A New Twist on Machiavelli

Back in 1515, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in his infamous pamphlet, The Prince, that the end justifies the means. Ironically, the pamphlet did not really reflect Machiavelli’s views, but was written to curry favor with the political administration, who found the message so offensive it fired him. It is maybe history’s worst attempt to suck up. Pity poor Niccolo who’s name is now inexorably bonded to corrupt totalitarian governments.

But history lesson aside, there is some merit to Machiavelli’s legacy. Not that an end goal orientation and means be damned philosophy is any way to treat your family, friends, neighbors, or electorate. But there are times where it is a prudent way to deal with outside parties with whom there is no common cultural or values based reference point. Let me explain.

In anthropological terms, altruism is usually explained as an evolved cultural “pay it forward” strategy. I’ll be nice to you now, and you’ll do something for me or my kids at some point in the future. It is this behavioral root which gives us The Golden Rule. And where there is a shared set of values or culture, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you is good advice. Those others will value your actions and reciprocate in a way that you will value.

However, when dealing with those with whom you do not share that common set of values, The Golden Rule is folly. They will not value what you do, and may even find it offensive. And you will likely have a similar reaction to their actions. There are two possible ways of dealing with these situations. If there is ultimately a goal of establishing a relationship, then, in the truest spirit of diversity, you need to become fluent enough in the other’s culture so that you can behave in a way that they value. This obviously works best when they have a similar goal and are willing to become acclimated to your values as well. But there are cases where there is no desire or cooperation toward creating any sort of relationship. You may still need to do business of some sort with the others, but this arrangement is limited to pay-as-you-go interactions. And this is where Machiavelli comes into play. In these situations, you are focused on a specific end result. And while the means to that end may take some uncomfortable paths, paths that may offend your own sense of justice and fair play, it’s important to stay focused on the reality that justice and fair play are culturally dependent, and therefore not really the point. You just need a result. Yet the means should not violate your own sense of morality. There still need to be limits that allow you to view yourself as a good person.

I learned this lesson through a painful personal experience, but I think it applies beyond the interpersonal arena and even into foreign policy. I think one of the reasons we find ourselves in the Iraqi quagmire is a catastrophic failure on the part of Bush, Cheney, Bremer, Wolfowitz, and others to recognize that that we do not share a common set of values with Middle Eastern cultures. Bush’s central tenet was that we would go into Iraq, liberate them, and bring them democracy. He couldn’t see that they would not value that. This culturally myopic view plagues Bush still.

At present, I think Bush cannot stomach the idea of discussions with Iran and Syria because it offends his sense of justice and fair play. They don’t deserve to have us talk to them. Similarly, “victory” (a word he seems maniacally focused on) constitutes a stable and peaceful democracy in Iraq. In essence, we’ll be done once the Iraqis have adopted American values. This is folly. We need Iraq in specific and the Middle East in general to be peaceful enough that the oil we depend on continues to flow. That is the end state. (Arguably, it was also the beginning state, circa 2002, but we screwed that up.) We should be open to nearly any means to reachieve that stability. As I said above, there have to be limits based on our morality. For example, it would be immoral to reinstate Saddam. But opening talks with Iran and Syria merely require us to forgo our overly developed sense of justice. Similarly, incenting/threatening the fledgling Iraqi government to take the steps necessary to allow our exit are not immoral. Uncomfortable maybe, but we need to stay focused on the end state, and explore any morally justifiable ways to get there.

Niccolo might like that his legacy could be used to achieve peace.

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