It is a very natural and ordinary thing to desire to acquire, and always when men do it who can. They will be praised or not blamed. (Machiavelli, the Prince) Explain how the ideas in this quotation contribute to Machiavelli’s realist approach to global politics.
Born in 1496, this insignificant Florentine civil servant revolutionised the way the world viewed politics. He shattered the pseudo-moral code placed upon states by the prevailing power of the church over their leaders, particularly in Machiavelli’s home state of Italy. He introduced the concepts of realpolitik into mainstream political consciousness and revolutionised the way leaders conducted their domestic and international affairs. He dismissed morality as a concept irrelevant in politics where human nature is predisposed to dismiss loyalty and oath in exchange for glory and wealth. His new ideals touched every aspect of statecraft from how an ambitious individual should seek to obtain power, how to keep what he has obtained and how to obtain more power. His attitude is most simply seen in the contradiction between his two major works. The Prince is a flattering gift to the relative of the Pope based around the concept of a single, monarchist leader while the Discourses on Livy expounds the virtues of Republicanism; such is the nature of the man.
Throughout Machiavelli’s work he stresses the flaws and weaknesses of human nature, rather then seek to improve them he instead, focuses his energies on educating leaders how to exploit these weaknesses for their own ambition. It is this ambition that the content of the title is inextricably linked to, Machiavelli views this motivation as the driving force behind politics. As he states in ‘The Prince’, ambition is a natural human drive and we should not seek to limit, instead encourage it. In this aspect one cannot criticise ambition or greed or the means one takes to achieve these ends.
At the root of all Machiavelli’s beliefs and ideals is his reasoning on human nature, of which ambition is integral. He declares that ‘whoever desires to found a state and give it laws must start with assuming that all mean are bad and ever ready to display their vicious nature’1. This dismissal of human nature as inherently untrustworthy and evil has a number of fundamental implications for global politics. Firstly it is identifying individuals as the main actors, and as humans are unfaithful and treacherous this creates great instability in political dealings. As such Machiavelli advocates a totally pragmatic and amoral approach to international diplomacy, taking for granted that your opponent or ally will negate your agreement as soon as it soon as it suits them so a leader should follow the same practice.
The actions of Hitler during the lead up to WWII bear witness to Machiavelli’s beliefs, his use of the Polish and Soviet Non-Aggression pacts allowed Germany the time to rearm without the threat of invasion, however these treaties were only temporary and Hitler reneged upon them as soon as he had sufficient economic and military means to attack the two sates. Machiavelli is supported in this belief by a fellow realist, Thomas Hobbes; ‘where there is no common power, there is no laws where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud, are in war the two cardinal virtues’2. This demonstrates the hugely influential impact Machiavelli’s concepts have had on other great realist thinkers, as well as a condoning of his ideas. This is pragmatism as it’s most cynical, as Hobbes reminds us, if there is no superior international authority to regulate diplomacy why should one place himself under an obligation to act morally when he need not.
Another conceptual influence that we see reflected in Hobbes is his belief that the ‘condition of man is a condition of war’3. Machiavelli believed that war was inevitable and glorious, not to be avoided but to be embraced as an opportunity to crush an opponent, further one self’s honour and gain territory and wealth. He dictated that a Prince should ‘have no other object or thought, nor acquire skill in anything except war, its organisation and its discipline.’4 A simple summary of the basic necessities of leadership, Machiavelli believes that war is the underlying and purest form of global politics, and as such a leader should be well versed in it. He makes a number of references to the art of war in his works, including the need to rely on a professional citizen army rather then mercenaries and cowardice and negative consequences of neutrality.
If a country remains neutral at a time of war they will not only be hated by their defeated neighbour for not coming to their aid, but at the mercy of the conquerors who will also see them as an enemy for not helping them in their war.5 Giolitti’s pre-war Italy provides the perfect case study, its indecision resulted in achieving none of the aims it wished or could have achieved had it acted more decisivly at the outbreak of war. In this way war is the prime locomotive for political and social change, the concept of war as a legitimate extension of politics has been developed by a number of other thinkers like Montesquieu, justifying war as ‘the right of natural defence sometimes involves the necessity to attack’6.As such pre-emptive strikes are a way of ensuring that there is a longer lasting and more stable peace in the future, and guarantee that you will be more prepared for war then the army you are attacking
Alongside this war like state, Machiavelli also preaches that a leader in a state must be able to combine this brash and aggressive nature with a more subtle and conniving style, so that he ‘must learn from the fox and lion’7. This means to combine the cunning and underhand methods in his alliance making and yet, still strong and courageous. Machiavelli also makes a number of other recommendations to a leader, that it is better to be feared and miserly then loved and lavish. As Rousseau supports Machiavelli in this stance, that it is better that a Prince’s people be ‘weak, wretched and never able to resist’8
The actions of America and her allies in Iraq provide a perfect example of Machiavelli’s political principles in action today. We see how President Bush’s pragmatic approach to the Middle East encouraged him to act aggressively and unilaterally against Al-Qaeda, overcoming the difficulty of attacking a network by waging war against the states that supposedly provide the framework for their terrorist activities. This was coupled with need to control the economically strategic importance of the oil fields of Iraq, his actions in the face of great global hostility. It is clear that Bush had learned a number of invaluable lessons from Machiavelli, that his international hegemony gives him the power and the right to act and conduct foreign policy solely to further the means of his own state, because ‘nothing brings a Prince more prestige then great campaigns and striking demonstrations of his personal abilities.’9 However in regards o Tony Blair, it seems that Machiavelli may have a number of contentions, namely the fact that Blair has embroiled the UK in an alliance with a much stronger and dominant power10. He saw this as a handing over of sovereign power to a foreign country as he would have believed that the UK will always play a secondary role to the US and never get what they truly deserve.
This one example alone demonstrates that Machiavelli is maybe even more relevant today then in his own era. Though his ideas lack the concepts of internal anarchy as proposed by Hobbes, totally ignores the vital and growing role played by women in politics. However with the increasing decline in religious morality that previously regulated our society the focus of our culture is now on the individual rather then society as a whole. This inherently ties in with Machiavelli’s political lessons, that life in general is all about the glory and success that one can achieve, and any means justify this end. Machiavellism is prevalent through not only global politics but also society as a whole, and to ignore or try to dismiss Machiavelli as synonymous with the devil is to be ignorant of the real and unfortunate nature of politics and perhaps human nature as a whole.
* Count Carlo Sforza, ‘The Living thoughts of Machiavelli’, Cassel, London, 1978
* Niccolo Machiavelli, ‘The Prince’, Penguin Classics, London, 1999
* Thomas Hobbes, ‘Leviathan’, Oxford University Press, New York, 1988
* Jean Jacques Rousseau, ‘The Social Contract’, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1977
* Baron de Montesquieu, ‘De l’Espirit des Lois’, Book X, Penguin, London, 1982
1 N Machiavelli, ‘Discourses on Livy'(page 25)
2 T Hobbes, ‘Leviathan’,(page 85)
3 T Hobbes, ‘Leviathan’, (page 92)
4 N Machiavelli, ‘The Prince’, (page 46)
5 N Machiavelli, ‘The Prince’, (page 73)
6 Montesquieu, ‘De l’Espirit des Lois, (page 103)
7 N Machiavelli, ‘the Prince’, (page 56)
8 Rousseau, ‘the Social Contract’ (page
9 N Machiavelli, ‘The Prince’, (page 71)
10 Count C Sforza, ‘The Living Thoughts of Machiavelli’, (page 73)