America’s Crumbling Strategy Needs (Literally) Machiavellian Answers
The Italian philosopher saw the power of technology and change.
Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) has been called the father of modern political philosophy. If Americans remember him at all, though, it is more likely as the Father of Lies: the political schemer with an eponymous adjective thanks to The Prince, his manual of amoral advice to rulers. That’s unfortunate because Machiavelli is uncannily relevant today—and not because his maxims make easy fodder for books about office politics. His writings go far beyond the book he became infamous for and speak to us directly about the sorts of problems we confront today.
Like us, Machiavelli lived in an interstitial age. For him, it was a world that was no longer medieval but not quite yet modern, either. For us, it is clear that the post-industrial 20th century is over, but we’re not exactly sure what comes next. Both were marked by the crumbling of old institutions without new ones to take their place, and by a growing sense of inadequacy and dread.
We typically mark the beginning of the modern state system with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. Those treaties ratified the ideas of sovereignty and territorial integrity that serve as its foundations to this day. Machiavelli called for similar reforms nearly a century and a half earlier —anticipating the need for a restructuring of a political order that was then already falling apart.
In the posthumously published Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli reflects deeply on the concept of ordino—a word that means something like “the normal way of doing things,” but that he used in reference to institutional structures and the ethical assumptions underlying them. An ordino is very much like what international relations theorists mean when they say liberal world order.
Late medieval society wasn’t divided by clean geographic boundaries. Feudal princes depended on personal obligations to govern overlapping networks: each relationship fixed to an individual and thus impermanent. Marital alliances and hereditary titles created further patchworks of loyalties in distant lands.
By Machiavelli’s time, this arrangement had grown into a convoluted tangle of acquisitive princes striving against one another. His native Italy was a favored arena, hosting the bloody feuds of Kings, Popes, and Emperors vying for power. Italian regimes swiftly rose and precipitously fell as the balance of that power continuously shifted. Machiavelli’s own Florence had a particularly checkered recent history of revolutions and counterrevolutions. In general, it was a time characterized by endemic warfare, disease, and hunger. As ever, it was regular people who suffered the most.
Machiavelli argued that the medieval world order was dying and a new one was struggling to be born, and he wanted to help midwife it. He seems to have intuitively grasped that states were technologies that security communities could use to protect and advance their shared interests. He argued that the feudal principalities that composed the ordino of his day were obsolete and advocated for the creation of a new, post-feudal political structure better able to solve the strategic problems Florence faced.
Machiavelli was staunchly republican and a devoted supporter of Florence’s relatively open republic where he served as secretary to the Council of War—the body that in practice oversaw almost all diplomatic and military matters. Despite being well aware of the corruption inside the system, he believed it well worth defending—and reforming.
Understanding that republics were fragile to begin with, he knew that those who allowed their institutions to atrophy and grow outdated were more fragile still—and thus likelier to fail. He believed Florence had to adopt systemic administrative reforms to modernize its apparatus of government. It needed, he argued, a professional cadre to serve as permanent ambassadors to represent the republic’s interest abroad. It needed educated officials who could manage the complex financial interests of a modern city-state. It needed strong, independent institutions that ensured continuity of long-term policies between successive rulers and that could cement alliances that would outlast an individual’s whim.
He realized, in other words, that Florence needed a modern state.
But Machiavelli didn’t just conceive of changes on a political level. Machiavelli lived in a time of military revolution—a period of sharp, discontinuous change in military affairs, where, as he put it “our previous methods of war have become outmoded, and no one has yet been able to create new ones.”
This revolution spurred principalities to adopt new ways of war and leave the old ones behind. One by one, for example, the ancient fortifications of Italian cities were being blasted to rubble by the power of modern artillery. Machiavelli understood that Florence was practically defenseless against the new bronze cannons of powerful kingdoms like France. “No wall is found, however thick,” he wrote, that the new artillery would not “knock down in a few days.”
He also realized that the condottieri (contractor) armies that Florentines relied upon to fight their wars were unreliable and even when loyal, subversive to the republic’s legitimacy. They prey “as much upon him who has led them as against whom they are led.”
But while those around him remained enamored with traditional structures that were (in this case quite literally) crumbling before their eyes, he sought to build new ones that would better serve the republic’s security needs.
For Machiavelli, strongpoints and walls were in many ways a necessary evil; they served as symbols of authority but were increasingly vulnerable and could easily undermine a principality that did not broaden its defense to the countryside where people lived. He essentially advised what we might call an area defense given the fragility of point defenses and the tendency of long sieges to undermine state legitimacy.
To remedy the problem of mercenaries, Machiavelli called for the creation of a permanent body of citizen-soldiers. It’s difficult to exaggerate just how revolutionary this idea was in the 16th-century when almost every aspect of warfare was outsourced to contractors. Machiavelli coined the argument that’s now commonplace: that a volunteer militia would be far more reliable than soldiers of fortune because they would be fighting for their families and neighbors, not for fame or profit.
Machiavelli put his radical idea into action when given the opportunity. After years of frustrating stalemate in its war to subjugate Pisa, Florence finally authorized him to personally muster, drill, and lead a force of Florentine volunteers, a force he eventually led to victory—the apogee of his political career.
Innovators can rub those in power the wrong way, and Machiavelli was no different. For all his genius, his ideas were largely ignored after the period of brief experimentation during the war with Pisa—tragically for Florence, as it turned out.
Florence did not become the administratively modern republican state Machiavelli had envisioned. Instead, its liberty was snuffed out in 1533, just six years after Machiavelli himself died in disgrace.
Machiavelli had been dismissed from the civil service when the plutocratic Medici regained power in 1512. The next year he was imprisoned and tortured on suspicion he might attempt to overthrow the new authoritarian regime.
It was only after his release, with his career abruptly ended, that he sat down to write The Prince, the slim treatise that would earn him permanent infamy.
That book remains the subject of vigorous debate. Like authoritarianism, The Prince is quick, easy, and full of what seems to be common sense. The Discourses, on the other hand, are like republicanism—long, forbidding, and often difficult to get through.
Some believe Machiavelli wrote The Prince to get back into the new government’s good graces; essentially a job application submitted by a broken man. Others suggest it was a satire, a joke on those who had treated him so poorly. More interestingly, some even argue that Machiavelli wrote The Prince as a sort of 16th-century application of information warfare, that he intentionally crafted it for the baleful Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici because he believed that any ruler who put its sinister advice into practice would soon be overthrown. “The aim of his doctrine,” Machiavelli’s first and greatest detractor later wrote, was “to act like a drug that causes princes to go mad.”
Machiavelli’s influence in life was short-lived, subject to the whims of the very class of individual rulers he sought to constrain. He probably wasn’t surprised, though. Machiavelli was a dedicated student of history, noting, like Thucydides, that “anyone comparing the present with the past will soon perceive that in all cities and in all nations, there prevail the same desires and passions that have always prevailed.” For this reason, he thought it was easy to judge events unfolding in his own republic, for they had done so in the past. He advised the Florentines to “apply such remedies as they ancients used.” And when encountering problems, the ancients had not? “Strike out new ones.”
We would be wise to study the works Machiavelli left behind and to consider the remedies he offered as our ordino collapses and another has not yet taken shape. And when Machiavelli’s remedies are found wanting? We, too, should strike out new ones.