative approach to political goas, including deceit, murder and the use of force seem justified. As we shall see, this is a somewhat exaggerated version of Machiavelli's political position, but seems to have been one dominant interpretation of his thought in the following centuries. Thus later interpreters often emphasised the sly strategies of the fox that are utilised in The Prince, rather than the parallel discussion of the virtues of the lion (including courage, sociability and courage) that are also put forward by Machiavelli (Lukes 2001).
Machiavellianism, of course, is more severe than the general notion of political realism. In political realism a set of assumption or arguments are often made: -
Political Realism claims to be: -
2. The Philosophical and Historical Background of The Prince
In order to understand the significance of Machiavelli's The Prince it needs to be placed against the tradition of ideas to which it refers. This requires a brief glance at the history of Renaissance Italy, as many of the examples in the text refer ether to ancient history or to the peculiarities of Italian politics and diplomacy in the 14th & 15th centuries.
2.A The Tradition of Political Philosophy.
The Prince has been described as a handbook for Princes (rulers), in the tradition of such books written in the Late Middle Ages. These books were sometimes called 'Mirrors of Virtues', in that they list and explain the good qualities a ruler is supposed to have in order to rule as an effective king and to defend Christianity.
However, it is important to place The Prince within a broader philosophical tradition. Political philosophy is almost as old as philosophy itself, based on the idea that man is essentially a social, communicating animal who conducts his activities and lives most fully within a community or state: in the Greek case the polis or city-state. Thus the citizen is involved in politics, festivals and other social activities, in sports and games, in literature in art, in voting in the assemblies, holding minor offices, being a juror in the courts, and in fighting in the army. Politics, then, was originally a study of the life of the citizen within the city-state, and an analysis of the different forms of political life and governmental constitution.
With this in mind, many of the Greek philosophers, naturally, wrote texts on the nature of the state, on how it should be run, both ideally and practically. The Republic by Plato is one attempt to frame a Utopian city in which justice can be found. He had a more pragmatic attempt to frame the basis of an operational state in his very conservative work, The Laws. Though in Plato's view the state had to rule with the consent of the government, it was also crucial that the state should be guided with those who had the knowledge of constitutions and government - he was thus led the idea of a military and philosophical elite (or a philosopher-king) who should control the state and its laws.
Aristotle, too, was deeply interested in the way polities operated and wrote a foundation treatise called the Politics in which he analyzed the different types of constitutions, the way they developed and were overthrown, and the legitimate basis of their rule. This treatise called upon numerous actual examples known to him from the Greek world, and was not Utopian in its methodology and implications, as was Plato's Republic. Rather, Aristotle states that we have to assess the best constitution for 'the majority of states', i.e. his claim is that his analysis is based on facts, and that its recommendations are practical. Essentially, Aristotle feels that the middle class provides the most stable group to rule the state, but draws up various appropriate constitutions relevant to the class structure of the city involved (Politics IV.3).
Aristotle's thought had enormous influence on what came to be called political theory, as well as early constitutional and legal thought. His comparative and constitutional approach is very much with us today in many modes of political analysis. In passing we might mention that some of his ideas were put into practise by the tyrant Demetrius of Phaleron, who came into power in Athens after 322 B.c., and gave that city 10 years of fairly stable but morally austere government. Likewise, Aristotle's conception of the mixed constitution, including institutions reflecting the democratic, aristocratic and monarchical elements, was used by a later Greek historian, Polybius, to explain the dramatic successes and military might of the Romans as they conquered the entire Mediterranean world.
It is quite possible that Machiavelli's method of analysis in some ways followed Aristotle's in the use of examples to support a set of recommendations which he feels are practical. This is something of a 'case analysis' approach, where individual examples are used to support and demonstrate general principles.
Greek thinkers were very much concerned with the stability and justice of states; for through 500 years of the Greek city-states most of them had suffered regular upheavals and continual warfare. Politics sought for constitutions which were both robust and able to survive inter-state warfare. That is to say, internal and external politics were connected. These issues were also extremely important in the unstable world of Italian city-states during the Renaissance. For Machiavelli, as we shall see, good laws are dependant on 'good', i.e. efficient military forces (The Prince, Book XII). However, for Greek historian Polybius, the ability to raise and maintain an efficient army is dependent on a stable state which avoids internal revolution and conflict through having a balanced constitution. In modern terms, the effective strength of an organization is based on its stability and integration as much as on its brute strength or total size, a point also recognized by the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu. States also need to be able to face and survive external threats, without destroying the bases of their own societies. We shall return to this point in our later discussion.
Machiavelli, in fact, was reacting to wide range of traditional learning, much of which had an idealistic imperative, i.e. it was concerned with improving the state and the life of the individual. There were several texts in the ancient tradition to which Machiavelli was reacting. For, example, Cicero's De Officiis was an attempt to define the way an office holder or official should execute his duties. Essentially, he advised that the highest moral standards should be adhered to, and that officials should also be generous and just in their dealings. These claims, which greatly influenced Renaissance thought, were largely rejected by Machiavelli as either inefficient, or actually dangerous to the rule of the Prince (The Prince XVI). We might also mention Cicero's Republic, another book attempting to define a Utopian republic in which political extremes are avoided. Democracy is allowed some small place in this constitution, but liberty is not allowed to become license. More importantly, Cicero recognized that for a Republic to work, there had to be a certain commonality in the aims and values of its people: without some level of shared aspirations and goals, different classes within the society would eventually tear it apart (for Machiavelli's divergences from Cicero, see Lukes 2001, pp562-563). Now it is true that many modern European states originally began as ethnic and cultural unities. However, with the expansion of states across larger territories, and with a growing cultural and religious pluralism, such a unified world-view is often impossible. It is for this reason that the seminal Chistian thinker, St. Augustine, in his the City of God, decided that no earthly republic could be truly just, nor without conflict, a view which Machiavelli also sought to transcend.
Another work which Machiavelli reacted against was Seneca's De Clementia (which means 'Concerning Clemency' or 'Mercy'). Seneca here denounces cruelty, but one of the key doctrines of The Prince is that cruelty can be 'used well', i.e. it is a valid and efficient tool of policy. There is one last ancient writer who had a profound effect on Machiavelli - the historian Livy, who wrote a long, moralizing history of the Roman Republic. Machiavelli himself wrote a series of Discourses on the work of Livy, in which he analyzes the bases of Republics. Machiavelli, like other Italian writers such as Petrarch and Dante, was strongly impressed by ancient Roman learning and the type of administrative and military virtues which had made Rome great from the 3rd century B.C. till approximately 500 A.D. Machiavelli was in fact an ardent supporter of the Florentine Republic until the rule of the Medici was restored in 1512. The Prince, itself, was probably written after some of these Discourses had begun (Adams 1971, p93), and is therefore one special case of the analysis of a state ruled by an individual leader. The Discourses have a very different tone and content to The Prince. For example, in this work Machiavelli, speaking of the early Roman kings says -
The prince consequently soon drew upon himself the general hatred. An object of hatred, he naturally felt fear; fear in turn dictated to him precautions and wrongs, and thus tyranny quickly developed itself. Such were the beginnings and causes of disorders, conspiracies, and plots against the sovereigns, set on foot, not by the feeble and timid, but by those citizens who, surpassing the others in grandeur of soul, in wealth, and in courage, could not submit to the outrages and excesses of their princes. (in Adams 1971, p97)
This model of the ruler's actions based on fear is a different view to that found in The Prince, where the noble leader takes necessary actions in his own interest. Furthermore, in the Discourses, Machiavelli follows Aristotle and Polybius in recommending a mixed constitution, stating that; -
In fact, when there is combined under the same constitution a prince, a nobility, and the power of the people, then these three powers will watch and keep each other reciprocally in check. (in Adams 1971, p98)
This notion of the rule of law and a balance of powers are not highly valued in The Prince, the work for which Machiavelli is today (in)famous. There are two ways of relating these three political groups of the prince, nobility and people. Usually they are viewed as a potentially stable hierarchy of classes. However, it terms of political alliances, it is quite possible to view them as a wheel in which internal alliances, external interventions (from France, Spain or the Holy Roman Empire), or the use of mercenaries (Condottieri) can bring about a literal revolution. In this system the prince might ally with the people if the nobles get too strong, or use the nobles to crush the people. Likewise, the nobles might ally themselves with the lower estates to remove the Prince. Machiavelli uses both models, depending on the state of affairs under discussion.
In part, Machiavelli was reacting against the elevated political standards argued for in Christian scholarship. During the later Middle Ages and the early Renaissance period, Christianity, with its emphasis on the spiritual life of man, on his inner virtues and intentions, had set a much higher standard for its Princes than even the ancients had. Indeed, the Prince was supposed to be a model of Christian virtue, and fulfil a religious function in defending the Church and propagating its virtues. Taking for example, the work of Egidio Colonna in the 13th century, we see that the Prince both in his personality and in his administration of his household and state is supposed to attain the highest levels of talent and morality. The picture is ideal, and deduced from general Christian principles of conduct (Adams 1971, p155).
However, in the thirteen century, the works of Aristotle were being rediscovered and discussed, largely through texts and commentaries preserved in Arabic sources. Aristotle had left a huge legacy of clearly written texts that used observation and the collection of data as methods - studies of biology, physics, politics and political constitutions. This approach, from the time of the Dark Ages on, came to be regarded as being in contradiction to the revealed truth of Christianity. But Thomas Aquinas (1225-74 A.D.) managed to resolve this problem by arguing that the truths of faith, and those of sense experience, as discussed by Aristotle, were fully complementary and compatible. Religious Truth was still held to be the high truth, but it was now possible to systematically study the principles of the world and the way it worked without undermining revealed truth.
There was a second aspect to this. Politically, St Augustine saw the divine order and the political world, which he expressed as the heavenly city and the earthly city, as essentially in disharmony. There could be no truly holy empire, nor genuinely spiritual world order. Aquinas, however, thought there could be a harmony between the two, if the law of the earthly kingdoms corresponded firstly to natural law, and therefore to divine law. For Aquinas, the order of the physical world was put in place by God, therefore, it reflected God's will. Furthermore, the working out of this natural law could be understood by reason and act as a guide to behavior (implied in Aquinas Summa Theologica I-II, Third Article, Question 94). For Aquinas, true kingship could be one of the best ways to run a state, but only if the common good was being pursued, and if there is some level of consensus between the king and his subjects. The king in his coronation swore to do justice to all men, and he was, in turn, responsible to God. Legitimate government, therefore, must conform to this divine law.
Various 15th century writers including Platina and Patrizi, followed up these notions - they were particularly interested in the education of the prince towards virtue, and the application of these virtues in the practice of an ethical administration. These 15th century humanists began to develop catalogues of virtues, list of qualities the prince should have, perhaps under the impact of Aristotle's Ethics and Cicero De Officiis (Adams 1971, p157). Some idea of the extent of these virtues can be seen by looking at Castiglione's Book of the Courtier. This work was actually written shortly before Machiavelli's, but it really tries to distil the concepts of the Middle Ages into a vision of the completely rounded, ideal knight or courtier. He is a man who has the skills of war, but also those of literature, music, athletics, a deep understanding of the intellectual tradition of the West, and to top it all, is a lover and protector of women.
Although Machiavelli's The Prince superficially fits into the mould of these humanist tracts, he actually undertook to refute these catalogues of virtues, especially in books XV-XIX (Adams 1971, p163). There are two clear grounds for this attack.
First, Machiavelli claims to be focusing on what really happens rather than mere theories or speculations (The Prince Book XV). Second, that adhering to what should be rather than what actually occurs can lead to self-destruction. This is the basis of the general claim by many of Machiavelli's commentators that he is a realist on two counts: first, that he bases his discussion on historical and contemporary evidence which provides an empirical base for his work. Second, that in refuting ethical and moral claims and substituting them with the 'real' principles underlying statecraft, he is freeing the leader from any obligation to follow these ideals, i.e. Machiavelli is perhaps the Renaissance grandfather of real-politik. This term real-politik has been extended to cover the notion of the blending of power, self-interest, and some limited credence to morals, into a 'policy of the possible'. (for example, in post-world war II political thought, as expressed by H. Morgenthau, see below. In most democratic forms of government, legalists would prefer to modify this approach to 'the policy of the possible and the permissible').
As we shall see, both these claims made on behalf of Machiavelli can be challenged. However, before turning to the text itself, it may be important to assess the degree of realist thought found in other humanist thinkers, stretching over 200 years. Diomede Carafa (1406-87), for example, wrote a 'survival' handbook for a princess who had just married the Duke of Ferrara (Adams 1971, p160). However, this political memorandum was not published. The division between theory and practise was rarely discussed. It is Machiavelli, however, who shocked his contemporaries by publicly pointing out the hypocrisy of this situation. Thinkers such as Erasmus, Sir Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey did seem to subscribe to these high ideals of political practice - Erasmus wrote a text on the education of Christian princes, while More's Utopia is a sharp critique of current society. The point here is that these thinkers not only knew the realities of politics, but were themselves actively involved in Church and State affairs. Thus Cardinal Wolsey's Treaty of London in 1518, although overtly designed at defending Europe from the Turks, actually contained numerous provisions for the arbitration of disputes and the limitation of aggression within Europe. Erasmus, of course, was deeply involved in the Catholic Counter-Reformation, which hoped to stem the Protestant movement in northern Europe. Sir Thomas More was both a parliamentarian and a diplomat. These humanitarian thinkers were aware of the ruthlessness of political life. Rather than suggesting a naïve idealism, they were trying to set up a standard, or norm, by which the reality of the time could be judged. It was not that they lacked knowledge of the corruption of public and private life, but that they wished to reform it. Further, by making princes and rulers publicly agree to this high ideals, they set up a way by which their conduct could be criticised and judged. Ethical and ideal standards are themselves tools and means of statecraft. Social and political criticism implies the existence of some criteria to judge events against.
Interestingly enough, Machiavelli's Discourses makes it clear that he thought that the Italians had declined from an earlier, more virtuous state in the times of the Roman Republic. He states in the Discourses: -
. . . when we see . . . the wonderful examples which the history of ancient kingdoms and republics present us, the prodigies of virtue and wisdom displayed by the kings, captains, citizens and legislators who have sacrificed themselves for their country - when we see these, I say, more admired than imitated, or so much neglected that not the least trace of this ancient virtue remains, we cannot but be at the same time as much surprised as afflicted (in Adam 1971, p94).
Machiavelli feels that these ancient virtues were no longer present in his own time and that people had become much more corrupt and difficult to rule (Lukes 2001, p565). Part of his willingness to embrace the idea of a Republic is based on the view that these ancient virtues can, at least in part, be revived. It is possible that the defeat of the Florentine Republic may have somewhat soured his view of this project. The rather more cynical and pessimistic view expressed in The Prince may result, in part, from bitterness rather than irony. It is also possible that once Machiavelli was forced to recognize the Medici control of Florence, that this led to sustained elements of irony in The Prince, even if much of it did provide sound advice for rulers (see Lukes 2001, p561).
2.B History of Machiavellianism
Machiavelli's The Prince, in condoning immoral actions on the basis of necessity, managed to shock his own generation and thinkers of the following 300 hundred years. The book, written in 1513, was dedicated to Lorenzo de' Medici by 1519. It circulated as a handwritten copy for about 20 years. The Prince was published officially in 1532, and went through seven editions in less than 20 years (Adams 1971; Machiavelli 1988). By 1640, the Prince had been translated into French, Italian and English, though it came to be placed on the Index of banned books by the Catholic books (see Adams 1971; Machiavelli 1988).
To understand some of the controversy which later on developed around the figure of Machiavelli and of The Prince, we need to turn to specific event in 1572. In 1572, on St. Batholomew's night, the Catholic leaders of France attempted to wipe out the entire Huguenot (Protestant) population of France (Adams 1971, p229), killing up to 50,000 people. It turned out that the mother of the king of France was Catherine de' Medici, and the claim was made that this was act of mass murder was done directly under the influence of Machiavelli's ideas. It is from this time onwards that a series of books were written against Machiavelli's The Prince, and that the term 'machiavellian' came to mean an entirely unprincipled rogue who will use any means to gain his/her end (a view which certainly exaggerates Machiavelli's views).
It was only after the French Revolution and the Enlightenment that Machiavelli was rehabilitated, with the French philosopher Rousseau first praising his Republican viewpoint. Later on, with the rise of the empirical sciences, Machiavelli's intention to describe what was he saw to be the 'reality' of affairs was supported by the rational and critical spirit of the Enlightenment period. In particular, his discussion of political systems based on power and authority has struck a cord with twentieth century sociologists and political theorists. The Prince is regularly studied in courses in politics, business, and philosophy. In some ways this is unfortunate, since the Discourses are equally important. However, as we shall see, the reasons for the emphasis on the ideas in The Prince are tied up with current ideologies which largely dominate the political, social and international arenas.
2.C Historical Background to The Prince
Machiavelli claims to be accurately describing politics and social relations as he understood them. His method was essentially that of a case-study approach: he would always illustrate his ideas using one example from the ancient world, and one from contemporary 16th century Italian affairs. However, is Machiavelli describing these events as accurately as he claims? Second, are these affairs typical of the period or are they specific and unrepresentative examples?
Several key aspects of Italian politics directly influenced the writing of The Prince. First, the states under discussion, e.g. Florence, Milan, Genoa etc., are city-states which developed from the Middle Ages as trading and craft centres which controlled fairly small inland territories. Most of these states had no established ethnic or geographical region which could readily set stable boundaries between them. The leaders of these states tried to extend their territories, swallowing up or dominating smaller neighbours. This resulted in an intense period of conflict on the Italian peninsula, with numerous internal divisions and feuds within the cities fuelling wars and revolutions between 1300 and 1455. The result was a smaller number of relatively powerful states dominating neighbouring cities. In Machiavelli's youth the main players included Milan, Venice, Florence, the Papal States and the Kingdom of Naples.
One major trend of this period was that continual warfare seems to have contributed to a decline in the welfare, wealth and population of these states, especially Florence and Rome. J.H. Plumb gives an example of the severity of this kind of conflict in the city of Bologna: -
. . . at Bologna in 1445 the people, enraged by the slaughter of their favourite family, the Bentivoglio, hunted down their enemies and nailed their steaming hearts to the doors of the Bentivoglio's palace, as token of their love. (Plumb 1978, p31)
Both interstate and civil war were common. According to Garret Mattingly this was the result of the fact that the State could only think of itself. 'The natural egotism of a political organization with no higher end than its own self-perpetuation and aggrandizement may come nearer to explaining' the difficulties of this period than more complex economic-historical theories (Mattingly 1973, p85). However, there were attempts to limit the excesses of this warfare, especially the so-called 'Concert of Italy', where there was an agreement to leave affairs at the current territorial extension of the major Italian states. In particular, there was an attempt to avoid allowing any of these players to call in one of the major European powers, such as France or Spain. This diplomatic agreement didn't last forever, but it did defer any major intrusion from the greater European powers until 1494, when the Milanese called in the French as their allies. After this there quickly followed the intervention of Spanish forces, first in Naples, and later against Florence, while in 1527 Rome itself was sacked by the Holy Roman Empire (essentially a coalition of Austro-German forces).
However, the events described in The Prince are not really typical of European politics before or after. First, there was an extreme lack of security in these city-states, partly due to the fact that many of their rulers had no legitimate basis on which to claim their right to govern, except perhaps the Papacy, Venice, and states which had a republican system. Essentially, there was no guiding claim which made the rule of one family or group intuitively, legally or popularly acceptable. The only consensus underlying these states was that imposed by power and persuasion. The politics in this period was essentially dynastic, i.e. making sure that your line ruled, rather than being national, social, or democratic governments. In most cases these dynastic lines did not go back far enough to have strong claims to legitimacy.
Persuasion in most of these states did not derive from developing a particular ideological claim. For instance, traditional kingships refer to the traditions of the remote past, to ancestral claims and obligations, Marxist states claim that they serve the interests of the workers, while democracies claim to be representing the people. The only claim left to some of these dynasts, e.g. Cesare Borgia, was the appeal to naked power and the ability to coerce their subjects - hence it is easier to rule by fear than love (The Prince Book XVII). Greed was the motivating factor only for the few, necessity was the motivation of the many. In the last three hundred years numerous other claims, including notions of the rule of law, of a social contract, and of the ultimate benefit of the state or the people have been used to help stabilize governments. After 1494, Italy more and more was drawn into the broader political fabric of Europe, and many major powers fought their differences out Italian soil. Politics in Italy during Machiavelli's lifetime were far from normal, either in relation to the Middle Ages or the early modern period. Therefore, Machiavelli's solutions are not really generalizable, nor were his recommendations in the end effective for Renaissance Italy. Italy in turn would only be unified after the legacy of the Napoleonic wars through a mix of nationalism, liberalism and republicanism (which led to a constitutional monarchy) and the effective exclusion of foreign powers. The Prince has been over-rated as a guide book for rulers, and at best provided guidance for very particular political environments.
3. Central Themes of The Prince
In this section, we will explore some of the main themes of the text of The Prince, and make a brief comparison with some of the main strands of 20th century political realism. We can then briefly evaluate certain aspects of this realist tradition.
The central concept of reporting what really occurs, and its moral implications, are expressed by Machiavelli:
But since my intention is to say something that will prove of practical use to the listener, I have thought it proper to represent things as they are in real truth, rather than as they are imagined. Many have dreamed up republics which have never in truth been known to exist; the gulf between how one should live and how one does live is so wide that a man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done learns the way to self-destruction rather than self-preservation. The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous. Therefore, if a prince wants to maintain his rule he must learn how not to be virtuous, and to make use of this or not according to need (Book XV, Bull translation, pp90-91. The Bull translation is used throughout unless otherwise stated).
Notice several key statements here: firstly, self-preservation, and maintenance of the rule of the prince are accepted as valid goals. Secondly, one cannot afford to be always virtuous because those around us and with whom we deal are not: in other words, the lack of public morality forces the prince to immoral means. Lastly, virtue, instead of a final goal, now becomes a tool to be used where appropriate to the aid survival of the prince and his government. We need to distinguish these moral values from the more specific sense of virtu as deployed by Machiavelli, which includes the notion of being able to understand and act on the opportunities provided by time and fortune, to simulate difference virtues or qualities as needed, and to combine cleverness and charisma (Lukes 2001, pp568-569, p573).
In particular, the prince should feel no obligation to honour his word, or obligations placed on him by the aristocracy or the people. In Book XVIII this is part of a broader pessimism concerning contemporary human nature: -
So it follows that a prudent ruler cannot, and must not, honour his word when it places him at a disadvantage and when the reasons for which he made his promise no longer exist. If all men were good, this precept would not be good; but because men are wretched creatures who would not keep their word to you, you need not keep your word to them. . . . Men are so simple, and so much creatures of circumstance, that the deceiver will always find someone ready to be deceived. (Book XVIII, pp99-1000)
Nor can such corrupt human beings be securely ruled by an appeal to their better natures, nor by an appeal to the common good or public interest. Other means must be found to ensure their obedience. So, speaking of cruelty and compassion as political tools, Machiavelli explains: -
Taking others of the qualities I enumerated above, I say that a prince must want to have a reputation for compassion rather than for cruelty: nonetheless, he must be careful that he does not make bad use of compassion. Cesare Borgia was accounted cruel; nevertheless, this cruelty of his reformed the Romagna, brought it unity, and restored order and obedience. On reflection, it will be seen that there was more compassion in Cesare than in the Florentine people, who, to escape being called cruel, allowed Pistoia to be devastated. So a prince must not be worried if he incurs reproach for his cruelty so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal. By making an example or two he will prove more compassionate than those who, being too compassionate, allow disorders which lead to murder and rapine. These nearly always harm the whole community, whereas executions ordered by a prince only affect individuals. (Book XVII, p95)
Pistoia was a subject-city of Florence in which Florentines didn't intervene soon enough to stop serious fighting between two factions. The leader Cesare Borgia, on the other hand, was renowned for his ability to use force and cruelty to control both subjects and enemies. We can see here the emphasis on achieving long-term goals, even if cruel means are required. Likewise, we see an emphasis on the welfare of the whole community, but specifically in terms of law and order. Indeed, Machiavelli has something of a utilitarian doctrine, which treats pains and pleasures in a kind of control calculus, e.g. kill a few to keep many in order.
These considerations lead Machiavelli to the following dictum: -
I believe that here it is a question of cruelty used well or badly. We can say that cruelty is used well (if it is permissible to talk in this way of what is evil) when it is employed once for all, and one's safety depends on it, and then it is not persisted in but as far as possible turned to the good of one's subjects. Cruelty badly used is that which, although infrequent to start with, as time goes on, rather than disappearing, grows in intensity. Those who use the first method can, with divine and human assistance, find some means of consolidating their position, . . . the others cannot possibly stay in power. (The Prince Book X, pp65-6)
Here we can see that Machiavelli recognizes that such actions may morally unacceptable, i.e. evil, but he still recommends them as tools to consolidate the safety and power of the prince. Furthermore, he assumes that in the end such means are turned to 'good' ends defined as the welfare of the prince's subjects, but notice this is only 'as far as possible', i.e. after the survival of the prince has been assured. Machiavelli elevates this to a principle of necessity, based on making the best of situations to ensure the continued, and hopefully increasing, power of the prince and his state.
The prince, therefore, must rely on what he can control: -
So, on this question of being loved or feared, I conclude that since some men love as they please, but fear when the prince pleases, a wise prince should rely on what he controls, not on what he cannot control. He must only endeavour, as I have said, to escape being hated. (The Prince, Book XVII, p99)
With this in mind, according to Machiavelli it is only by successful outcomes that a prince should be judged. Moral and religious considerations, which are sometimes referred to by Machiavelli, must take a secondary role. They are luxuries which can only be afforded once stability and power have been established through more effective means.
In this light, we can see that there are few notions of legitimacy developed in The Prince. One implicit notion is that the ruler, through his intelligence, effectiveness, and his willingness to take the moment as it is delivered to him by 'Fate', has demonstrated fitness to rule. In other words, it is the ruler's strength, his special virtue in the sense of effectiveness, in the end, which entitles him to a position others lack. From this perspective, the prince or ruler may be glorious, but he is unlikely to be good in any other sense.
A second claim to legitimacy is developed in the last book of the The Prince, under the title 'Exhortation to Liberate Italy.' Here Machiavelli argues that a strong leader is needed to impose order on the entire Italian peninsula, and in particular to liberate them from the inroads of the greater European powers, as well as the wounds of internal stability. Machiavelli is here pleading for a 'prudent and capable man to introduce a new order, bringing honour to himself and prosperity to all and every Italian' The Prince, p134). This chapter may be a genuine appeal, in which case to would furnish an end directed towards the common good, justifying the actions of Machiavelli's ruthless notion of a ruler. Here we may also be witnessing an early foreshadowing of the nationalism which was at a later date to help unify Italy. However, bearing in mind that this chapter was especially directed as an appeal to the Medici Dukes who then ruled Florence, it is also possible that a great deal of flattery and self-promotion are involved in this chapter as well.
4. Morgenthau and Power Politics Among Nations
How does Machiavelli's raw political 'realism' compare with 20th century political realism? This twentieth century interpretation is much more sophisticated, and indeed enlightened. It is also one of the main theoretical approaches in International Relations, as well as the most common approach actually used by actors in foreign affairs and statesmanship since the start of World War II. This approach is perhaps best summarized by Hans Morgenthau, in his work, Politics Among Nations: the Struggle for Power and Peace, first written in 1948 in response to the events of World War II and its effects through the emerging Cold War. This book, however, has been revised through the 60's and 70's, and remains a powerful interpretation of world politics pre-1985.
The first thing to note about the modern realist position is that it is strongly anti-utopian. This school of thought is explained by Morgenthau to include the idea that: -
. . . the world, imperfect as it is from the rational point of view, is the result of forces inherent in human nature. To improve the world one must work with those forces, not against them. This being inherently a world of opposing interests and of conflict among them, moral principles can never be fully realized, but at best must be approximated through the ever temporary balancing of interests and the ever precarious settlement of conflicts. This school, then, sees in a system of checks and balances a universal principle for all pluralist societies. It appeals to historic precedent rather than to abstract principles, and aims at the realization of the lesser evil rather than of the absolute good. (1985, pp3-4).
This sounds reasonable, but the implications are more problematic. Morgenthau then proceeds (1985, pp4-17) to cite six central principles of political realism, which I will here summarize, contrast with Machiavelli's views, and then briefly evaluate.
Morgenthau's 'Principles of Political Realism' include: -
1. 'Political realism believes that politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature. In order to improve society, it is first necessary to understand the laws by which society lives. The operation of these laws being impervious to our preferences, men will challenge them only at the risk of failure.' (Morgenthau 1985, p4)
Here we see some of Machiavelli's claims strengthened and extended. Morgenthau is not only describing what really happens, he also claims that objective laws of behaviour form the basis of proper political activity. Furthermore, these laws are not directed by our moral preferences, and if these laws are ignored, men will fail, just as did the prince who tried to conform to what should be, rather than what is. Morgenthau is making a strongly positivist claim but we might note that such universal laws have not been successfully demonstrated by sociology or psychology, though some limited predictive capacity in certain areas of political behaviour, e.g. voting behaviour, has been achieved.
2. 'The main signpost that helps political realism to find its way through the landscape of international politics is the concept of interest defined in terms of power. . . . It sets politics as an autonomous sphere such as economics (understood in terms of interest defined as wealth), ethics, aesthetics, or religion' (Morgenthau 1985, p5).
Here political activity is held to be directed by the aim to achieve power, a view supported also by The Prince. Likewise, 'interest' is usually assumed to be the self-interest of whatever group or unit is under study. Ethical judgements about actions are therefore not the same as political judgements - the later are concerned with issues of effective action, will, intellectual capacity, and are measured by how far an action promotes the power of the actor or the group he represents. Promotion of power is held to be a prime self-interest.
In this light, the ethical and ideological concerns of a statesmen are held to be of limited use in predicting the foreign policy or political policy that statesmen will in fact follow (Morgenthau 1985, pp6-7), since his duty in the political arena must be directed to enhancing and maintaining power. This view is also found in The Prince, where leaders seek power due to necessity, but only choose morality as a preference when positive conditions allow.
This view may hold for individual leaders and statesmen. However, it does not hold so well for governments. Thus the foreign policy of the Soviet Union had been conditioned not only by real politik, but also by ideas of class struggle and historical dialectic found in Marxist-Leninism. Likewise, the policies of communist China are largely opaque without a good understanding of Marxism, Leninism, and Maoism. Ironically, the U.S.A. post-World War II policy of the world-wide containment of communist is largely based on ideals found in the liberal and capitalist world views. It is exactly this type of idealism which Morgenthau thinks is inappropriate as it has committed the U.S. into taking the role of 'world policemen' and engaged them in economic and military operations world-wide. Yet there is no doubt that such 'ideals' and ideologies have helped generate the conditions in which real-politik was played out for the forty years of the Cold War. Furthermore, it could be argued that the real international basis of conflict during the Cold War was the tension between Communist/Socialism and Democracy/Capitalism, with nation-states acting in a sense as the means for carrying out these political and economic systems.
3. 'Realism assumes that its key concept of interest defined as power is an objective category which is universally valid, but it does not endow that concept with a meaning that is fixed once and for all. The idea of interest is indeed of the essence of politics and is unaffected by the circumstances of time and place.' (Morgenthau 1985, p10)
Morgenthau then goes on to cite the sociologist Max Weber as saying that: -
Interest (material and ideal), not ideas, dominate directly the actions of men. Yet the 'images of the world' created by these ideas have very often served as switches determining the tracks on which the dynamism of interests kept actions moving. (in Morgenthau 1985, p11)
If so, we might say that ideas can act as means for interests: means of communication, expression and formulation of interests, especially in the public arena. Morgenthau then goes on to add: -
The same observations apply to the concept of power. Its content and the manner of its use are determined by the political and cultural environment. Power may comprise anything which establishes and maintains the control of man of man. Thus power covers all social relationships which serve that end, from physical violence to the most subtle psychological ties by which one mind controls another. (Morgenthau 1985, p11)
Here, as in Machiavelli, we see an emphasis on the control of men by leaders. But Morgenthau admits that cultural traditions and ideas may help condition the 'content and the manner' of the use of power. In other words, the way power is expressed and institutionalized can vary. Furthermore, power is a component of most human relationships. Morgenthau does go on to suggest that the realities of the international environment are such that the range of policy formation is limited, e.g. concern for the balance of power will always exist where numerous countries with similar ranges of power co-exist.
However, Morgenthau has here undermined his own position - if cultural factors, including ideas, provide the means for the pursuit of our interests, and help fashion the manner in which power is used, then ideology will remain a central aspect of power-relations, and in fact will help determine when power is used against others. Put simply, the raw facts of power are insufficient to determine chosen ends, that is, our main interests beyond mere survival. Survival is only a dominant, active interest under conditions of threat, e.g. in World War II and during the Cold War. It was also a major concern in Machiavelli's Italy, and remains a major concern in deeply destabilized environments, e.g. as suggested by events in modern Cambodia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.
4. 'Political realism is aware of the moral significance of political action. It is also aware of the ineluctable tension between moral command and the requirements of successful political action. . . . Both individual and state must judge political action by universal moral principles, such as that of liberty. Yet while the individual has a moral right to sacrifice himself in defense of such a moral principle, the state has no right to let its moral disapprobation of the infringement of liberty get in the way of successful political action, itself inspired by the principle of national survival.' (Morgenthau 1985,p12)
Once again, it is assumed that the survival of the political actor is valid and to be continued, even at the expense of condoning immorality. In Machiavelli the political actor was the prince, in Morgenthau the main political actor is held to be the sovereign state, regardless of whether that state is viewed as legitimate by any other criteria beyond their ability to manage and the control the citizens within their borders.
There are some positive things to be said about this position. If America had been less ideologically and ideally motivated, she may have been less ready to enter the morass of the Vietnam War, for example. Good intentions when unsupported by appropriate means certainly can lead to unintended and bad outcomes. Furthermore, there is no doubt that a government, and the State, does have a duty to maintain the necessary means of life for their citizens (an argument put forward as early as Aristotle).
On the other hand, American assessments of national power failed her in the Vietnam conflict - by all quantitative measures, North Vietnam, even with massive Soviet and Chinese aid, was a much weaker nation than the alliance supporting the South (see Rothgeb 1993). However, by every reasonable estimate, the U.S. and the South Vietnamese governments were defeated, demonstrating that power resided in different factors than those they had considered. In part, ideological factors, including the theories of class, guerilla and people's war, were the basis for the defeat of an enemy with much greater material power. In other words, ideas can themselves be weapons if they affect the will of the participants. In this war of wills, it was the American will which had crumpled. Here the doctrine of 'hearts and minds', as developed in from Maoist doctrine by the North Vietnamese was found to be a very real source of power.
Nor is it really clear that all governments, or even all countries, should survive (as sovereign entities). A very real problem for South Vietnam, for example, was the artificial nature of her boundary separating her from the 'other Vietnam', and the very limited support her various governments received from even non-communist Vietnamese in the late sixties and seventies. Artificially structured countries, like interests, don't always stay the same, nor continue to exist, e.g. the complex balancing of force and local interests required to maintain Yugoslavia as a viable federal state under Tito, an arrangement that began to unravel after this death. In spite of Morgenthau's assertions, it is not intuitively obvious that distorted state system should continued indefinitely, a claim that also became apparent with the dissolution of the USSR, a trend largely driven by Russia's interests as defined by Yeltsin. Likewise, the sovereign nation of East Germany rapidly dissolved, while the separation between North and South Korea is felt by many Koreans to be nothing but an artificial division between spheres of interest based on outdated American, Soviet, and to a lesser extent, Chinese interests.
Furthermore, Morgenthau has done another shifting of the relationship between means and ends. Here the nation has been really shifted to the position of the source of interests and the generator of goals. Rather, it is only a permanent interest by the people in a country as such that could guarantee its long-term sovereignty. National goals, then, are concerned not just with surviving, but with the manner and quality of survival.
5. 'Political realism refuses to identify the moral aspirations of a particular nations with the moral laws that govern the universe. . . . All nations are tempted - and few have been able to resist the temptation for long - to clothe their own particular aspirations and actions as the moral purposes of the universe. To know that nations are subject to moral law is one thing, while to pretend to know with certainty what is good and evil in the relations among nations is quite another.' (Morgenthau 1985, p13)
This is a reasonable statement, directed against both fanaticism and the imposition of one set of particular moral ideals on every nation. Such notions of 'universal' morality often can be a form of cultural imperialism. On the other hand, Morgenthau has already argued that there are real laws of behaviour on which political and national behaviour should be based. If these supposed laws are not in fact universal, then political realism itself actually becomes an attempt to impose political realism upon others as the implicit rules of international conduct. In other words, it ceases to be a valid form of political science, and itself becomes and ideology, a tool in the international arena. These 'realistic' rules, of course, are more beneficial to those with measurable and definable power than to those with less power, or with power less readily assessed. In military strategy one of the main policies is to lure your enemy into fighting on unknown ground, or in ways in which he is weak, but where you are strong.
These general considerations then lead Morgenthau to argue that: -
6. 'The difference, then, between political realism and other schools of thought is real, and it is profound. However much of the theory of political realism may have been misunderstood and misinterpreted, there is no gainsaying its distinctive intellectual and moral attitude to matters political.' (Morgenthau 1985, p13)
The second sentence is true, but from it we should not infer that this particular political philosophy is true, makes valid consistently claims, or is preferable as a norm of the international arena.
In particular, 'political realism' actually takes a 'moral stance' in trying to argue that morality is not an issue when survival is at stake, and in some sense since power is the basis of survival, it is always advisable to augment power over morality. Morality can therefore only be afforded as a secondary goal. This is an attempt to put forward an 'amoral' case for political conduct. However, the use of any power at any time over any person for any goal, no matter how apparently moral or consensus-based, is a profoundly moral and ideological process, guided both by ideas and culture in its formation, execution, and in its later historical interpretation. In other words, the attempt to divide ethics and politics is based on a false understanding of both. Ethical considerations and norms are themselves persuasive tools of political power (see above), while politics emerges out of any social acting out of values. It is precisely this close relationship between ethics and politics which informs the foreign policy and rhetoric of countries such as China, Indonesia, and in a different direction many European nations (see Holsti 1990, pp13-14; Korany 1990, pp23-5; King 1990, p74)
Elsewhere Morgenthau argues that political realists are aware of relevance of moral standards: -
The political realist is not unaware of the existence and relevance of standards of thought other than political ones. As political realist, he cannot but subordinate these other standards to those of politics. And he parts with other schools when they impose standards of thought appropriate to other spheres upon the political sphere. (Morgenthau 1985, p14)
Morgenthau is running the implicit idea of a hierarchy of values here - morals or ideals would be subordinated to the requirements of power politics. This notion, too, centres on how power is defined. Furthermore, our hierarchy of interests will tend to shift depending on our appraisal of the situation we are dealing with. Put simply, the power imperative only holds as a valid argument when a range of assumptions are in force. In particular, when: -
1) The unit whose power we are promoting is itself viable and worthwhile, i.e. a chosen goal.
2) under conditions of high risk, where there is some doubt about survival of the state or communities.
3) when the nature of power, including the role of ideas and culture in the formation and use of social power, has been understood.
Morgenthau offers us a sophisticated and persuasive ideology of realism. However, his views can be contested at the very core of their principles.
5. Critical Discussion: Contradictions and Implications.
There are some minor cautions concerning the text of The Prince itself. One such problem is that Machiavelli uses exaggeration for the purposes of style: the text is often satirical and ironic. For example, the idea that men sooner forget the killing of their fathers than the loss of their patrimony (The Prince, p59) does seem to be exaggerated, especially when we notice that vendetta and revenge for the deaths of family members were also features of the social life of the Italian Renaissance period. The seduction of the word is a form of political persuasion, as distinct from a political realism. Machiavelli has written a terse, readable book which is still persuasive today. Partly because of its style and literary merits. Morgenthau's arguments, too, are often persuasive, appealing to what he thinks is obvious, rather than coherently developed flows of logic.
A more serious problem for The Prince is that even Machiavelli does not claim to be able to overcome the vicissitudes of Fate, which can favour or break men, no matter how much ability they have. It is rather a question of adapting one's style to changing circumstances, to make the best of them (see The Prince, XXV, p86). The book does not really tell the prince how to change his character or his actions to suit the times, nor does it provide any analytical method for assessing the situation or the swings of fortune. Rather, all these qualities are assumed as part of the intelligence or judgement of the prince. Machiavelli does not provide a suitably detailed account that would allow a diagnosis of a situation, and then an application of specific responses or policies, i.e. he does not provide a practical science of politics or government.
Furthermore, it can be argued, that the prince, by usurping power, has made himself a target for others to do the same, e.g. the assassination of the Roman emperors from the time of Caligula on set a precedent for future action. In a sense then, whether or not The Prince is true to life, by even discussing these ruthless methods, it is certainly a possible recommendation of their use. By expressing and analyzing the unthinkable it brings these forbidden actions into the realm of the possible and 'normal' (a similar critique was developed later on by Sartre). The success of ruthless methods demonstrates to competitors that such actions can lead to the successful grasping of power. As such, the gaining of power by military coupes and assassinations will lead to a state system which can itself threatened destabilized by similar methods. It must therefore use a greater level of fear and force to remain in power than some kind of consensus-based government, as Machiavelli has noted in his comments on the benefits of gaining the support of the people (The Prince, X, p36). What we have here is a kind of escalation in the internal-security stakes, a feature of most totalitarian or police states.
This approach can be broadened to discuss the stability of any elite group in any organization. Elites need some support base to operate, and if 'pyramids' are either too steep, or lack a proper basis, they can be more readily toppled from below. An alternative strategy to gaining the support of broad-based support by means of propaganda or persuasion is to set up a countervailing force. For example, a group with a separate identity and closed ideology. In the ancient world mercenaries were often used in this way, while the creation of elite party groups and secret police organizations are standard techniques of both fascist and communist states.
In other words, the methods recommended by the prince, if used by several players, tend to cancel out the benefits they might have gained in the short-term.
The Prince is an interesting book but its ideas are not universifiable to all men and organizations. There is a systematic problem with applying the harsh methods of rule described in the text. If this knowledge is kept to an individual or a small, closed group the strategies in the text may be effective - if the information is broadly known and imitated two things follow. First, the players become harder to manipulate and control because they know the methods being used. Persuasion and deception are harder to achieve. Second, there will be an increase in the number of people trying to play the game. If you look at Renaissance politics in this way, it is clear that there were too many too players trying to gain access to power for any of the smaller princes or states to be stable for very long. Both prediction and control of internal politics tends to break down if too many external contingencies impinge upon the system, e.g. the influences of the major European powers such as France and Spain.
There are examples which show limiting cases for the depravity of politics even in Renaissance Italy. Firstly, the Concert (or agreement) of 1454, already mentioned, was a rational attempt to provide stability within the Italian peninsula. This was called the Most Holy league, and in it Venice, Milan and Florence formed the equivalent of a 'a collective security organization' (Holsti 1988). It was actually the break down of this system after thirty years of relative success which created many of the horrors which Machiavelli describes. Likewise, in 1518 Cardinal Wolsey of England drew up the Treaty of London, which was designed to provide for peace in Europe, including clauses against aggression, and provision for systems of arbitration. This treaty was viewed with suspicion at first, but in the end did manage to stabilize European wars for some 30 months (Mattingly 1973, pp158-160).
There are other details which show that Machiavelli wasn't as empirical as claimed. For example, his model leader, Caesar Borgia, actually failed in his ambitions, in spite of doing everything 'right' from the point of view of Machiavelli's dictums. Fortuna, or fate, is something which Machiavelli feels can brings down even the most effective of rulers. This is an admission that the predictive powers of even the most 'virtuous' and effective of princes are limited. Even if you follow all these pragmatic principles there is no guarantee that you will succeed in the end, though you have maximized some of your capacities. Likewise, Machiavelli stresses the importance of good military forces, and especially castigates the use of mercenaries (Lukes 2001, p571). However, in practice, Florence's home-trained militia forces of the Florentine republic were smashed by Spanish professional forces in 1512, while the use of Swiss mercenaries was one of the main strengths of the French armies. Machiavelli's view on this point was appropriate only for the small, relatively poor Italian powers. It did not follow for the larger European powers who had both the wealth, and the strong national forces needed to keep mercenaries under control.
6. Broader Implications and Alternatives
It is possible to broaden this debate to include contemporary issues. Machiavelli has stated that good laws are dependent on good arms, i.e. good laws and government are derived from the use of force and power, or the threat of the use of such force or power. Here Machiavelli fits into the realist mould; any ideal or law needs the power to be enforced before it is worth pursuing. But the question remains, how is this power itself to be controlled and restrained by the ruler or his government? Machiavelli's recommendations lead to a dizzying balancing of temporary interests without any underlying loyalty or commitment by other key political actors. As such, his 'system' remains largely unstable.
He has also stated that the effectiveness of the state is reliant upon good laws. In the sense of laws as principles of organization, it can be argued that they are both useful and necessary in any government. Furthermore, laws in this sense are used not just to set limits on behaviour, but actually are part of the mechanism whereby the goals of governments might be reached.
Let's take the example of some sort of collective treaty system between governments, limiting both their armaments and their military actions. If any single state gets too strong or prepares for war the other states will take collective action against them (this is the well known security dilemma, with the possibility of counter-alliances or band-wagoning against domination). The first principle for such a system to work is that all members must have equal access to key information concerning each other's military system (the concept of 'transparency' in security terms). If any of the states involved felt that they are not getting enough information, or if they feel that another state is subverting such monitoring, there will be a loss of confidence in the system. Now, in this situation, the individual government may begin to take steps to strengthen itself against another country. Furthermore, it may begin to arrange secret alliances outside the collective security network. In this scenario, lack of certainty of information access provided by the system has created an instability in the principles providing for collective security.
In terms of game theory, once this doubt about the quality of information reaches a certain level, the game itself collapses because players no longer accept the rules of the game as given. In other words, rules and principles may themselves be rapidly replaced by new, unstated rules of conduct. Idealism, then, represents the stated rules of the game which have been abandoned, which have been replaced by the ruthless concepts of a real-politik that few politicians admit they are playing. However, these new rules are neither arbitrary, nor strictly necessary. They are a choice by players trying to increase their gain and limit their losses in the face of uncertainty. However, this choice is often made incorrectly, either too soon, or on the basis of short-term rather than long-term gain. The abandonment of the detente system in Europe before World War I by Germany, for example, was based on the perceived threat of a war on two fronts. She then moved towards unilateral steps to establish her security. In doing so, however, she triggered similar moves by her neighbours, especially France and Russia. The result was that within a year she was involved in a war on two fronts - her actions had brought about the very thing she didn't want. This was based on the misconceived notion that a brutal preemptive strike through Holland and Belgium could stabilize the Western front, and then allow a more leisurely attack on Russia. She failed, however, to achieve her first goals. The result was four years of bitter war and the destabilization and weakening of Germany for another fourteen years, followed by the rise of Hitler and another punishing war. This was not at all a realistic policy - her real strength lay in the collective peace and incremental gains due to her increasing technological strength, not in pre-emptive deployment of military power based on speculative calculations of victory.
Machiavelli's dictum of 'cruelty used well', i.e. used effectively, may be the limiting factor for oppression within certain states. Beyond this level, overt or brutal repression can lead to a backlash, as seen for example, in recent years in Hungary and 'Yugoslavia'. But even when institutionalized violence is kept within such limits, there is still a large internal cost, socially and economically in maintaining such a system. At a certain level this control become counter-produce, i.e. it costs more to maintain than it yields to the controlling elite. It is type of internal mechanism which played a large part in the fall of the Roman Empire, was one of the main motivations for social change in Eastern Europe during the 1980s and 1990s.
The underlying assumption behind The Prince is that the ruler is in competition for power with others, both internally and externally. Therefore, his gain is his competitors' loss, and he can win just as well by making his opponents' loose. Furthermore, every time his opponents gain any advantage, this is viewed as weakening his own position. In the terminology of Game Theory, this is a zero-sum game. Quantitatively, what one player gains is no longer available to this opponent - the sum of all the players' gains and losses always equal zero. In other words, you can win simply by making your opponent lose. This view of matters is obviously applicable in some cases, so long as available resources are finite, and the penalties or losses are strictly controlled.
However, there are another set of games which are non-zero-sum games. One famous example is called the prisoners' dilemma. Two prisoners guilty of a crime are being interrogated separately. There are no other witnesses to the crime. The interrogators tell each of the prisoners that if they turn state evidence, they will get a reduced sentence. Furthermore, the interrogators argue that the prisoner had better do it now before his partner gives evidence. There are two interesting aspects of this game. Firstly, in many cases, prisoners do give evidence against each other, thinking that they will gain from their accomplice's loss. However, this is a situation where if they had both remained silent, neither could have been proven guilty. Essentially, the prisoners might have played this as a positive-sum game, and both would have gained collectively from co-operation. The problem here, is that the participants didn't understand which game would yield the optimum result and which side they might choose, therefore they didn't know which set of rules to use in guiding their behaviour. There are other versions of this game, depending on how penalties and rewards are set: -
For decades, game theorists' basic paradigm for the puzzle of cooperation has been the scenario called the prisoner's dilemma, in which each player has a powerful incentive to exploit the other. The game is set up so that cooperation is best for the group, but each player individually does better by taking advantage of the other. A growing body of mathematical analysis and computer modeling now suggests that in many circumstances, cooperators can survive in the prisoner's dilemma. In the April 8 Nature, researchers argue that, under certain conditions, a cooperator can infiltrate, and eventually take over, a population of cheaters.
Meanwhile, other game theorists are arguing that the prisoner's dilemma isn't the be-all and end-all of cooperation test beds. In the same issue of Nature, researchers highlight another set of interactions, called the snowdrift game, in which players have incentives both to cooperate and to exploit each other. The new analysis of the snowdrift game challenges some accepted wisdom about which environmental factors encourage cooperative or exploitative behavior.
SELFISH STRATEGIES In the prisoner's dilemma, the police are separately interrogating two accomplices. Each criminal has two options: to cooperate with the other by keeping quiet or to defect by squealing on the other. If both cooperate, they'll each receive a 1-year sentence. If each incriminates the other, they'll both get 5 years. But if one cooperates and the other squeals, the cooperator will land a 10-year sentence, while the squealer will get off with only 6 months in jail.
Chase through the options, and you'll find that no matter what course one prisoner chooses, the other will do better by defecting. So, if the two players are perfectly rational, both will inevitably squeal.
The game neatly encapsulates the cooperation paradox: Even though cooperation is the best plan, it fails to be adopted, since cheating benefits the individual. (Klarreich 2004; see further Parfit 1981)
In general, where 'the game' is not a zero-sum situation, or where there is possible growth due to access to further resources, a directly competitive strategy will not always give the best results. In a world where population, resources and power (however this is measured) are not static but are still growing, a strictly competitive approach can actually reduce the returns to all players on average. Even the most competitive player in some positive-sum games will not do as well as he might have had he adopted a co-operative strategy (see Rawls 1988 for different aspects of this problem). In fact, modern business often make informed choices about patterns of cooperation and competition with other firms.
One of the key problems with Machiavelli's The Prince, and political realism in general, is that there is no recognition of the distinction between these two situations. There is no way of telling a priori whether a person is a supporter, or a competitor, nor whether you should adopt the rules of a zero-sum or positive-sum strategy. Furthermore, taking the approach that it is better to err on the side of caution and assume everyone is your enemy, does not necessarily provide the safest strategy. Each competitor can become a direct enemy, and without further assurance there is no guarantee that you will beat them, rather than vice versa.
Machiavellian thought has often been tied up the notion that the ends justify the means. It is certainly true that he feels that strategies, and even moral conduct, must be judged by the results they produce (The Prince, XVIII, p62). Intentions, and states of mind, are not considered in this judgement. This ethical position is sometimes known as consequentialism, i.e. judging actions or policies only by their consequences. There are numerous problems with this formulation. First, it doesn't explain what ends to choose. National goals in particular, are often assumed to be obvious. But on close inspection each of these stated goals, e.g. increased GDP, larger territory, more population, a larger 'defence' force, are only themselves instrumental. That is, they really related to some rather fuzzy set of perceived benefits, e.g. GDP means that the country and the people are wealthier, but tells us little about distribution or political stability and economic transparency. Beyond survival and the vaue concept of power, realism does not help us choose one set of goals over another set.
This position has other difficulties. If you wish to justify a chosen means by the goal, you have to be sure that the chosen method does lead to the specified end, i.e. no unpredicted outcomes occur. This means that consequentialism as an ethic needs to have a strong level of predictive capacity. If you use a given policy and it doesn't reach its desired goal there is no way of justifying your actions. In politics and international relations today, predictive capacities, both in specific events and in long-term trends remain fairly low. Almost no one predicted the radical change in eastern Europe, the sudden collapse of the USSR, or the scale and outcomes of attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 20001. This limited predictive capacity is partly due to the complexity of the national and transnational systems being studied, and also to limitations in simple causation in an arena of emerging complexity, multi-factored explanation and conscious, self-aware actors.
In contrast, David Easton (1965), for example, claims that a systems approach will help us understand how political systems can both achieve stability and can change to meet new circumstances. In particular, he feels that the inculcation of a sense of legitimacy is 'the single most effective device for regulating the flow of diffuse support' for a regime or organization. He suggests that both operating and interpretive sets of Values are used to test for the legitimacy of a ruler or regime. Now, if this is the case, then ideology and perceptions become extremely important. Furthermore, the claim that a regime provides benefit to all will certainly help its survival, but the fact that it actually does help all the players will be even more effective in maintaining its stability and success. Put in another way, there may be very strong limits for the amount of benefit that can be extracted from other players in a competitive game. In these case they may be tempted to leave or change the game, i.e. withdraw support for the political or national system, or even attempt to overthrow it.
Lastly, a system which provides a multitude of ends and means, that is, effective choice for most players, can be viewed as self-legitimating. These notions provide an inherent limitation in the use of arbitrary power. As such, it is an argument against taking real politik too seriously as a strategy. It is often more effective as a claimed ideology which forces others to select rules which are not to their advantage. Realism has been sold to the world as one way of defining and using power. In doing so, however, it can also be an attempt to blinker political actors to other definitions and dimensions of power, e.g. to diffuse support systems based on legitimacy. Realists will tend to focus on national power and prestige, and limit the use of diplomatic, democratic or ideological weapons which challenge the realist world order. This is not the only way to conduct the political projection and use of power, and is insufficient to even define national goals. Furthermore, for a nation or people weak in overt military and economic power to define its range of options purely in terms of these so-called realistic definitions, is to actually weaken themselves, to degenerate from patterns of dependency into patterns where they can become exploited. Here, too, forward projections of power are often little more than 'the future used as propaganda' (see Giddens 1991).
7. A Brief Comparison With Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War'
Lastly, we might compare Machiavelli's approach briefly to that of the ancient Chinese thinker Sun Tzu. Sometimes Sun Tzu and Machiavelli are mentioned as part of the same pragmatic, realist approach, focusing on the arts of war rather than the art of peace. This view misunderstands certain key aspects of Sun Tzu's thought. This classic on military strategy was probably written sometime between 400-320 B.C. (according to Samuel B. Griffith), though a range of earlier dates have sometimes been suggested for the life of the author.
Sun Tzu emphasizes the importance of war in his opening words: -
War is a matter of vital importance to the State; the provenance of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be vitally studied. (I.1)
He also adds in I.17 that all warfare is based on deception, and here we can see a clear understanding of the role of information, lack of information (uncertainty), and disinformation in warfare. It is true, however, that some Confucian scholars, e.g. Mencius, were shocked at some of such tactics, e.g. the use of deceit and 'secret operations' especially. However, Sun Tzu does have a fairly broad view of strategy, and he takes into account the moral influence of a government and its leaders in deciding whether they should wage war (I.3). He states in section I.4 that 'by moral influence I mean that which causes the people to be in harmony with their leaders, so that they will accompany them in life and until death without fear of mortal peril.' Furthermore, being humane is regarded as an important quality for a commander (I.7). It seems then, that some kind of morality is held to be useful in war, and is one of the main factors which must be estimated if a victory is to be achieved.
It is hard to tally these statements with that provided by the commentator Chang Yu, who interprets one passage to mean "Benevolence and righteousness may be used to govern a state but cannot be used to govern an army. Expediency and flexibility are used in administering an army . . ." (interpreting III.21 'When ignorant of military affairs, to participate in their administration. This causes the officers to be perplexed.'). However, Sun Tzu states that 'He whose ranks are united in purpose will be victorious.' (III,27). Tu Yu connects this with a saying of Mencius. Mencius said 'the appropriate season is not as important as the advantages of the ground; these are not as important as harmonious human relations' (CC II, Mencius).
In Book IV Sun Tzu states that 'those skilled in war cultivate the Tao and preserve the laws and are therefore able to formulate victorious policies.' (IV.15). This Tao seems to suggest that there is some appropriate moral path which strengthens governments and their policies, i.e. success in the long term cannot be a mere matter of force and opportunism. Of course, this humanism should not go so far as to be an over-riding compassion. In VIII.22, Sun Tzu states that if an enemy commander is of a too compassionate nature you can harass him, e.g. if he is afraid of casualties.
Nonetheless, Sun Tzu works out of a system which assumes a level of moral and ethical acceptability in a government, and that without some broadly based consensus, neither the government, nor the army can effectively wage war. Sun Tzu is willing to break certain conventions, but he neither recommends cruelty or trickery as weapons to be regularly used on supporters. Indeed, Sun Tzu states that rewards and punishments should be made in an enlightened manner, which Tu Mu interprets as 'neither being excessive'.
The comparison drawn the Art of War and The Prince constitutes a serious misunderstanding of both. Certain strategies used by Sun Tzu are rather ruthless, but they are situated in a broader mral conception of military and political goals. In turn, The Prince is much less than half of Machiavelli thought and needs to be studied in this wider context.
8. Bibliography and Further Reading
ADAMS, Robert M. (trans. & ed.) Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince: A New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations, Peripherica, N.Y., Norton & Co., 1977 (includes sections of The Discourses & critical essays)
BONGONGIARI, Dino The Political Ideas of St. Thomas Aquinas, N.Y., Hafner Publishing, 1969
AQUINAS, Thomas (Saint) Summa Theologica, translated by The Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 1947 [Access via http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/aquinas/summa/]
ARISTOTLE, Politics, trans. by J.Warrington, London, Heron Books, n.d.
CHRISTIE, R. & GEIS, F.L. Studies in Machiavellianism, N.Y., Academic Press, 1970.
EASTON, David A Systems Analysis of Political Life, N.Y., John Wiley & Sons, 1965
EIGEN, Manfred & WINKLER, Ruthild Laws of the Game: How the Principles of Nature Govern Chance, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1983
FROMM, Erich The Fear of Freedom, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960
FROMM, Erich Man For Himself: An Enquiry into the Psychology of Ethics, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975
GIDDENS, Anthony Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Oxford, Polity Press, 1991
HOLSTI, K.J. International Politics: A Framework for Analysis, 5th ed., Englewood Cliffs NJ, Prentice Hall, 1988
HOLSTI, K.J. "The Comparative Analysis of Foreign Policy: Some Notes on the Pitfalls and Paths to Theory", in WURFEL, David & BURTON, Bruce (eds) The Political Economy of Foreign Policy in Southeast Asia, N.Y., St. Martin's Press, 1990, pp9-20.
JAY, Antony Management and Machiavelli, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1967
KEGLEY, Charles W. Jr. & WITTKOPF, Eugene R. (eds.) The Global Agenda: Issues and Perspectives, 4th ed., N.Y. McGraw-Hill, 1985
KING, Dwight "Indonesia's Foreign Policy" in WURFEL, David & BURTON, Bruce (eds) The Political Economy of Foreign Policy in Southeast Asia, N.Y., St. Martin's Press, 1990, pp74-100
KLARREICH, Erica. "Generous players: game theory explores the Golden Rule's place in biology", Science News, 166 no.4, July 24, 2004, pp58-81
KORANY, Bahgat "Analyzing Third-World Foreign Policies: A Critique and Redordered Research Agenda", in WURFEL, David & BURTON, Bruce (eds) The Political Economy of Foreign Policy in Southeast Asia, N.Y., St. Martin's Press,1990, pp21-37
LUKES, Timothy J. "Lionizing Machiavelli", The American Political Science Review, 95 no. 3, September 2001, pp561-575
MACHIAVELLI, Niccolo The Prince, trans. & intro by G. Bull, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1988
MACHIAVELLI, Niccolo The Prince, ed. by Q.Skinner & R. Price, Cambridge, CUP, 1988
MACHIAVELLI, Niccolo Discourses on Livy, trans. by Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1998
MATTINGLY, Garrett Renaissance Diplomacy, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1973
MORGENTHAU, Hans J. Politics Among Nations: the Struggle for Power and Peace, N.Y., Knopf, 1985
MOSSE, Claude Athens in Decline 404-86 B.C., London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973
NIETZSCHE, Friedrich Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, trans. R. Hollingdale, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1972
PARFIT, Derek Prudence, Morality and the Prisoner's Dilemma, Oxford, OUP, 1981
PLUMB, J.H. The Penguin Book of the Renaissance, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1978
RAWLS, John A Theory of Justice, Oxford, OUP, 1988
ROTHGEB, John M. Jr. Defining Power: Influence and Force in the Contemporary International System, N.Y., St, Martin's Press, 1993
SABINE, George H. A History of Political Theory, 4th ed., Hinsdale Illinois, Dryden Press, 1973
SHERWIN, D.S. "The Ethical Roots of the Business System", Harvard Business Review, 61, 1983.
SUN TZU, The Art of War, trans. by Samuel Griffith, Oxford, OUP, 1971
Essays in History, Politics and Culture Copyright R. James Ferguson © 2004