Political Realism

And the manner in which we live, and that in which we ought to live, are things so wide asunder, that he who quits the one to betake himself to the other is more likely to destroy than save himself; since anyone who would act up to a perfect standard of goodness in everything, must be ruined among so many who are not good.

Niccolo Machiavelli 1469-1527

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Machiavelli said…

“…a wise man ought always to set before him for his example the actions of great men who have excelled in the achievement of some great exploit to the end that though his virtue and power arrives not at that perfection, it may at least come as near as is possible, and receive some tincture thereby.”

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)

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.