The Modern Machiavelli

In the magnificent Gothic church of Santa Croce, right in the heart of Florence, tourists gape at what is perhaps the most celebrated array of monuments in any building in the world. Galileo’s tomb rests across from that of Michelangelo, Giotto’s frescoes lie close to Brunelleschi’s crucifix, and the memorial to Dante is prominent. Yet few if any of the earnest visitors from Japan, Scandinavia, and elsewhere rarely stay long before the nearby tomb of someone who, in the world of national and international politics, arguably made the greatest impact of any thinker in modern history—Niccolò Machiavelli.

His writings, most particularly his classic study The Prince, seem as pertinent in the troubled circumstances of our early twenty-first century as they must have appeared to Machiavelli’s political peers in the rough-and-tumble conflicts of the Italian city-states five hundred years ago. This, at least, is the argument advanced in two of the works reviewed here, by John Mearsheimer and Jonathan Haslam, and wrestled with by the third, by Philip Bobbitt. What all three books have in common, as had Machiavelli before them, is a keen interest in power. For without power, the Florentine argued, there is no security; and without security all of mankind’s other achievements—the arts and sciences, literature, economic progress, civil society—are constantly at risk.

Had anyone doubted this nostrum before September 11 last year, the terrorist attacks upon New York and Washington—and the American response to those attacks inAfghanistan and across the globe—once again made plain the centrality of power and force in world affairs. Bin Laden’s fanatical team may have used civilian instruments to attack civilian targets, but the purpose of those actions was to send a message to the American government and people that they, too, were vulnerable to physical force; that they had enemies who sought to destroy them; and that any means possible, however foul or asymmetrical, would be used to achieve that purpose.

The American response, in turn, was also to affirm that power was essential to political action, and that the United States had plenty of it. Economic pressures were deployed to freeze terrorist assets. Allies were called upon for police work, intelligence, logistical support, even actions in the field. Above all, though, the United States relied upon its own huge military force to blow the Taliban regime that housed al-Qaeda into dust. This was to be expected. The relatively new Bush administration was led by people who believed in the robust defense of national interests, and would not take the September 11 blows peacefully. Moreover, the military to whom they turned for advice had been taught repeatedly in their war college classes—precisely through detailed readings of Machiavelli as well as Sun Tzu, Thucydides, Clausewitz, Churchill, and Kissinger—that the proper application of overwhelming military force was and remains the ultimate resort of all great powers. They were also taught that, were such force to be diminished, or not applied …

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