Realpolitik is a term that is often ascribed to Florentine diplomat and political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli. Of course, the term, which obviously means “real politics,” is as old as man and applies to almost everything. The first humans had to deal with the “reality” of survival. Plato’s allegory of the cave is an attempt to show that man has not always known what was real, but reality is always with man; the reality of life and death, of sickness, of enemies, of danger, of the need to eat, to sleep, to survive. What man knows may not be everything there is to know, but it is always real. Lies and deception are real. Military planners and CIA handlers are among those who count on this “reality.”
Everything is real. The French existentialists may have tried to steer away from this, but even their work is based in the realm of reality. Even looking inward and conceiving of nihilistic nothingness, of a purely individual existence, does not stand with the fact that they wrote books for others to read, had relationships, survived, met their needs, and influenced their realm. The very fact that they dealt with these real aspects of life is evidence of a reality they philosophized against.
European politics, staggered by wars and tragedy, are infused by realpolitik. In the post-Napoleonic era, continent-wide revolutions eventually led to treaties that weakened France, strengthened Germany and led to more tragedy: World Wars I and II.
Former American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a Jew who escaped Nazi Germany, employed realpolitik. He was influenced by one of the major practitioners of the art, Prince Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian minister of state who acted as the president of the Vienna Congress. Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who brought glasnost to Eastern Europe, emphasized realpolitik.
Realpolitik gained credence because of Machiavelli’s influence, but in general principle has not been the guiding force of American political theory. This begs the question, Are Americans too idealistic? War-weary Europeans rejected Plato's idealism in "Republic", but the young Americans gave it a home. Somehow, this country has remained idealistic for almost 230 years. Is it our idealism that keeps us strong, or our strength which keeps us idealistic?
As with most things, and the moderate Aristotle would agree, the answer is somewhere in between. Realpolitik does not dominate American policy, but it is always part of the decision-making process. Protesters, militants, and rabble-rousers raise the loud hue and cry for change or peace or whatever it is they are yelling for. They are tongue-tied when asked to present alternatives. Realpolitik presents itself most obviously when the reformers and the idealists of the Left occasionally grab power, and to their horror find that the policies of those they fought against are the only ones that really work.
The only idealism that really has survived realpolitik is based on a Judeo-Christian morality that has tempered America’s place as a country and world leader. It has survived European ridicule, socialism, Communism and all others isms.
As mentioned, realpolitik always has and always will be an important part of diplomacy and planning. Machiavelli marks the transition between classical and modern tradition. Professor Dalton contrasts Machiavelli’s theories regarding human nature and power to those of Creon, Thrasymachus, Glaucon, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. He believes that Machiavelli has much in common with Plato. This is interesting because at first blush it would seem that Plato would despise Machiavelli, while Machiavelli might think Plato a dreamer.
Both men lived during times of political crisis, and looked for power-based solutions to the problems of their day. They both felt power should be accorded to the few, not the many. They disagreed on methodology.
In this last regard, it would appear that both men would advocate strong leadership that is willing to make difficult decisions even if they may be unpopular. In a free Democracy, protest is allowed and, if organized well enough, can appear to be quite the chorus. Any human would be affected, probably swayed, by large demonstrations. Machiavelli would disregard the protesters as a distraction from the real work that the powerful must do. Plato would find them to be a “mob,” not the professional leadership that he advocated. Aristotle’s downplaying of the importance of political leadership was reflected by the calm times he lived in, as opposed to the rocky climate of Plato and Machiavelli.
The first big difference between Machiavelli and the Greeks is that he views government not as an agent of virtue, but an instrument of masculine force. The primary role of government is to provide security and survival. This is a paradox for Americans, who, as Jack Nicholson said to Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men”, “both rise and sleep by the very freedom that I provide, then criticize the way I provide it.”
After surviving a revolution, a civil war, two world wars, two Oriental police actions, a Cold War, and now the War on Terrorism, Americans with any sense of history simply must accept Machiavelli’s admonition that the government is there to provide security. All other things emanate from it. This does not address the other very important goals of government, which is to protect civil rights and promote all the general benefits of a peaceful society. Politics, Machiavelli said, is about how we really live, not how we ought to live.
In his book, “The Prince”, Machiavelli warned that the prince will be destroyed if he becomes too idealistic. He says the prince must not be too good, doling out goodness only as it is required, while practicing vice for the sake of political gain.
His view of human nature, Professor Dalton says, is closer to Thucydides or Thrasymachus than Plato or Aristotle. Pragmatism is his way. Virtue is not part politics, only false virtue.
Why is the U.S. so different from Machiavelli? All the elements of Machiavellian philosophy existed when the U.S. was forming itself. America had to fight a war, one that was not as popular as we might imagine it to have been. Many colonialists were royalists, loyal to King George. Traitors and profiteers were embedded amongst the population. Intrigue involving other countries, personal wealth and power were at stake. The possibility for the dark underpinnings of Balkanization of the varying colony/states was possible. Yet it all fell into place as if…guided by the hand of God!
All the trappings of Machiavellianism played itself out when the French tried to emulate us a few years later. Machiavelli would have been utterly mystified by the American experience. He would have seen the French Revolution to be predictable, preventable only by playing it his way ahead of time. His ghost seemed to have had Napoleon’s ear in the aftermath of the days of guillotine.
Machiavelli emphasizes that the prince is better off feared than loved. He seems to be advising a Mafia boss more than a leader of a country. He should ask if he prefers respect, a word that too often gets thrown around when it means fear, but actually should replace love. The great leader does not need to be loved, but he must be respected. Machiavelli would disagree with the concept that only through moral virtues such as honesty, and yes, spirit, can he earn respect. Urban gangbangers cruise the city streets, flashing their colors and waving guns, all the while demanding respect. They are so far from being respected as to be laughable if they were not so dangerously tragic.
The prince must use violence or he risks losing his position, which echoes Creon, for people will not offend those who they fear will do violence against them. Bonds of love are easily broke, while fear endures. Finally the prince, in order to avoid hate, must not molest his subjects’ wives or property.
It all sounds like a mob movie.
“Never mess with another man’s broad,” the overused DeNiro/Pacino/Pesci/ Garcia/Montegna character says in a million stereotyped gangster flicks. Machiavelli overlooks so much. If one wanted to find real nobility in a mob movie, check out the scene in “The Godfather” when Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) gathers the heads of the families together after a long war in which his oldest son (James Caan) was killed and his youngest (Pacino) has been exiled. He proposes “on the soul of my grandchildren” that he will not be the one to break the peace that he proposes. In so doing he becomes what Machiavelli seems not to have understood: A coalition builder.
Machiavelli lacks broad vision, in my view, not to mention nobility. Nevertheless, to deny that his views have merit in some circumstances would be to turn one’s back on reality. Machiavelli believes it is of value for the prince to keep his word, but he is more likely to gain and keep power by using deception. This reminds me again of my former lying, cheating business partner. If you have read this book this far, you probably have figured out that I place value on truth, decency and morality, and that I am not a member of the Dumbellionite Class. How, then, was I duped into taking on a business partner who was a liar and a cheat? Especially when I admit that I had knowledge of his lies regarding other matters prior to our going into business?
Machiavelli says it is “praiseworthy for the prince to keep his word,” but he is advocating truth as a strategy, which is what the business partner did. The fact is, the man in question kept his word a lot. He did favors for people. He followed up on his promises, and established a reputation among many as somebody who could be counted on. What he realized was that lies should be held back and used as aces in the hole. As long as the truth was advantageous to him, he would be truthful. This way he avoided patterns of deception, built loyalty and allies, and established credits that he could use when, inevitably, he would have to lie.
As Machiavelli advised, the truth is a weapon to be used effectively, and not veered from without good reason. Obviously, if the truth is only available when it is convenient, then a man is not trustworthy. But the business partner was smart and he knew that if he mixed in enough truth, like Bill Clinton he could make time his ally and win by attrition.
The beginning of my fallout with the business partner came about when I made a very honest assessment of his actions to his face. He owed me money. A long period of time passed and he kept promising to make payments, but he never did. I finally told him that the way he staved me off reminded me of the Japanese strategy in the late stages of World War II.
“Your strategy is to win by attrition,” I told him. “You’re like Japanese troops living in caves at Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima, hoping that if you just hold out long enough I’ll tire and eventually go away.”
Normally, Dave had a comeback, a defense, and a smart remark to off-put me. Not this time. He was cornered, identified and exposed. He had only two possible responses. The first would have been to do the right thing and pay me. The second was to lash out and put me back with swear words and anger. He chose the second course of action. The line in the sand had been crossed, and all belief that the company and our partnership could be saved was gone.
All that was left was legal action, which I would have won easily via prima facie evidence of his breach of contract. I sued him and asked for summary judgment, because the evidence I presented, which was the signed contract, and the accounting that showed it was not honored, was so obvious. I was determined that he would not be successful in his “Japanese in the caves” strategy. He was a tricky SOB, though, and had an atom bomb in his quiver: Bankruptcy Court. Machiavelli would have been proud.
The business partner maintained appearance and illusion well. He lived in a huge home in a very fashionable section of suburban California, and entertained friends and clients there regularly. His banker, however, seeing that I was in deep with him and contemplating getting in deeper, informed me that he was unable to meet the “nut” on the home and it would all have to go eventually. Nevertheless, long after I was informed of this, he continued to use that house to create the illusion of prosperity, and to gain trust.
He was blatant about himself, too.
“I live here,” he would say about the fact that he knew a lot of people and had been raised in the community. “What’s known about me is easy to find out.”
This was an interesting statement. First, as I said, he had used “truth” enough to build a good reputation in many quarters, and that is where he steered any prospective clients or investors who might have wanted to “check him out.” The brazen part was that if one really did want to check him out, they would discover he had a history of cheating going back to little league, and had had scrapes with the law since high school. But the man had covered his tracks well and instead of being secretive, created the illusion of openness and honesty.
Machiavelli said the ends always justify the means, and the business partner believed that, too. Machiavelli discussed two conceptions of power in “The Prince”. Fortune (fortuna), characterized by irrationality, is a powerful force, and is characterized by women, who must be held down by men.
Virtu is the masculine face of power, is rational, and therefore can be guarded against.
Machiavelli (1469-1527) was born in Florence the year that Lorenzo “The Magnificent” de Medici came to power. Lorenzo was the grandfather of the Lorenzo to whom “The Prince” was dedicated. Machiavelli held the post of Florentine chancellor between 1498 and 1512, then he was exiled until 1527. He wrote “The Prince” and “The Discourses” while in exile.
As with Plato and Socrates, Machiavelli’s work emanated from political change of crisis proportions. He lived during a time in which the politics of Mediterranean Europe surrounding Italy were marked by transitions from weak and decentralized feudal regimes to the more centralized rule of despotic monarchs and princes in Spain, France and also in England (who because of their strong navy and trade economy were a force in the region, too). Italy did not fall under powerful rule, however, and Machiavelli observed his country remaining weak, and therefore subject to victimization by its neighbors.
In Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella (1479-1516) created a nation-state, and later Phillip II further transformed Spain into a power. Louis XI (1461-1489), Charles VIII (1492-1498) and Francis I (1515-1547) were strong rulers of France. In 1494, France invaded Italy.
The War of the Roses (1455-1485) marked English history during this period. Henry VII (1485-1509) established the Anglican Church, and Elizabeth I held the throne despite great Machiavellian-style conspiracies in Britain, from 1558-1603.
Italy was still experiencing the long, difficult aftermath of the fall of the Roman Empire. Religious power and theology created conflict and introspection in the country over its role in the world. Arguments between Italian world dominance (the Empiricists) and the guilt-ridden liberals (the passivists) only served to split the country. Out of this turmoil, Machiavelli could have had one of two distinct visions. He could have advocated the building of coalitions, embracing old enemies, and creating a peacemaker with great political power. Or, he could have advocated the creation of a smaller fiefdom for the prince he advised; one that gave the prince limited but secure power.
As this was the age of Martin Luther, Calvinism and Henry VIII, bitter acrimony developed between Catholics and Protestants. Luther was a Catholic priest in Germany who loathed the tithes that parishioners had to pay in order to “petition” God, and he firmly believed that individuals could commune with God not through the priests, but through direct prayer with Jesus Christ.
Henry VIII was so incensed by Sir Thomas Moore, who as liaison between the English Catholic Church and the throne, informed Henry VIII that he could not marry Ann Bolyn and remain King because of Catholic strictures against divorce. Henry VIII responded by beheading Moore plus several of his wives over the years, and created a new Church of England, the Anglicans (in America we call them Episcopalians).
Machiavelli viewed all of this and was cynical about religion, which helps explain why moral questions of right and wrong do not enter into his political equations. Getting back to religion and my lying former business partner, he was raised a Catholic but did not much practice it. Once he made a point of letting me know that he had attended a recent Mass, eliciting the admirable response that he knew I would have for making it to church.
“That’s the kind of guy I am,” he said, and in retrospect it is a telling remark. He wanted others to think he was religious because it was to his benefit. The inner spirituality of religion does not appear to be his motivating force.
This was the way it was with Machiavelli, who paid lip service to Catholicism because it suited his needs to do so. The Papacy in his time was strong, and in those days intervened in Italian politics. Italy’s role in the death of Christ historically has played a role in creating guilt and a strong Church. In turn, it has been used to justify intervention with the affairs of state, to “right the wrongs” of previous Italian governments who opposed Christianity.
Pontius Pilate had been appointed Governor of Jerusalem by Rome, and acted with the authority of Rome and with the army of the great legion to imprison and crucify Jesus. The capture of Christians and the feeding of them to lions in the Roman Colloseum were done with the approval of the government. Then the Emperor saw a vision of Christ while in battle, and everything changed.
Almost overnight, Italy became a Christian country, with the Catholic Church set up at the Vatican of Rome. By Machiavelli’s time, Catholicism was the dogmatic word of Italy. Alexander VI (father of Cesare Borgia) was the Pope from 1492-1503, followed by Julius II (1503-1513) and the military leader Leo X from 1513-1521. In Florence, Savonarola led a Dominican sect when Machiavelli was a youth there.
Machiavelli lived during a time of great artistic beauty. The Italian Renaissance reached its peak in the 15th and 16th Centuries, marked by the great works of Boccaccio (author of “Decameron”); Sandro Botticello (master painter famed for his “Botticelli angels”); Leonardo da Vinci (“Last Supper”, “Mona Lisa”); Raphael (who painted the Plato/Aristotle classic “School of Athens”); and Michelangelo (who painted the Sistine Chapel).
Five states made up the Italian Peninsula during Machiavelli’s time. The Duchy of Milan and the Republic of Venice were in the north, the Republic of Florence and the states of the Church (which included Rome) made up the central area, and in the south was the Kingdom of Naples. Florence went from a first-rate power into an also-ran, under Spanish rule, and was further weakened by French invasions under Charles VIII in 1494, then under Louis XII in 1499.
The aristocratic family of Medici and the populist Soderini’s directed Florentine politics with poor effect. When the Medici’s took power from the Soderini’s in 1513, Machiavelli, an advisor to the Soderini's, found himself on the outs. He was exiled, but instead of holding the Medici’s in contempt for taking action against him, he admired them and dedicated “The Prince” to Lorenzo de Medici.
Various dark actors made up the Italian landscape of that era, including Cesare Borgia, who with the help of his father the Pope, attempted to gain control of the entire country. In 1502 Machiavelli met Borgia, and he thought him skilled in the intertwined arts of politics and military skill. Borgia demonstrated terrific sales ability. Machiavelli modeled “The Prince” on him.
Two kinds of leaders ruled the varied provinces of Italy. There were adventurous princes and mercantile princes. The land did not yield great abundance, moral or material. There were no great traditions to guide any leaders or would-be leaders. The Roman Empire offered history but not a popular model, even if its glory could have been re-captured. Instability was the order of the day.
(Sounds like Italy today, actually.)
The country lacked a good military, and its neighbors, who felt no sympathy for the country in light of the Romans’ long history of invasions, felt no compunction about attacking and taking what they could get.
Despite the rise of Christianity that had emerged during the dark days of the Empire, the Protestant Reformation had not yet happened, and the Church held almost no sway over the people, much less the various political groups.
The various groups attempted to use cunning and duplicity to one-up each other, with the result that various small tyrants came to power, only to fall. The Medici family became dukes in Florence, the Sforza's in Milan, and in Venice and Genoa, the republics were narrow oligarchies.
Out of this low period, Machiavelli yearned to return Italy to the glory that was Rome. Machiavelli admired not the later Caesars, who presided over the drunken, fat, amoral fall, but rather the early, militaristic Rome that brought patriotic virtue to the lands they conquered. The 15-year old Machiavelli was not enamored by Italian art. He coveted military power. In 1494, the French followed Hannibal’s path, crossing the Alps and invading Italy in a way that eventually resulted in a divisive battle between France and Spain, who had invaded earlier, on the country’s peninsula.
Machiavelli’s country fell to varied hordes of Spanish, German, and renegade Italian armies, who made their way to Rome. They sacked the city in an orgy of rape and pillage. The Pope was imprisoned and his Cardinals publicly disgraced. Machiavelli wrote “The Prince” in order to give advice to future Italian leaders, hoping they would use his ideas to prevent such a disaster. Unfortunately, Machiavelli correctly predicted that the country was beyond prescription. He is one of the world’s most influential political advisors, yet his advice was unable to prevent his country from becoming a disaster for 300 years. The virtu of Machiavelli was not employed by any Italians of his lifetime.
Machiavelli determined that the crisis in Italy occurred because the public representation and leadership, in place when the barbarians invaded, was bankrupt. The Italians had spent all their time feeding their little fiefdoms, and not preparing for international diplomacy or battle. They paid dearly. In this respect, Machiavelli has something in common with Plato, the man who attempted to come up with answers in light of the Peloponnesian disaster.
While Machiavelli may be viewed as prescribing an unfollowed saving grace for his country, it is not patriotism that endows his words. Neither he nor Plato were concerned with the survival of a system. What concerned them, as Professor Dalton says, was a “crisis of spirit.” Their efforts are to direct a course of action in the minds of men. Human nature is what pre-occupies their philosophies. Both wished to replace amateurs with professionals.
Reality is where Plato and Machiavelli differ. Plato believed morality can be taught as a "form," and that the professional leader can be trained to act with wisdom. At the heart of this is an absolute principle of truth.
Machiavelli, on the other hand, saw only layers of truth, a game if you will. He would have made a great CIA agent. He believed that to blindly adhere to a moral course leads to ruin, not salvation. He only valued strength. Power demands either force or deception, depending upon what is expedient. Machiavelli saw men as liars and deceivers, who can be preyed upon through greed and fear.
In America, we like to think of ourselves as being followers of Plato (or, in my view, Aristotle), rather than Machiavelli. Much of our history, in fact some of the crucial moral decisions we have made, uphold this concept. However, our place in the world gives us the great advantage of holding the position of power Machiavelli would covet. Therefore we have the freedom to follow Plato and Aristotle.
By the same token, former European powers like Germany, France, Russia, Spain and Italy seem to have eschewed the baser politics of Machiavelli. It is not wholly right to say they are Platonic, either. A kind of realism about their place in the world seems to have created a new Europe in which power is considered a pure burden, to be avoided.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism