Machiavelli and the U.S. 

Machiavelli and the U.S.

I just attended a job talk (by Christopher Lynch) on Machiavelli and war.

As I understand it, the U.S. has long been a great expression of Machiavelli's ideas. Participants in government (and leaders in the economy) don't need to have special concern for each other, or the country; they just have to compete aggressively, and keep each other in check. They can only win honour by doing some good for significant parts of the population, and as long as there are a lot of different ambitious people, there is a kind of freedom for a great many, if not all.

Lynch suggested Machiavelli did not think an aggressive, warlike foreign policy is always a good idea. In the case of the Roman Republic, imperialism led to the arming of the plebs, which laid the foundation for Christianity, which has imposed (in Machiavelli's time) a kind of deep-freeze on human ambition and accomplishment. This doesn't mean there are no human wolves; it simply means the wolves who remain (Bishops, etc.) can feed freely.

An alternative, Lynch suggests, is a warlike league that always remains sufficiently weak (perhaps because it is a mercenary army) that it avoids the downfalls of successful imperialism. The ancient and modern Tuscan leagues are supposedly examples.

Thus a hotly contested, self-interested, sometimes seemingly chaotic domestic politics in the U.S. might provide a sufficient outlet for ambition so that the U.S. will not be imperialistic in its foreign policy.

For a long time, this seems to have worked. In both world wars, the U.S. was slow to get involved, and finally did so largely on grounds of self-defence. Even the entry into Vietnam was cautious on the whole, and was precipitated by an invitation from the French. Other U.S. wars have been small scale.

In Iraq, however, we have the pre-emptive, almost entirely unprovoked attack on a good sized country. True, it seems important to the Bushies to cling to rationales that sound like self-defence: WMDs, nukes, imminent, links to al Qaeda. But it is difficult to believe that they believed all of this. Surely as the world's only megapower, far more powerful than anyone else, it was difficult to resist taking the hardware out for a spin. Surely it was easy to convince yourself that you were going to make history--especially if you made great efforts to re-build the country, and establish a constitution and elections.

Is this the beginning of more classically imperialistic wars? Or will something like Vietnam syndrome make the American public regret this adventure, and make another one unlikely?

UPDATE: One odd wrinkle is that beneath the rationales based on self-defence is a real fear. Instead of the richest and most powerful country that has ever existed, with no real rivals, being free of fear, it is now extremely fearful because it has been reminded that it lives in a bad neighbourhood. Now there is no level of security that can really be considered adequate. Big fences have to be built, with dogs and guards. But aggressive actions are also needed--armed incursions into the surrounding slums, for even if no recent attack has come from a particular neighbourhood, "we know" that it is that kind of neighbourhood that is the most likely source of attacks. Being a Boy Scout, one genuine wants to liberate a lot of slum-dwellers. But being fearful, one feels justified in bombing neighbourhoods, rounding people up at random, and using detention and torture as techniques of intimidation and/or information gathering.

Lynch did say it's amazing that a powerful country can say openly it has launched pre-emptive war, and make this a matter of doctrine--apparently a commitment for the future. That shows, he said, that we live in a Machiavellian world.

Return to Main Page


Add Comment

Search This Site

Syndicate this blog site

Powered by BlogEasy

Free Blog Hosting