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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,1 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 where needed, America would sooner or later go the way of Athens, Rome, Florence, Spain, and the British Empire.

In today’s academy, there is probably no more forceful or formidable proponent of this school of thought than John Mearsheimer, professor of political science and co-director of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago. Heavily influenced as a young scholar by two great “realist” thinkers, Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz, Mearsheimer has spent over twenty years drawing widely upon historical case studies to buttress his contention that physical power—a combination of military effectiveness, economic strength, population size, and geographical extent—is the key to explaining what goes on in international politics, and understanding how events unfold the way they do. More to the point, Mearsheimer believes that no recent developments—whether it be the United Nations system, globalization, the spread of democracy, or the end of History—really change those ancient verities. Indeed, already in the second paragraph of The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (after listing the wars of the past century and their human costs in the first paragraph) he offers his readers the following blunt prognosis:

This cycle of violence will continue far into the new millennium. Hopes for peace will probably not be realized, because the great powers that shape the international system fear each other and compete for power as a result. Indeed, their ultimate aim is to gain a position of dominant power over others, because having dominant power is the best means to ensure one’s own survival. Strength ensures safety, and the greatest strength is the greatest insurance of safety. States facing this incentive are fated to clash as each competes for advantage over the others. This is a tragic situation,2 but there is no escaping it unless the states that make up the system agree to form a world government. Such a vast transformation is hardly a realistic prospect, however, so conflict and war are bound to continue as large and enduring features of world politics.

Only brave readers will go on after that. Should they do so, however, they will find this blunt argument deepened by several chapters of more theoretical discussion of how the international system works, and broadened by further historical chapters on the rise and fall of specific great powers over the past two hundred years—such as, for example, the British Empire, which conducted a successful grand strategy for an impressively long time but finally also succumbed to the shifting balances of power. One suspects that purebred historians who specialize in particular periods (e.g., the Mexican wars of the nineteenth century) may feel that Mearsheimer’s account shoe-horns the complexities of the times into a fitted space in order to buttress the overall argument. That is always the danger of advancing a general thesis.

More positively, Mearsheimer’s prose is remarkably free of jargon (and this in international relations, a field where jargon has become the norm), and the evidence—including a lot of comparative statistical measures of military and economic power—is nicely assembled. If the case for “offensive realism” (i.e., Mearsheimer’s argument that all states want as much security as possible, and thus strive all the time to maximize their power) is to stand, it stands strongly here.

The final chapter is the most interesting of all, although that may just be due to its topicality, for it con-cerns the touchy relationship between the United States and China. Mearsheimer’s book was completed and printed before September 11 and, although his publisher rushed out a blurb stating that the terrorist attacks confirm that the post–cold war era is “an uncertain and perilous period in world history,” that is probably beside the point so far as the author is concerned. To him, terrorists, Palestinian– Israeli bloodbaths, and Bosnian atrocities are second-division topics in a world of longer-term trends and great-power politics. They may get you bogged down in some regional struggle—Mearsheimer was thus cautionary last year about the US engaging in large-scale military action in Afghanistan—and will certainly distract you from the main stage of world affairs.

What matters, by contrast, is the present hegemonic status of the United States and the prospect that its lead position might be contested by China in the decades to come. In fact, by the logic (“tragedy”) of Mearsheimer’s theory of great-power politics, this future contest is not just likely but inevitable. Barring some internal disasters, China’s economic growth will push it forward to be the regional hegemon, the power balances will tilt, and the United States will—will have to—resist. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics may be the only current work that is blunt enough to say that American encouragement of China’s long-term economic and political development is a grave mistake.3 Thus a Clinton-cum-Bush policy of “constructive engagement” with Beijing, assisting China’s growth but leading as it will to the eventual relative decline of the United States in Asia, is not recommended by our modern Machiavelli—although one doubts that the Florentine sage himself would in this case have made the advice so public and specific. Yet although Mearsheimer firmly argues that “it is not too late for the United States to reverse course and do what it can to slow the rise of China,” it is difficult to see what that means in practice, since staying aloof from China merely lets Europe and Japan advance in that large market; and forcibly blocking China’s rise—like the English trade wars against the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century—is hardly feasible. By Mearsheimer’s own principles of analysis the US will face sooner or later the prospect of a serious Chinese challenge for hegemony in Asia.

Machiavelli also occupies much of the early parts of Jonathan Haslam’s new book, No Virtue Like Necessity, and indeed his name is implanted in its subtitle. Haslam is a distinguished scholar at Cambridge University, the author of many books on Stalin’s foreign policies, and, more recently, the biographer of E.H. Carr—which is clearly the “link” between the earlier and narrower studies, and the present work. For it was Carr who, more than half a century ago, revised his classic work, The Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919– 1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations, in order (as he put it) to counter “the glaring and dangerous defect of nearly all thinking, both academic and popular, about international politics in English-speaking countries from 1919–1939—the almost total neglect of the factor of power.” And it was Machiavelli, Carr had written approvingly as early as 1930, whose writings constituted “a revolt against the utopianism of current political thought.”4 Thus, it is not too fanciful to see Haslam continuing this assault on behalf of a newer generation of realist scholars.

While No Virtue Like Necessity is very different in structure and tone from Mearsheimer’s book, it ends up with much the same conclusions, precisely because it begins with the same target in mind. For Haslam’s foes are also woolly-minded internationalists, though not so much liberal policy-makers (one imagines that Mearsheimer’s chief bêtes noires among re-cent administrations are Carter’s and Clinton’s), but progressive voices in the classrooms of American universities.

Haslam’s charge here is twofold. In the first place, he thinks, academic writers on foreign policy and high political affairs rarely if ever have any practical experience of what it is like to be in office, that is, of what happens when their beloved theories are all too often thrust aside by the pressures and complications of daily decision-making during times of crisis. With relish the author quotes repeatedly from politicians, diplomats, and advisers about the presumption of outside commentators, of which the neatest complaint may have been that of the Italian Ludovico Zuccolo as far back as 1621:

He who has not ploughed the sea does not presume to know the art of navigation; he who has made no effort at music makes no claim to understand notes and tones. But there are few men who, though never having governed, do not claim to know how to judge the administration of states and empires.

  1. 1

    There are of course other aspects of Machiavelli’s thought, such as his discourses upon republican and alternative forms of governance; but it is his singular place in the literature upon international Realpolitik that is considered here.

  2. 2

    Although Mearsheimer uses the words “tragic” and “tragedy” both here and in his title, there is no sense that he feels saddened by this dire portrayal of our human condition. One feels instead a grim relish at bringing home such unpleasant facts to liberal internationalists.

  3. 3

    It will be interesting to follow how swiftly this will be translated into Mandarin and commented upon in the Chinese media.

  4. 4

    Carr’s remarks are reproduced in Haslam, p. 187. There is something of an irony here, since the first edition of The Twenty Years’ Crisis had appeared in the summer of 1939 and was widely regarded as a defense of British appeasement policies, since it argued in favor of the “realism” of recognizing territorial changes in Europe to accord with the shifting power balances, i.e., the rise of Germany. In the revised edition of 1946, from which Haslam quotes, Carr nimbly becomes a critic of the appeasement of Hitler. Carr was nonetheless still happy to justify Western concessions to Stalin during the war (for example, over Poland’s borders) on “realist” grounds.

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