Missing Machiavelli

Photo: Hansjörg Keller on Unsplash

Missing Machiavelli

By: Isak Jönsson (Opinion piece)

18th of April 2022

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli was, and still is, an important figure in political philosophy and science. His Il Principe or better known as The Prince has become infamous for its teachings, especially the quote “better to be feared than loved”. Machiavelli’s work should not be taken as how it should be, but how it was during the 15-16th century era of warring city states in Italy. It is a foundation for Realism in International Relations. It stands close to rational choice theory, that actors will act rationally and in their own interests. If only people truly were Machiavellian.

On the 24th of February, Russia on orders from Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. This happened after weeks of tense negotiations with NATO and the EU as well as years of increasingly strained relations with Ukraine after the 2014 annexation of Crimea. No political scientist or expert worth their salt had expressed any notion of it happening. Even the most pessimistic theories of political science stated that Putin would not risk going into an open armed conflict with Ukraine. The risks were too great, the retribution from the west too large, and the rewards too small.

Russia has pushed an aggressive foreign policy the last two decades while building up an economy through selling natural resources of its vast territories, including natural gas through Nordstream 1. The second pipeline, Nordstream 2 was underway before the European Union, mostly Germany, pulled the plug on the project after the 24th of February. The large sanctions against Russia have halted a decade of economic growth. Despite Putin and Russia’s aggressive posturing and the critique against the nation for its actions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria, the international community remained inactive.

Any Machiavellian schemer would have continued on this course, and many experts expected this to be the case. That during the negotiations preceding the attack on Ukraine, Putin was playing tough as a diplomatic tactic. The world have had its share of weird leaders, the latest and loudest being Donald Trump, which due to incompetence and inexperience burned diplomatic bridges and caused damage to the USA’s standing in the international community. But Vladimir Putin is not a Donald Trump. One is a former intelligence officer that climbed to power through, well, Machiavellian scheming while the other is a millionaire with dozens of failed business under his wide belt. One is considered a shrewd if amoral politician, while the other can barely form coherent sentences.

Therefore the very irrational and non-Machiavellian choice to invade Ukraine came as a shock. An otherwise rational actor had done something unpredictable and ever since late February, newspapers and political scientists alike have scratched their heads and chins trying to decipher the next move from Putin’s cabinet.

So what does Machiavelli have to do with Putin? Well, nothing, really. What we are missing is the self-serving rationality of Machiavelli. The infamous quote about rather being feared than loved is in its entirety: “Since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.” It is written in the context of politics; the safety of a regime is more secure from fear than love. Machiavelli also writes that fear through cruelty is a risk, since it sows hatred. This hatred is what Russia is reaping right now.

Machiavelli is a proponent of realpolitiks: the amoral rational choices taken in foreign or domestic politics. While the world would rather get rid of villains entirely, there will always be amoral or immoral leaders and regimes. What one can hope is for those regimes to be predictable. Acting in your own self-interest is predictable. Irrational tyrants have been common in the past and their choices and the consequences of those choices have gone down in history books, staining the pages red. Blood would have been spilled if those tyrants truly had been Machiavellian, but at a lesser cost of human lives.

Maybe the lesson taken from Machiavelli is to expect fear. To expect means time to prepare, to predict, and to counter. There is a saying; “better the devil you know, than the devil you do not” which explains my point succinctly. But not only is a Machiavellian devil a known, but a predictable devil. And even fear, if known, can be overcome.

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