Politics in the 21st century are all about trickery, the desire for power and giving priority to efficiency rather than morality or legality.
The specter of Niccolò Machiavelli has been hanging over modern life since the 16th century. On the one hand, he freed politics from religion and moralizing, he asserted national sovereignty and fought for Italy’s freedom. On the other hand, he made cynicism and violence into principles of government, stating that politics and the State have their own form of reasoning and that the Prince must be judged exclusively on his results, leading him necessarily to “prefer the greatness of the City to the salvation of his soul.”
The tragic destiny of the 20th century was the product of Machiavellian behavior. It was marked by two world wars and a cold war – ending in 1918, 1948 and 1989 respectively; conflicts between nations and empires, between democracy and totalitarianism. As Raymond Aron pointed out, a totalitarian state and total warfare are a direct legacy from Machiavelli, through the distortion of science and religion, the alliance of lies and terror, the cult of violence and the use of mass propaganda, and the overt unleashing of ambitions of empire. It was to bring a halt to this diabolical dynamic and to keep the USSR in check that a new world order was created in 1945, combining multilateralism, the development of international law and the gradual recognition of the inviolability of European frontiers; all this under the shadow of a twin-headed cold war which nuclear deterrents were locking us into.
The 21st century has been following the principle of globalization, which has brought humankind into an era of universal history. In the years following on the fall of the Soviet Union, it seemed that the ideals of John Locke held sway, with the emergence of an international society and a worldwide rule of law, as well as a plan for perpetual peace, dear to the heart of Emmanuel Kant. In fact, the century is all about Machiavellian politics, combining the willpower of strong leaders, force, cunning, the assertion of the desire for power and the primacy of efficiency over morality and law.
Since the 2008 crash, which ended a period of liberal globalization, politics have taken back control of history, guided by a thirst for domination and a desire for power. The maintenance or the acquisition of power is justification for the use of any means. This is shown in Chinese totalitarianism where, by means of social credit, the government has set up digital control of the population and in the regime in Damascus, which has ensured its survival at the cost of 450,000 lives and 12 million refugees, out of a total population of 22 million. Lies and trickery are being raised to the level of strategy. This can be seen in Syria’s instrumentalization of Islamists, in the betrayal of the Kurds who were delivered into Turkey’s hands even though they played a crucial role in the military defeat of Islamic State’s caliphate, in Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s use of refugees to blackmail Europe, and in the spread of hybrid warfare. The indissoluble link that Machiavelli made between The Prince and The Art of War is still true today. Leaders base their legitimacy on the show and use of force, and on making territorial conquests serve their plans for empire. This is the case of Beijing with regard to the South China Sea and Taiwan; of Moscow with regard to Georgia, the Crimea, Ukraine and the Baltic states; of Ankara with regard to northern Syria; and of Israel with regard to the occupied territories. This now involves taking control of natural resources – China is doing this through its “new silk roads” and Turkey is taking preemptive action to secure natural gas resources in the Mediterranean –, of infrastructures and strategic companies, and even of new fields of activity that are opening up at the poles, in space and in cyberspace.
Anything goes. Violence is rising to extreme limits and becoming an end in itself, as shown in the staging of terror used by Islamic State on social media. There is a return to genocide – Eastern Christians, the Yazidis and the Rohingyas. An act of force imposes the law. The Russians and the Chinese openly violate treaties and international law whilst the USA are withdrawing from them.
The 20th century showed the satanic side of Machiavelli’s praise for power politics. However, the citizens and leaders of free nations should reflect on his salutary conclusions that the truth of politics is to be found in action, that internal and external security are the main raison d’être of the State, and that no statesman or nation can survive without courage. The 21st century will be Machiavelli’s.
(Column published in Le Figaro, 9th March 2020)