I write here so often that recurring themes have begun to appear in my research which have bothered me for months. One of those disturbing themes is how often Americans refer to both foreign opposition and their domestic political opposition as “totalitarians.”
Reading and thinking about domestic and world developments brought me around to an old saying: “When there are problems at home, start a war abroad.” All my life that mantra has been attributed to Niccolo Machiavelli, the Italian Renaissance Political Philosopher (1469 – 1527). But on further study he never said it. Most students of history believe later writers morphed or paraphrased his other statements into this one.
Machiavelli made keen observations about human behavior and how those in positions of power, and those subjugated to that power, act. It is interesting to see how his fifteenth century observations still apply today.
Shifting Tides in China
In an earlier article I mentioned that I thought Chairman Xi was unlikely to invade Taiwan because he could accomplish all he wanted through alliances, finance, espionage, and intrigue. Why spend treasure on war when you can achieve your objectives through intellect and strategy? But this was all before the unexpected collapse of portions of the Chinese economy.
Until now China has followed Oliver Cromwell’s advice to “keep their powder dry” knowing there will be bigger battles ahead. However, there is good evidence that Cromwell’s actual statement was: “trust in God and keep your powder dry.” and it is Cromwell’s full statement that should be the mantra of the west and give China some pause. As the largest atheist nation on earth, keeping your powder dry while trusting in only yourself is not a good strategy.
“There is no surer sign of decay in a country than to see the rites of religion held in contempt.” – Niccolò Machiavelli
But now China has had bad economic news and some cracks are starting to show in their financial Great Wall. Their GDP has declined for several months in a row, and just last week real estate financier Evergrande defaulted on bonds as the Chinese real estate market collapses.
“People are by nature fickle, and it is easy to persuade them of something, but difficult to keep them persuaded. And therefore, it is necessary to arrange things so that when they no longer believe, they can be made to believe by force.” ~ Niccolò Machiavelli
In true Machiavellian style, Xi might just invade Taiwan to distract his own people from their problems at home and build a sense of nationalism when needed. What looked like a sustained recovery from their Covid lockdown is now beginning to look like a recession or worse. Some in the American press last week began to question Xi’s economic understanding which might make the situation even more perilous. He has the power to do as he pleases, but does he have the wisdom to take the wiser path?
“Power is the pivot on which everything hinges. He who has the power is always right; the weaker is always wrong.” – Niccolò Machiavelli
Here in America the China/Taiwan issue carries uncertainty about the armaments we need to defend Taiwan being exhausted in Ukraine. We do not have a World War II type manufacturing juggernaut behind us and replenishing our stockpiles of weapons takes not days and weeks, but months and years. Our more conservative press has raised this issue and Xi is watching those discussions.
“I judge those princes capable of standing on their own who have an abundance of men or of money, so that they can put together a sufficient army and fight a battle in the field against anyone who comes to attack them…” – Niccolò Machiavelli
If China invades Taiwan, it might just find itself mired up in more trouble from the populus than from military conflict. The Taiwanese now have freedom baked into their DNA and the memory of freedom dies slowly over generations. Taiwan is also key to many technologies used by the west and there would be significant support for their resistance, making an invasion unpopular, expensive, and politically costly.
“One of the great secrets of the day is to know how to take possession of popular prejudices and passions, in such a way as to introduce a confusion of principles which makes impossible all understanding between those who speak the same language and have the same interests.” – Niccolò Machiavelli
Any causal student of history has seen what happens when you overstep your capabilities. Hitler greatly overestimated his capacity for war and underestimated the fighting capacity of Russia, Europe, and the United States. Xi can also see that Putin has stepped into that same trap. Xi can control the State press, but he cannot control access to all information worldwide, and the internet that can undermine his positions and support. The Chinese people have had a small taste of freedom and capitalism and they like it. Pull those back and unrest in China may be more of an issue than the CCP is prepared to fight.
Shifting Tides in Russia
No one knows how war in the Ukraine will finally end. I believe the two sides will be forced to a compromise because of fatigue in supporters of the Ukraine, and the cost and lack of popularity for the war in Russia as casualties mount. Both countries are paying a heavy price with destruction of property and loss of life. In an eerie parallel to World War II, Putin seems to be repeating Hitler’s mistakes, with Russia looking like Germany facing off against the combined resources of NATO and the United States.
“If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.” ~ Niccolò Machiavelli
In totalitarian dictatorships you just never know. Like China, Russian foreign policy and military decisions are in the hands of just one person. Vladimer Putin can decide tomorrow morning that he has had enough and find a way out, or he can decide to press on without regard to loss of life or fortune on either side. Tyrants are unpredictable, so will Putin look for a way out or will he fire off some nuclear weapon in a last-ditch effort?
“Wars begin when you will, but they do not end when you please.” ~ Niccolò Machiavelli
Putin has done a masterful job of building short-term support for the war at home, so popular support is there for now. If estimates of his troop losses are even directionally correct, then he must deal with more deaths and losses than the U. S. in Vietnam. For the west the danger with the Russian people may lie with propaganda and how we are perceived. Will they see Putin’s aggression for what it is, or will their anger be directed toward the west?
“It cannot be called virtue to kill one’s fellow citizens, to betray one’s friends, to be without loyalty, without mercy, without religion; by such methods one can acquire power, but not glory.” – Niccolò Machiavelli
The “mysterious” death of Yevgeny Prigozhin this week points to the stark difference in our societies and the difficulties within true totalitarian societies when things go wrong.
“The arms with which a prince defends his state are either his own, or they are those of mercenaries or auxiliaries, or mixed troops. The mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous.” – Niccolò Machiavelli
There are no totalitarian politicians in America, and we know this because of election results. Xi and Putin are presidents (dictators) for life, and President Trump was voted out of office. It seems likely that President Biden is headed down the same one term path. Unhinged American voters might like to throw around the term “totalitarian,” but those who do have no real idea of how repressive totalitarian states are.
“Always assume incompetence before looking for conspiracy.” – Niccolò Machiavelli
Some Americans are tiring of the support for the Ukraine, especially the financial costs as our debt rises. There are further questions swirling around the connections between the Biden family and the Ukraine company Barista. The President’s implausible denials coupled with his willingness to supply both military and financial support looks to be excessive to many. The President’s support for Tiawan is also questionable since rumors of bribes from China are starting to swirl.
“If you only notice human proceedings, you may observe that all who attain great power and riches, make use of either force or fraud; and what they have acquired either by deceit or violence, in order to conceal the disgraceful methods of attainment, they endeavor to sanctify with the false title of honest gains.” – Niccolò Machiavelli
There are several things we know that make our current political situation seem out of control. Our media has always had pockets of corruption. But in the past, these were offset by pockets of patriotism. Today most of our media is in one very liberal camp with little or no countermeasures. Social media we know to be dominated and corrupted by a few American oligarchs with hard left leanings. It is the lopsided view and speed of information that threatens us.
“Politics have no relation to morals.” ~ Niccolò Machiavelli
In a surprise move in the Republican Presidential debate Vivek Ramaswamy said he would cut funding for the war in Ukraine if the two sides would not agree to a truce and settlement. This seems like posturing in an election year, but it signals at least directionally where he and others are leaning. Ukraine was not a democracy; it was essentially a Russian puppet state and support should be questioned everywhere in Washington. America has a habit of rushing in to support underdog nations, but from Vietnam to today our track record is not great. Too often politicians interfere in the work of 0ur military and compromise our ability to win outright.
“A sign of intelligence is an awareness of one’s own ignorance.” – Niccolò Machiavelli
The closest thing we have ever seen to totalitarian actions on the American stage is the prosecution and persecution of President Trump. Whether from the Supreme Court or Congress, the prosecutions need to be stopped or we are setting a dangerous precedent, where we take a giant leap toward totalitarianism. The American people need to recognize that the weaponization of government agencies is the fast-moving train on the tracks of totalitarianism, and this is our real danger.
“You must know, then, that there are two methods of fighting, the one by law, the other by force: the first method is that of men, the second of beasts.” – Niccolò Machiavelli
With the election season in full swing both sides are throwing around the totalitarian phrase too frequently and easily. Whether or not you like President Trump or President Biden they are not totalitarian dictators, not even close. But unfortunately, there are many Machiavelli observations that apply to our leaders as well.
“The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.”” – Niccolò Machiavelli
President Trump did a horrible job of selecting and holding a supporting cast. I was not surprised because of his background. People who own their own businesses are accustomed to directing, not teambuilding. The repeated hiring, firing, and replacement cycles in his four years had more to do with him than his subordinates. If reelected, will he perform better or let his vengeance for mistreatment be his primary goal?
“The state is not an organism capable of bringing either moral or material improvements to the populace…but merely a vehicle of power for the men and party in power.” – Niccolò Machiavelli
And then there is President Biden and the Democratic Party. No one can quite figure out if President Biden is standing for reelection, even him. His mental state and acumen are questioned daily both in America and abroad.
“You know better than I that in a Republic talent is always suspect. A man attains an elevated position only when his mediocrity prevents him from being a threat to others. And for this reason a democracy is never governed by the most competent, but rather by those whose insignificance will not jeopardize anyone else’s self-esteem.” – Niccolò Machiavelli
With declining poll numbers, an unpopular Vice President, mental and physical decline, and a string of policy failure like few others, standing for office seems unlikely. But then running in 2020 also seemed disastrous for the Democrats and here we are.
“Men are so simple of mind, and so much dominated by their immediate needs, that a deceitful man will always find plenty who are ready to be deceived.” – Niccolò Machiavelli
The Princes of Today
With modern electronic communication, sorting out real from fake news and opinion is difficult. It is more difficult when foreign governments can use our own freedom of speech to propagandize public opinion. It is especially difficult when some in our press fall in line with foreign propaganda either knowingly or just out of laziness. It is this lethargy that got us into the internal conflicts over the last election.
I have a great deal of problems in the modern world with our own citizens vilifying our elected officials. In the 1800’s if Thomas Jefferson called James Madison an idiot the word might not spread beyond a few cities or counties and largely be lost to time. Today Jefferson’s words would be known worldwide within minutes and there is no way to put the genie back in the bottle.
Words matter and as Machiavelli observed, people are easily persuaded and seek immediate satisfaction often without regard for who is governing them. Our republic is still in its infancy and protecting and preserving it until it matures is critical. The observations of Machiavelli have echoed down through the past five hundred years and will continue to resonate. What was true of the princes of his day is still holding true for those who wield power today.
“He who blinded by ambition, raises himself to a position whence he cannot mount higher, must thereafter fall with the greatest loss.” ~ Niccolò Machiavelli
Resources Used in This Article
Are China’s Leaders Disciples of Machiavelli?: A deeper look at Machiavellian thought and how it relates to Chinese leaders’ political philosophy, by Jin Kai, theDiplomat.com, February 10, 2015.
China tips into deflation as efforts to stoke recovery falter, by Liangping and Ryan Woo, reuters.com, August 9, 2023.
Evergrande Bankruptcy: Chinese Real Estate Sector In Crisis As Evergrande Collapses, by Forbes Contributor Group, forbes.com, August 23, 2023.
Examples of people of the world leader-Machiavellian, by Duane Francis, studymoose.com, December 1, 2021.
Is ‘China’s Machiavelli’ Now Its Most Important Political Philosopher? Xi Jinping quotes an ancient philosopher and offers possible insights into his political beliefs. By Ryan Mitchell, theDiplomat.com, January 16, 2015.
Machiavelli and His 10 Most Controversial Statements About War, by Ioannis Dedes, curiousmos.com, April 14, 2022.
The Prince Quotes, sparknotes.com, Last accessed August 30, 2023.
Vivek Ramaswamy: Cut funding for Ukraine or face ‘post-Zelensky warlord, by Tony Diver, theTelegraph.co.uk, August 25, 2023.
Why We Should Study China’s Machiavelli: The similarities and differences between Niccolo Machiavelli and Han Feizi are illuminating. By Franz-Stefan Gady, theDiplomat.com, January 22, 2015.
What could have caused the plane crash that reportedly killed Wagner warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin?, by Jessie Young and Lauren Said-Moorhouse, cnn.com, August 25, 2023.