Of Human Nature and State Behaviour (Part IV)

This is the final post on the series on Machiavelli’s The Prince. In the discipline of International Relations, human nature is often conflated with that of the state. Thus if human nature has a certain quality, that quality is also attributed to the state. It may be that the reasoning behind this is the abstract nature of state which would require humans through government to direct its affairs.

Before going any further I must note debates surrounding the notion of human nature. Many of us assume that there is indeed a common verifiable trait in human beings that transcends any distinction  Most of us believe human beings will behave in the same/similar manner in same/similar circumstances regardless of class or race or any other distinction we impose on ourselves.

However, we do not agree on how these attributes come about. There are those who believe that they are inert; we were born with them. Others vehemently oppose this to adopt the thought that we learn these characteristics from our environment. Machiavelli appears to be of the former’s persuasion as he argues that these traits are present and inert in human beings. Below are some of the traits he discusses in his book.

Appearance Oriented

Machiavelli believes that human beings rarely look beyond appearances. They often conflate the outward look of fellow human beings  with their character. Thus he advises a Prince to always be on the guard with respect to what traits he would like to project. This introduces the theme of perception in politics and how much political capital one can gain from prudent exploitation of thereof.

As far as behaviour of states goes, I see some relevance of this deduction. Perception in international politics is crucial when power is involved. Since there appears to be no scientific method of accurately measuring state power yet, states often project an element of the same which others in the international system perceive as that state’s aggregate power. For instance military might has been perceived to be an accretion of state power and thus infantry and artillery combined is deemed proof of this power. Then again the reality might be quite different.

Bad/Selfish (Good versus Evil)

Man is generally bad. This is according to Machiavelli as he gives a scathing assessment of what can be deemed as an idealist stance. Therein Machiavelli comments that how men ought to live and how they actually live is so different that he who studies the former labours in futility. He adds that those that are good often fall prey to the machinations of the many that are not. Finally he states that goodness should be used for political capital thus need to be used out of necessity.

I think in regards to the way a majority of states perceive the international system and relations in that system, Machiavelli may be on to something. Through the modern history of the state system, states have always viewed the acts of others with much trepidation. With every state concerned about its security, the underlying factor in arms races is the belief that states cannot be trusted since they are at the core bad and will only seek to aggrandize their interests. Therefore the only way to protect ourselves would be to get more arms which are better than the next state.

Comfort Lovers/Indolent

Rarely do human beings want to experience hardships. They will try to avoid hardships and all types of hard work but still expect to enjoy maximum benefits. Machiavelli reckons that if a prince makes it difficult for another to attack his princedom then he is secure because of man’s inherent indolence. He will also be secure because, according to Machiavelli, humans are, by disposition, risk averse beings.

At the inter-state level, I see the concept of balance of power and deterrence as fitting into this assessment of human nature. These two can be viewed to be predicated on the assumption of man’s nature (and perhaps state’s nature) of indolence and predisposition to avert risks. If it is too difficult or too risky to attack another state, no state would consider doing so. Case in point: use of nuclear weapons against a nuclear weapon wielding state, its interests or its allies. Of course we assume that this state is rational.


One can never really satisfy human beings. Give a man a loaf today; chances are that they will be back for more tomorrow. Machiavelli uses this trait to encourage a prince to be frugal with his resources. He warns against copious expression of liberality, as this would likely bankrupt the state and only endear a few. Thus magnanimity is used as a tool for maintaining political power and nothing more.

Though prone to be taken for granted, Machiavelli’s thought is relevant while examining  aid programs by more endowed states. For instance, the United States has been able to take advantage of the insatiability of economically developing states to push through its democratization agenda. With the rise of the unipolar system with the US at the helm in the late 20th century, many states have had to dance to the tunes of the sole super power for economic development.


When human beings look at life, they more often than not do not look beyond their noses. At least this is the case according to Machiavelli. Man wants benefits now rather than later which may lead to impatience. He thrives at looking at the present needs forgetting that he will have needs in tomorrow.

I see a correlation between this notion and international environmental relations. Little else has been more acrimonious and divisive than the protection of mother earth at the international level. Many states, especially those still developing (e.g. China) and developed, somehow see it as a threat to their development and continued dominance in world affairs if the world agrees on ways to save the planet. Much focus is on the economic viability of these agreements (here and now) rather than the debilitating effects this continued arrogance yields for our future.


Finally, ever wonder whether law is enforceable without a degree of force? If you have, you are among the few who are socially conscious. A question frequently asked by jurists is whether law requires force for compliance. Machiavelli has no qualms in asserting that it does. In his opinion, one cannot have good laws without good arms. He adds that human beings are not predisposed to obedience and use of force/coercion pushes then towards compliance. Into the bargain, he opines that man is motivated more by fear of punishment than by expressions of love by a prince.

Internationally this principle can be deduced when it comes to international law. For years there has been debate as to whether international law is law properly so called (borrowing John Austin’s lingo). This is because it has weak enforcement mechanism and from many a realist perspective it amounts to nothing more than international comity. However one should note that international law is applied especially in cases where there’s  real threat to international security (first Gulf War) or where it is in the interest of a dominant actor in the international system (second Gulf War). The understanding here is that states may not be inclined (thus obstinate) to obey international law if it directly conflicts its interests.



2 responses to “Of Human Nature and State Behaviour (Part IV)

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