Plato and Aristotle, were both political idealists who believed that there were universal moral values on which political life could be based. Building on the work of his predecessors, Cicero developed the idea of a natural moral law that was applicable to both domestic and international politics. His ideas concerning righteousness in war were carried further in the writings of the Christian thinkers St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas.
Machiavelli (1469–1527) challenged this well-established moral tradition, thus positioning himself as a political innovator. The novelty of his approach lies in his critique of classical Western political thought as unrealistic, and in his separation of politics from ethics. He thereby lays the foundations for the modern politics of realism.
Machiavelli was a Florentine who lived from 1469-1527. The work for which he is best known was written in 1513 and is translated as The Prince
. The work represents a clear shift in political thinking. Whereas the tradition of political idealism was concerned with how a ruler could best further the common good, Machiavelli was more interested in empirical questions such as how a ruler could stay in power, or by what means he could use power to maintain law and order and keep enemies at bay, both inside and outside the state.
Machiavelli was well-placed to advise on such issues. He held office in the Florentine Republic and had assorted missions in the nasty but very rich little states which comprised Italy in 1500. He was a republican by thinking but came to terms with the Medicis. The central concept in his writing is power rather than authority or legitimacy. Typical pieces of advice given to rulers in The Prince
are: rulers must have advisers, but care must be taken in appointing them because advisers become flatterers (nowadays they become character assassins); rulers must not overdo virtue in small matters at the cost of large matters. In general, Machiavelli was arguing that actions by rulers which might seem wrong if taken by themselves are justifiable if placed in a larger context.
In chapter XV of The Prince
, Machiavelli announces that in departing from the teachings of earlier thinkers, he seeks 'the effectual truth of the matter rather than the imagined one'. The 'effectual truth' is for him the only truth worth seeking. It represents the sum of the practical conditions that he believes are required to make both the individual and the country prosperous and strong.
It was this view – often stated as 'the end justifies the means' – which got him the name of realism in politics. It also got him an enduring bad reputation in European literature. He came to exemplify a particular sort of villain. In Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, the Machiavellian villain was depicted as poisoner, revenger and general schemer. Characters such as Shakespeare's Richard III, or Edmond in King Lear,
or Iago in Othello,
or Flamineo in Webster's White Devil
would be seen as 'Machiavellian'. In his writings, Machiavelli may in fact have delineated a kind of personality which emerged out of the Renaissance and capitalism, a personality in which individualism goes along with the ruthless pursuit of power.
But if we leave aside Machiavelli's wider cultural influence, we can ask what in detail does it mean to say that Machiavelli, or other political writers or politicians, are realists? Realists of assorted kinds usually claim to be suggesting how rulers can get things done, especially in international politics. That is behind the claim that some commentators make: that Machiavelli is offering a 'grammar' of power, or recommendations about how rulers ought to behave if they want to achieve their aims. It is not always clear in this grammar of power whether the claim is that rulers are pursuing political power on behalf of their state or on their own behalf.
Political realism on behalf of the state stresses the competitive and conflictual side of international politics. Realists consider that rulers should be concerned exclusively with their own security and the pursuit of their own national interests. The negative side of the realists' emphasis on power and self-interest is often their scepticism regarding the relevance of ethical norms as applied to relations among states. Some realists allow that national politics ought to be governed by justice and law, whereas international politics they portray as a sphere without justice, characterised by active or potential conflict among states.
Not all realists, however, deny the presence of ethics in international relations. A distinction should be drawn between the more moderate version of realism represented by such 20th-century theorists as Reinhold Niebuhr and Hans Morgenthau and radical or extreme realism. While moderate realism emphasises the concept of national interest, it differs from the Machiavellian doctrine that anything is justified by reason of state. Nor does it involve the glorification of war or conflict.
The moderate realists do not reject the possibility of moral judgement in international politics. Rather, they are critical of moralism – abstract moral discourse that does not take into account political realities. They assign supreme value to successful political action based on prudence: the ability to judge the rightness of a given action from among possible alternatives on the basis of its likely political consequences for their own state.
Perhaps the greatest problem with realism in international relations is that it has a tendency to slip into its extreme version, which accepts any policy that can benefit the state at the expense of other states, no matter how morally problematic the policy is. A recent example was the willingness of the Westminster Government to break a treaty with the European Union because the Westminster Government believed it was in British national interests to do so.
Moving now to the second issue in political realism – self-interest – we can raise the question of whether politicians are frequently concerned as much with their own aggrandisement as with furthering the interests of their country. The question is very much alive in contemporary political life. For example, does the British Government really think that the possession of nuclear weapons furthers the international interests of the British people, or is it that their possession enables British politicians to sit at top tables in world affairs? Is the image of a bare-chested President Putin meant to suggest that he personally is very macho or that he represents a macho nation? It is to be hoped that Boris will not attempt the bare-chested appeal. It is not a pretty thought.
It might be said that the pursuit of personal self-interest is not a plausible account of the policies of a ruler in a modern bureaucratic state. In modern states, it might be said, the influence of bureaucracy with its written documents and procedural rules is all-pervasive. This might seem to limit the pursuit of self-interest by those in power. But we have all heard the frequent defence: 'I haven't broken any rules'. In other words, clever politicians can easily find a way round any moral barriers presented by procedural rules.
We might hope that politicians would use their power to curb the blatant self-interest and tax evasion of large corporations. But these same politicians may be hoping for a job in one of them when they emerge from government. Sometimes, of course, journalists can expose fraud. But many newspapers are owned by those on the same side as the rulers.
Machiavelli writes: 'It is necessary [for a ruler] to presuppose that all men are evil and that they are going to act according to the wickedness of their spirits whenever they have free scope'. His central message seems to be that what we think of as traditional liberalism is vulnerable to the plots of individuals inspired by the ruthless pursuit of self-interest. And realism suggests that some of these ruthless individuals may be the very politicians we elect to protect us.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow