Machiavelli and the Concept of Realpolitik

By: Jacob Mailander

Written: November 24, 2012


Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince” was written in a time of great power struggle and warfare amongst the various city-states of Italy and their powerful nation-state allies. Machiavelli was a foreign diplomat who watched these events take place and was himself involved in various political/military causes. The book itself was written as a gift to the Medici family, who had forced him into voluntarily exile. Today, the reason that Machiavelli continues to be studied is that he is one of the best writers to intellectually and methodically articulate the theory behind power governance. The power concept, later associated with the term “realpolitik,” leads minds to inquire about abstract notions such as justice, fairness, and the list goes on. Though written as a manual for dictators, Machiavelli’s “The Prince” is a valuable read for any democratic society because it contains a cynical view of mankind that displays the power of the primitive and undemocratic side of humanity.

The theory and definition of Machiavelli’s realpolitik can be summarized by this passage from “The Prince”:

“A great many men have imagined states and princedoms such as nobody ever saw or knew in the real world, for there’s such a difference between the way we really live and the way we ought to live that the man who neglects the real to study the ideal will learn how to accomplish his ruin, not his salvation.”[i]

Machiavelli’s notions of practicality over ethics pose quite a problem to modern democratic society, which has an interest in maintaining the honesty of leaders and institutions. “The Prince” challenges the wisdom of popular demand for accountability, arguing that the mere illusion of ethical conduct is sufficient. It presents a frank and troubling question: do we really want to know everything our leaders do behind closed doors?


History has provided the public a relatively honest glimpse into American Machiavellian strategy. One need not look further than the American Civil War, which was rich with conspiracy, injustice, and stealthy governance. Indeed, a recent article by Jill Lawrence used Abraham Lincoln as a positive example for the use of American realpolitik. In that article, she characterized Lincoln’s legislative enforcers as:

“a trio of hard-drinking, hard-smoking lobbyists rushing around town finding defeated House members who would exchange their votes for a postmaster job. They are sleazy, comic figures helping a president achieve one of the noblest and most strategically important practical goals in American history: passing a constitutional amendment ending slavery.”[ii]

Ms. Lawrence noted in her article that trading jobs for votes is now illegal under the Civil Service code.[iii] Of course, the suspension of habeas corpus and other civil rights violations committed by Lincoln were retroactively found to be illegal and unconstitutional. Yet he is the eternal hero of the country, the President who completed the ideals of the American Revolution and started the Industrial Revolution.

The problem with Ms. Lawrence’s article is that Lincoln was not using realpolitik in the truest sense of the concept. Under Machiavellian strategy, the leader uses unethical means to achieve a practical goal, but that practicality is subjective, usually ascertained by the ruler’s desire to maintain power. Lincoln’s goals were different, as he was dedicated to the future rather than himself. Lincoln did not seek dictatorship; he sought to suppress violent injustice that openly insulted the ideals of the American Revolution.

Whether modern democracy employs Lincolnian realpolitik or Machiavellian realpolitik, the issue remains the same: do we want our leaders to act unethically in order to advance a certain goal? It seems that Americans have a tendency to forgive or forget ethical violations when their own safety and prosperity is in danger. Indeed, tactics that are quite close to entrapment are used by our criminal justice system every day in order to promote a practical and realistic peace. Machiavelli saw that people can generally reconcile the good with the bad, and for that reason said a leader “can earn the good will of his subjects in many ways,” and that “they vary according to circumstances.”[iv]

Though not a dictator, Lincoln was a student of Machiavelli, evidenced by his aggression during the Civil War itself. Lincoln threw thousands of men into the meat grinder of the South, often making disastrous military decisions. Once he gained the upper hand, Lincoln allowed his generals to ravage the South with impunity. However, the American public does not allow these characterizations to take hold in the collective historical memory. In this case, Machiavelli seems right, that a strong leader “must know how to make good use of both the beast and the man.”[v] In all likelihood, history would have judged Lincoln more harshly if he had not been so determined to enforce his agenda. Indeed, Machiavelli would have advised aggressive politics that would have led to preemptive war with the South, railing against the Great Compromise and the Civil War that followed.

Machiavelli and Myth

Machiavelli was of the opinion that myth serves a leader better than the truth, as lofty ideals will make a population loyal and supportive. This is not unsimilar from modern American political campaigns, where candidates desire to be associated with vaguely positive ideals and reach out to those with similar goals. The following passage from Machiavelli is a great summary of American politics:

“Men in general judge more by the sense of sight than by the sense of touch, because everyone can see but only a few can test by feeling. Everyone sees what you seem to be, few know what you really are; and those few do not dare take a stand against the general opinion, supported by the majesty of the government.”[vi]

While obviously Machiavelli did not foresee television, he seemed to predict the effect that television would have on the American public.  Most of the time, people are watching news that is pre-packaged, and only when the message is not delivered correctly is there any real castigation. Nowadays, once you say something, you say it forever.

Machiavelli’s admiration of the use of myth also influenced his opinion about war. Rather than advising cautiousness in declaring war, Machiavelli was convinced by the military doctrine of preemption:

“[Y]ou should never let things get out of hand in order to avoid a war. You don’t avoid such a war, you merely postpone it, to your own disadvantage.”[vii]

Machiavelli’s support of preemptive war is interesting because it addresses a critical myth that is often involved in current foreign policy decisions. According to Machiavelli, perceived or ambiguous dangers are the same as real and imminent dangers, for the myth of an opponent’s weakness or strength can galvanize and accelerate the population’s support for war. For better or worse, Machiavelli and George W. Bush had quite similar attitudes as to the use of military force on perceived threats to the nation.

Another aspect of Machiavelli’s realpolitik is the power of myth through stealth and secrecy. Machiavelli knew that people aspire to impossible ideals, and that such ideals could be exploited for personal gain and power. American politics in the past thrived on hidden intentions and classified communications, actions that provided politicians the ability to make decisions with little oversight. Even today, much effort is spent on confidentiality, despite the narrow possibility of complete non-disclosure.

The advent of technology has challenged past stealth tactics and reduced the privacy of everyone, including those in power. Led by Wikileaks, new information movements have arisen that directly challenge Machiavellian secrecy, aggressively promoting governmental openness. Wikileaks subscribes to the idea that a truly free society must know the inner workings of their government, and that leaders who lie about their motivations should be exposed. Though most agree that politicians should be allowed a certain amount of privacy in order to maintain a level of independence, the freedom of information movement is a powerful challenge that will not go away.

The Relevance of Realpolitik

The main question raised by “The Prince” is whether power governance has any value in the modern world. After all, Machiavelli made assumptions about mankind that are quite dark and pessimistic:

“People are less concerned with offending a man who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared: the reason is that love is a link of obligation which men, because they are rotten, will break any time they think doing so serves their advantage; but fear involves dread of punishment, from which they never can escape.”[viii]

Is modern society any different from Machiavelli’s conception of mankind? It’s hard to say, especially given the progress and failures that have occurred since World War II. When looking at the democratic experiment, one could note that democracy has spread to distance parts of the Earth, while another could point to the corruption and chaos of those same entities.

All the same, the use of conniving methods to obtain dictatorial results is not palatable to American politics. However, the great American tradition of semantic reorganization allows us to use our own language to take otherwise negative terms and turn them into positive concepts. We can rephrase the bigger notions and use different terms. We can now say that realpolitik means emotional intelligence, utilitarianism, military wisdom, or peace—concepts that are more accepted within American society. Once we change the tone of our language, it is easy to come up with modern American examples of realpolitik.

Then where are we left? If stealth and guile seems to be the dominant force in democratic politics, how can we ever have any trust in our leaders? The use of realpolitik has already taken an intractable toll on the trust of the American public. Memories of past injustices, lies, etc. have made many Americans bitter about politicians and hateful of government. But is realpolitik some sort of predetermined fate? I think not, although it is practically determined given the extremity of the evil elements of the world. World peace and social justice can end the use of governmental realpolitik, but that is a seemingly impossible task. Machiavelli imagined only a world of violence and could not comprehend the idea of lasting peace. Maybe there will come a day when Machiavelli’s view of mankind will seem like a bad dream, but until then, power will usually prevail.

[i] Machiavelli, Niccolò, translation by Adams, Robert M. “Chapter XV.” The Prince: A New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations, Peripherica. New York: Norton, 1977. pg 44. Print.

[ii] “Spielberg’s Lincoln: A Lesson in Realpolitik for a Squeamish Age.” Jill Lawrence. National Journal. Nov. 19, 2012.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Machiavelli, Niccolò, translation by Adams, Robert M. “Chapter IX.” The Prince: A New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations, Peripherica. New York: Norton, 1977. pg 30. Print.

[v]  Id. at Ch. XVIII, pg 49.

[vi] Id. at 51.

[vii] Id. at Ch. III, pg 11.

[viii] Id. at Ch. XVII, pg 48.

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1 Response to Machiavelli and the Concept of Realpolitik

  1. William O'Toole says:

    Really interesting article about Realpolitik ,argued well and put hope in the future, informative and short .

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