Machiavelli's "The Prince" in Relation to Political Realism and American
Policy Since 2001
In the year 1513, Niccolò Machiavelli finished work on what would
become one of the most widely read and discussed political treatises in
history, The Prince. The work came into being in Florence after
Machiavelli was removed from the political scene in 1512, when Florence
was brought under Spanish rule. In 1513, he was captured and imprisoned
due to suspicions of his involvement in a conspiracy against the local
powers. He was later released that year due in part to the great
celebration of the fact that Florence had produced its first pope, the
former Cardinal Giovanni de' Medici. Seeking to impress the Medician
rulers who were then in power, Machiavelli retreated to a small rural
residence where he wrote On Principalities, which would later become
his most famous work, known as The Prince. With this work he attempted
to convince the current regime that he would be an invaluable resource,
and regain a political position, as well as their favor.1
The Prince has had far reaching implications throughout history. It has
been argued that Machiavelli formed the foundation of political realism
in The Prince,2 and that this discourse has become one of the world's
most widely read and discussed political writings.3 Certainly in
regard to American history and leadership, Machiavellian influences can
be seen in many American leaders of note, including Presidents Lincoln
and Roosevelt.4 Undoubtedly, Machiavelli's far reaching influence
over thought in the present can also be seen by the widespread use of
the eponym containing his name, Machiavellian, which means clever and
willing to sacrifice moral concerns in exchange for achievement.5
Indeed, according to some scholars, we are all by definition
Machiavellian in nature, due to necessity within a society so motivated
by capitalism.6 One of the most interesting parallels to be drawn
from The Prince can be seen in American foreign policy during the last
six years, which will be the focus of this analysis.
As a reference point, American foreign policy experienced a dramatic
shift during the Cold War. This change in paradigm can best be
attributed to a shift toward political realism within foreign policy.
This era marked very recognizable foreign policy changes as evidenced by a focus
on topics such as national security instead of the more humanitarian-oriented policies seen in the previous decade.7 This realism,
characterized by national self-interest, was one inspired by a sense of
vulnerability within a world consumed by conflict barely restrained
under the guises of civility. After the terrorist attack on the United
States that occurred on September 11th, 2001, a similar strengthening
on the realist paradigm could be seen, for much the same reason, a
sense of vulnerability in a troubled world.
Political realism in the broadest sense can be viewed as evaluating
foreign policy in terms of its effects rather than the intentions of
the policy.8 A very clear Machiavellian demarcation can be drawn in
this premise. As Machiavelli writes in The Prince,
The desire to acquire is truly a very natural and normal thing; and
when men who are able do so, they will always be praised and not
condemned; but when they cannot and wish to do so at any cost, herein
lies the error and the blame.9
As evidenced by the above excerpt, as well as more widely known statements by
Machiavelli, 'the ends justify the means', which is a
cornerstone of political realism, as well as American foreign policy, especially
since 9/11. In the above text, it can be seen that Machiavelli did not
care for the interests of the leader as much as he placed emphasis on
the leader's ability to carry out his interests. To contrast this with
American foreign policy, present day procedure pits America's interest
in national security against a dangerous world. Policies highlighting
goals, such as winning 'The War on Terror' have become analogous to the
very means that the nation is using to accomplish them. Few times in
history has American seen such vehement cooperation between the
executive branch and the legislature in such a costly and ponderous endeavor.
American foreign policy over the past six years can also be generally
characterized by another excerpt from The Prince:
And men are less hesitant about harming someone who makes himself loved
than one who makes himself feared because love is held together by a
chain of obligation which, since men are wretched creatures, is broken
on every occasion in which their own interests are concerned; but fear
is sustained by a dread of punishment which will never abandon you.10
It can be seen then, if 'one' in the above passage is taken to refer to
an international state, that in recent years, the United States policy
toward the Middle East has taken on a good deal of Machiavellian
traits. In the above passage a parallel can be seen between the United
States' treatment of various nations in the Middle East. Nations such
as Saudi Arabia are dealt with in a 'generous manner' to resort to
Machiavellian terms, but surely would be treated more like Iran or
Iraq before the final U.S. invasion, if it were any less cooperative.
For the purposes of comparison, homeland security measures within the
United States will be examined, inasmuch that a nation's ability to
protect itself determines a great deal of its foreign policy.12
Recent years have seen a great reduction in civil liberties within the
realms of citizen's privacy in the name of homeland security. It can
easily be seen that such policies relate immediately to the United
States' foreign policy due to the security concerns present within both
facets of American Policy. On such subjects Machiavelli
writes, "Therefore, a prince must not worry about the reproach of
cruelty when it is a matter of keeping his subjects united and
loyal...."13 It seems then, that recent policies of warrantless
eavesdropping, and the ability to hold 'enemy combatants' indefinitely
falls right in line with Machiavellian principles of the sort. In this
case the executive branch of America is clearly focused on maintaining
the highest possible security for the nation, possibly at the expense
of public opinion.
In The Prince, Machiavelli also mentions concerns present in the
security status of armed principalities which become occupied by force.
One of the biggest examples of such an instance in regard to American
foreign policy is the United States occupation of Iraq. Machiavelli
speaks of the necessity to disarm such a state to insure loyalty,
allowing only those who were loyal from the beginning of the occupation
to posses arms.14 In the current occupation of Iraq, the United
States has attempted to control the armament of the state, allowing
only Iraqi police and security forces sanctioned by the U.S. to acquire
and retain weapons. Again, such policies speak heavily of Machiavellian
influence, whether intentional, or simply by convention.
It can be seen in the aforementioned examples that Machiavelli's
influence extends far past his lifetime and geographical domain. Even
today, we can see that our executive branch, especially in times of
national duress becomes quite influenced by the ideals espoused by
Machiavelli in The Prince.15 This is strongly evidenced by American
foreign policy over the past 6 years in regard to heavy reliance on
political realism in the realm of international relations post
September 11th, 2001. Indeed, the work of Machiavelli has become such
an intrinsic part of human relations both in the individual realm as
well as the international paradigm that it is likely that our leaders
emulate Machiavellian tendencies without even being cognizant of such
behavior. Whether this is a byproduct of capitalism or human nature in
general remains to be seen, however, all considerations indicate that
Machiavelli's most famous work, The Prince, holds huge influence
throughout modern society. In regard to American foreign policy through
the last 6 years, we can see a pronounced shift toward political
realism of which a cornerstone is one of Machiavelli's key
premises, 'the ends justify the means'. This political realism, as
evidenced by purveyors since past such as Bismarck and his dedication
to 'realpolitik' often accompanies foreign policy in times of world
turmoil or distress, and the events of the last 6 years in American
History have proved no different.16 As evidenced by the actions of
American executive leaders Machiavelli continues to be a strong
influence not only in the current policy paradigm in which America is
operating,17 but with regard to action specific behaviors on behalf
of America's leaders, as evidenced by the continued shift in emphasis
from civil liberty to national security.
1 Quentin Skinner, Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2000, 22, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?
2 Diana Schaub, "Machiavelli's Realism," The National Interest, Fall
3 De Lamar Jensen, ed., Machiavelli: Cynic, Patriot, or Political
Scientist? Boston: D. C. Heath, 1960, vii,
4 Brian F. Danoff, "Lincoln, Machiavelli and American Political
Thought," Presidential Studies Quarterly 30, no. 2 2000: 290,
5 David A. Crockett, "The President as Opposition Leader,"
Presidential Studies Quarterly 30, no. 2 2000: 245,
6 Skinner, 1.
7 Schaub, 1.
8 Ronald J. Stupak, and Peter M. Leitner, "Realism Revisited:
Philosophical Assumptions, Power Patterns, and American Foreign
Policy," Journal of Power and Ethics 2, no. 1 2001: 86,
9 Ibid., 1
10 Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince ed. Bondanella, Peter, trans.
Peter Bondanella and Mark Musa, Oxford: Oxford University, 1998, 14,
11 Ibid., 56.
12 Alan P. Dobson, and Steve Marsh, US Foreign Policy Since 1945 /
London: Routledge, 2001, 115, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?
13 Ibid., 36.
14 Machiavelli, 55.
15 Ibid., 70.
16 Danoff, 1.
17 Jack Donnelly, Realism and International Relations Cambridge,
England: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 9,
Many thanks to shaogo for his editing prowess.