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.


Machiavellian Approach to Foreign Policy: Analyzing The Prince (Part III)

Machiavelli’s primary concern in The Prince is the preservation of the ruler at the helm of a princedom. However in so doing, he could not avoid mentioning certain things that touch on foreign policy. I don’t know whether it would be accurate to speak of foreign policy at his time but with time his writing is perceived to have influenced some contemporary notions in foreign policy such as arms and warfare on international politics.

In the book, Machiavelli describes how a prince is to maintain his rule over a territory that he calls new. This territory is one that is annexed to an already existing territory which is under the prince’s dominion. One of the things that he advices a prince to do is ensure that no other dominant power settles at his borders. This is because his neighbours who are disgruntled by his rule by virtue of fear or ambition may provide this power with an opportunity to make inroads into the former’s territory.

He also prescribes that a prince ought to play protector of his feebler neighbours. He must do this without adding to their strength. This is meant to ward off any predatory prince with designs on his princedom.

Observing the American foreign policy, I am surprised to see some similarities. The Monroe Doctrine (1823) authored by president James Monroe provides a good example. Therein, the 5th US president was reiterating what George Washington, in his farewell address to congress, said. America was not going to meddle in the affairs of Europe: isolationism.

However, the Monroe Doctrine has an appendage, something more than what the 1st president had said. It created spheres of influence and America had chosen the western hemisphere. No European country was permitted to meddle in the affairs of the two American continents. Any such interference was considered an affront to the sovereignty of  the United States.

Considering that at this time Europe was at its pinnacle in power and international politics, the young American nation appears to have been justified to adopt such a position at least in Machiavelli’s eyes. The history of the US is founded on liberty and true independence and thus it would have been a big risk allowing a power of equivalent strength to stay close to her borders. It appears to me to be a vindication of  the Machiavellian thought though perhaps empirical evidence need be sought to make it conclusive.

Under this policy, America has meddled in the internal affairs of Latin American states for decades. Most of the times it played the crusader merchant of democracy and ll that is good in the world. However, a closer look at its dealings reveals a somewhat cold blooded pursuit of national interests.

Another example is the Manifest Destiny. A term coined by John Louis O’Sullivan, a journalist and diplomat, to describe the ‘divine’ right/calling of the US to expand their territory westwards. Taking into account the fact that some of these territories were in the control of great powers then e.g. Louisiana which was bought from the French, the US may have bought its security and liberty.

Finally, the Cuban Missile Crisis drives the point further home. That the US can be threatened by a power that is far was unfathomable until Cuba turned communist. This provided space for USSR to pose a real and imminent threat to the US and possibly the world as we knew it. Thus the Machiavellian idea of building some sort of empire in your backyard is not far fetched.

Machiavelli also advocates for substance in foreign policy. He heavily relies on the use of force and accordingly advises a prince that this is the only art he ought indulge in. Defending his territory from political predators is of the utmost importance for the survival of the prince at the helm.

He sees economics, population and territory as a means to an end. The end is the marshaling of a formidable army and resources that feed it. In other words, he uses the three as components to measure the ultimate power: brute force.

This idea is fueled by his political philosophy. He talks of two men, one armed and the other unarmed. In his conclusion of his analysis of the relationship between the two, he states that the armed man has an advantage over the other and there is no way he can submit to weakness. Thus a prince ought to consider the art and practice of warfare lest he be found lacking and thereby lose his dominion.

Ideas like these kindled the territorial aggrandizement fire in 18th and 19th century Europe. From Cardinal Richelieu’s raison d’être to Otto von Bismarck’s realpolitik, some striking similarities of Machiavellian foreign policy principles are replicated therein. Power struggles consumed European diplomacy which ultimately led to the two World Wars.

Today, diplomacy/international relations is not so much based on substance (military force) than it is on form (talks, treaties ect). Some scholars suggest that the advent of nuclear weapons is a game changer in the military balance of power. States with nuclear capabilities may be wary of attacking each other owing to retaliation. However this is not to say that the military of today is irrelevant.

Machiavelli is placed among the highly regarded realist thinkers of his time. His approach to political philosophy was novel. Today the world may be moving away from overt aggression; however this does not mean that in its absence there is an assumption of cooperation. States still compete today, as much as this competition is not primarily based on territory. Machiavellian foreign policy principles are still in use by states if one carefully observes their behavior.

A Critique of The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli (Part II)

This entry is the second in a series of four entries. The first, posted on the 15th of November, was on a summary of the work. The present one examines his work with the view of affirming or challenging the basic premises made in the book. I hope you will like it and feel free to comment or start a discussion on the same.

I deduct four major issues that underpin Machiavelli’s thesis in the book. The first is his approach to the study of politics. If you have read the book, you must have noticed that his approach rife with the study of what is done by men (I use this term to generically to represent human beings, women included) rather than what men ought to do. This approach is referred to as political realism. Looking at the world not how it ought to be but how it is; looking at how men act not how they ought to act.

In this approach to political study, morals are often rendered immaterial. Morality provides the path upon which man ought to take to be ‘good’. But according to Machiavelli, few of human beings do accept this path to goodness and thus therein he finds justification to advice the prince to be ‘bad’ where necessity demands, which in his view is almost always. In other words he labours under the premise that human nature is in itself bad.

It sets the stage for his second premise which is the existence of a human nature. Hereunder, an assumption is made that all men irrespective of environment would act in a similar way. He further postulates that in their actions, men are selfish and self aggrandizing. One can only conclude that this human nature is inherent in men at birth i.e. we are born selfish and self aggrandizing.

This notion is opposed by those who believe that human nature is inherently good and those that posit that there is no such thing as human nature. Those that believe in the goodness of man (idealists) argue that the only reason why there is evil on earth is that men are not given the opportunity to exude goodness. For example whereas a man with no means would be ‘forced’ to steal to survive would in view of this theory be excusable, it cannot explain how one with so much would steal more of what he has.

Constructivists are a group of thinkers that doubt the existence of human nature at all. To them, what is fondly called human nature actually is a result of nurture. This means that men behave they way they do because of the social environment they are in. If one follows through this argument one would be tempted to conclude that the child of a thief would most likely become a thief. However this is not always the case.

In my view there there are immense benefits in studying the actions of men as they are rather than as they ought to be. Considering the imperfections of man, his tendency to seek after his own interests, a policy analyst ought to look at the track record of actors rather than predicate his policy options on the study of how they ought to behave.

Thirdly, there is an emphasis on the separation of politics and ethics. Niccolo urges the prince to focus only on the ends of his endevours irrespective of the means. Therefore he advises those that seek power though treachery and treason to use it even though he acknowledges that it brings no glory thereby. Thus inevitably, his political philosophy is one that clearly distinguishes morality and political actions; it looks at politics as goal driven, unbound by morals. Herein politics is represented as amoral.

His perspective is in direct conflict with those of Aristotle and company who espoused and espouse that the two are two sides of the same coin. That in politics there ought to be moral goals that are to be attained is a central message by Aristotle. However considering Machiavelli’s assumption on the evil nature of man, it would be foolhardy for a prince to think that the core of political goals is the furtherance of ethic rather than self interest. In my opinion ethical values are injected into political rhetoric to mask ambitions of grandeur and not necessarily that its promoters are slaves thereto.

Finally, Machiavelli heavily relies on use of force in advising a prince on how to hold on to power. According to him a prince ought to devote his time on nothing else than the study and practice of the art of war. One can easily see that would be a natural conclusion considering his views of the obstinate and recalcitrant nature of human beings. Machiavelli goes as far as to state that without good arms, good laws cannot exist. This means that laws alone cannot be useful in human affairs and that a considerable amount of force would need be used to cause obedience.

On this I say, he might be on to something. If laws were not backed by some kind of coercive force would they be obeyed? Think of the number of laws that states have that are often broken because they are not enforced. I also think of international law that is often broken by the powerful because there is no other powerful than they to cause the former’s compliance.

However, this tenet cannot be used to explain why movements such as those fomented by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King were successful wherein their central theme was passive resistance. Wouldn’t it be unreasonable to expect that the use of force would bear results which we seek all the time? The two World Wars have exhibited how much can be lost using mere force and I am of the opinion that this portion of his work may not entirely represent the state of worldly affairs.

All in all, I think that his work still offers insight into the study of political phenomena. I think it is still useful to the policy analyst seeking to provide options to political actors. However it could be that I am wrong in my conclusion which would require you to set me straight.