It seems that ‘Old Nick’, one of the devil’s English names, derives from Niccolò Machiavelli. The old Segretario fiorentino would probably make a laugh, and rightly celebrate the 500 years of his ‘The Prince’, which he apparently mentioned for the first time in a letter to his friend Vettori on 10 December 1513.
‘The Prince’ would also be the most popular Italian book in the world, even ahead of Dante’s Commedia. At times, however, it has been misunderstood. Some authors labelled it the work of a ‘teacher of evil’; others praised its clear separation between ethics and politics; some envisaged in it a ruthless analysis of politics ‘as it is’; many drew on it to find ‘magic’ rules on how to win new markets, make a career, even win at gambling. Frankly, it would be better to let Machiavelli rest. He wrote for a mainly Florentine audience, was passionate about his beloved republic – even more than about Italy – and profoundly missed ancient glories, Greek and Roman, in a world that was inevitably changing, thanks to geographic explorations, the rise of capitalism and that of Atlantic economies.
The author of ‘The Prince’, however, provoked us with biting irony and pointed thoughts, and thus deserves some kind of ‘retaliation’. Let us take three passages more or less at random, forget the Florentine context, and see what impact they would have in our days.
“Therefore, do not let our princes accuse fortune for the loss of their principalities after so many years’ possession, but rather their own sloth, because in quiet times they never thought there could be a change (it is a common defect in man not to make any provision in the calm against the tempest), and when afterwards the bad times came they thought of flight and not of defending themselves, and they hoped that the people, disgusted with the insolence of the conquerors, would recall them.”
Machiavelli was writing about the Italian princes, in Milan, Naples, and others, who had indulged in vain ambitions, and had lost their States without realizing that their peers beyond the Alps had meanwhile become richer and stronger, with ‘good arms’ even before ‘good laws’. But who are today’s ‘slothful’ if European politicians? The leaders of States – Britain, France, Germany – which continue to see themselves as ‘great powers’ without realizing that others are now upon us, China, Russia, India and even Brazil? Such leaders in the ‘calm’ a few years ago did not ‘make any provision’ against the ‘tempest’ that would have come down to a Euro without any political support… And now they want us to believe that the ‘bad’ times are gone?
As to the ‘conquerors’, that is, financial markets, hedge funds, investment banks, new powers, they will never leave us. Machiavelli saw in the ‘time of crisis’ a chance to fight back and invoked an Italian prince. Today we look to the whole of Europe and can see neither princes nor any reaction. In Machiavelli’s age, politicians were not inexperienced; from the Sforza to the Popes, the Medici to Venice, all of them knew their own business. But they never had the strength the times required. The same applies today: from Merkel and Hollande to Letta himself, they fill their mouth with ‘Europe’. Now, however, it is necessary to make it, not just talk about it. Nobody seems to care…
“Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred;”
Scant comfort, our Europeans ‘princes’ are not even hated. The United States, in contrast, is. Obama’s election was a great makeshift operation, but it did not work at all. As a result, the United States today is less and less popular, less and less feared, and increasingly detested. Let us have a look at the Pew data, 2013. In a number of key Cold war allies, the US is now seen unfavourably (Pakistan, 89% of the population; in Jordan, 86%; in Egypt, 84%; 79% in Turkey!), and even Saudi Arabia is now reflecting on her own international position (which roughly means ‘to whom sell more oil in exchange for weapons’ ). By contrast with the US, China is now seen with favour in Pakistan (81%), in a series of important emerging countries (Nigeria, 76%; Indonesia, 70%; Brazil, 65%) and Russia (62%). The point on the USA was very well made by Vladimir Putin in his now famous article for the New York Times (11 September 2013): “Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”
Now that the hypocrisy of the ‘Obama operation’ has been unmasked, the USA is increasingly hated. At the same time, America does not inspire fear (which following Machiavelli was always mixed with respect) any longer; how could she, given the flawed handling of the whole Syrian affair? China, for her part, is appreciated and feared, in part because she is hardly understandable, in part because she was able to emerge from a situation of economic ‘underdevelopment’ that naturally attracts attention in many developing countries, including those in Africa. And not only that: 58% of Australians, a once proud ‘Anglo-Saxon’ outpost in the Pacific, looks at China with favour! How could it be otherwise, with all the resources that Beijing is buying there?
“A prince, therefore, being compelled knowingly to adopt the beast, ought to choose the fox and the lion; because the lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves.”
It seems almost natural to compare China to Machiavelli’s fox. She has reached out everywhere, even where the United States is leaving (Afghanistan and Iraq) and in strategic sectors, from energy to communications. But China still does not have military force to terrify the ‘wolves’: according to the SIPRI (2013), Beijing would spend in arms 166 billion $ per year, about a quarter of the United States. The latter has the power of the lion, but finds it hard to defend against ‘snares’: they lost Central Asia to Russia and China and now they are losing shots even in the Middle East, a region that is littered with traps in which the US seems to often fall. The US therefore lacks the fox; China, the lion. ‘Soft power’ was an American idea…
Neither Washington nor Beijing is thus able to rule the world alone. And yet the USA had her chance…What if they joined forces? In fact, China is Washington’s main lender and has massive US investments, which aroused many concerns in the weeks of shutdown. A game with two players is though not imaginable, because there are other very ambitious actors, Russia, Brazil, India, which is very active diplomatically, and Indonesia, which now has a population of nearly 250 million.
In Machiavelli’s world, politics came first; today it is not the case. Especially in the West, the economy has the upper hand: we live in a different context. The Florentine’s call for ‘the common good’ is though very pertinent. In the USA, in Europe, in Italy, for some twenty years factions, which today we sometimes call lobbies, have won. The Republic of Florence, which had been devoured by them, ended prey and then satellite of the French. Where are we going then?