Monday, July 25, 2011

Machiavelli: counterinsurgent's muse?

Few men are so tightly bound in the public mind to a particular idea as Niccolo Machiavelli, whose very name has been adjectivized to represent an especial sort of cunning calculation. Less well-known is the infamous Florentine's role as a military innovator, elaborated in Felix Gilbert's chapter in the classic volume The Makers of Modern Strategy. Machiavelli championed the transition from condottieri-led mercenary armies, which were often resistant to direction and ineffective in combat, to the conscripted militia. But military utility was not Machiavelli's only concern: his advocacy was guided by the belief that citizen armies would both blunt the foreign policy influence of the wealthy elites who largely funded operations in the mercenary era and stabilize domestic politics by cementing a link between ordinary citizens and the affairs of state.

A military evolution of this magnitude would have undeniable social consequences, and Machiavelli's philosophy of government -- in many ways so different to the utilitarian ethic so often ascribed to him -- made positive account of the change. According to Gilbert,
That a militia would fight willingly, perhaps even enthusiastically, only if its members were well treated by the state in which they lived was evident to Machiavelli.
Indeed, in his accounting, each successful republic in history was built on a foundation of la iustizia et l'arme -- "justice and arms."

Here's an incisive passage from Erica Benner's 2009 book Machiavelli's Ethics, which is said to present an innovative and sympathetic treatment (I can only judge by Chapter 8, which I've read online and enjoyed immensely. Though I was a history undergrad, I've got to admit that I'm not familiar enough with the source material in political philosophy to say much more than that):
The idea that justice is an indispensable foundation of political and military power is a recurrent, central theme in Machiavelli’s writings. It appears in texts written before and after The Prince. Among the earliest extant sources of Machiavelli’s views on justice is a series of proposals for reforming Florence’s military defenses written in 1505–6. A letter from Cardinal Francesco Soderini thanks Machiavelli for outlining his “new military idea,” [G here: that is, conscription] adding: “you write wisely that this idea [questo principio] requires justice [bisogna la iustizia] above all, both in the city and in the countryside.” (p. 292)
Apologies for the length of this excerpt, but it's important. Benner continues:
While it is true that the emphasis on justice in this military context connotes discipline as well as the notion of justice in an ethical sense, Machiavelli’s concept of justice here is not reducible to military standards of well-ordered command. The Cagione dell’ordinanza ties it to libertà as well as to security and stable order. 
The Provisione does propose measures that at first glance may seem to treat justice as a mere means to military ends. Machiavelli underlines the need to uphold “severe justice” (severa giustizia) against the heads of private factions who prevent individuals from fulfilling their duties, and against anyone who shirks his military duties without legitimate reason (absente sanza legitima cagione).  
But the main argument of the Provizione is that well-ordered military defenses cannot be maintained unless general political and legal justice is upheld. If the men of different ranks and occupations in a city are asked to serve in its defense, more than punitive force and military discipline are needed to motivate them to serve loyally; they also need persuasive “reasons to obey” public demands for their service. Cities whose governments are seen to uphold general justice are more likely to secure the trust and loyalty of citizens than cities where “the many” perceive that their interests are subordinate to those of the few. The citizens called on to serve as their city’s armi are less likely to avoid service if they are confident that no exceptions to general conscription are made in exchange for political or monetary favors. (p. 292-293)
This understanding may help us to conceive of the very real differences between the demands of coercive, control-oriented military operations in counterinsurgency and the longer-term political evolution imperative to stable civic order in a representative society.

I know, I know -- this looks like a stretch; Benner even admits that Machiavelli was talking essentially about fealty and esprit in military forces, not about curatives for rebellion. But his insight into the drivers of military loyalty applies also to free society, where a man's right to revolution (or less drastic political change) is forgone only in exchange for government that meets his needs. The same may not be true of different civic structures, but this just serves to further illustrate the difference between the solitary mandate for control in authoritarian government and the requirement for at least minimal legitimacy (coupled, Machiavelli would remind us, with force or its threat) in a community of free peoples.

"Hearts and minds"? What about justice and arms?


  1. That second excerpt reminds me of the conscription debate, which was popular a few months ago. As it turns out, the draft was relatively acceptable in the 1950s, as nearly all able-bodied males joined the military. However, as the baby boomers reached military age, only a small percentage were drafted (larger cohort). Thus, the draft was seen as less fair, especially as the privileged arranged for ways to avoid service.

  2. This will certainly feed into the draft/no-draft conversation at some point, and I owe Matt Gallagher a caning on that one. (I've been saying that for like a year and a half.) I chose not to focus on that angle in this post just because I think this one is less intuitive, and almost certainly less remarked-upon.

  3. The Prince is a study in how to maintain control over a recently acquired territory....

  4. Dan -- Due respect, but the referenced passages aren't from The Prince. That's not to say that they're invalid, but merely that the more conventional interpretation you're offering differs a great deal from the lesson I'm drawing here.

    Do you think the Machiavelli of The Prince -- whether he be amoral caricature or pragmatic realist -- has much concern for political legitimacy? The Machiavelli of "it is safer to be feared than loved" isn't the one we're dealing with here.

  5. What Machiavelli and Benner are alluding to the high transaction costs of maintaining power through repression that I keep harping on. The conceptually clearest treatment of these issues that I'm aware of is in the philosophy of law - particularly the debate between HLA Hart and John Austin.

  6. I'm not a Machiavelli scholar or a political philosopher, but I remember reading The Discourses and coming away with a completely different opinion of Machiavelli than "safer to be feared..." Didn't he also say DO NOT BE HATED? (Now I'm finding this experience is a cliche in the polisci world.) What resonated with me was that Machiavelli brought political philosophy into modernity by describing the power of state institutions, whereas those before him tried to codify God's laws.

    This gets to the concept of justice. Whereas medieval justice meant some kind of divine rule (and sometimes whether rebellion is allowed against those who have turned against God), it seems Machiavelli describes justice as originating from a body of customs and ways to settle scores developed by a state.

    Looking at today, I suppose this could mean COIN is hard if you don't understand the political culture of the place you're COINing. Without Machiavelli, you'd likely be trying to impose your religious sense of justice -- no, cross out religious -- YOUR sense of justice on a place. Ohhh... Damn it.

    Machiavelli makes you think, but I don't think he gives any easy answers. At least you're thinking, right? Or it fucks you up in the head more. I mean, really, try thinking about it (maybe it's just me).

    I took another look at The Discourses to see if there was a passage relevant to this post. This?

    "Book 3, Chapter 5


    Princes should understand, therefore, that they begin to lose the State from that hour when they begin to break the laws and ancient institutions under which men have lived for a long time. And if as private citizens, having lost the State, they should ever become so prudent to see with what facility Principalities are kept by those who are counselled wisely, they would regret their loss much more, and would condemn themselves to greater punishment than that to which others have condemned them: For it is much more easy to be loved by the good than the bad, and to obey the laws then to enforce them. And in wanting to learn the course that they should have to hold to do this, they do not have to endure any other hardship than to mirror for themselves the lives of good Princes, such as Timoleon the Corinthian, Aratus the Sicyonian, and similar ones, in the lives of whom they would find as much security and satisfaction to him who ruled as to he who is ruled; so that they ought to want to imitate him, being able to do so for the reasons mentioned: For men when they are well governed, do not seek or desire any other liberty; as happened to the people governed by the above named [Princes], whom they constrained to be Princes as long as they lived, even though they often had been tempted to return to private life."

    Also, Gulliver: Virtu = heroic = strategic?

  7. I took a domestic policy lesson out of the second block quote. Are we really happy with the levels of "political and legal justice" in our own country? This a country where the President can unilaterally start a war, but not pay the interest on the money borrowed to pay for the war.

    Second, the sentence "Cities whose governments are seen to uphold general justice are more likely to secure the trust and loyalty of citizens than cities where 'the many' perceive that their interests are subordinate to those of the few" recalls the contemporary problems of income distribution, bank bailouts, corporate jet loopholes, and the level of taxation on the rich. Even I often feel like I'll never get ahead, that the game is rigged in the rich's favor.

    Say what you want about the tea parties, but they are largely a right wing populist response to corporatist big government. (I know that is an absurdly simplified definition, but this is a blog comment.) There is a real anger in the country that the situation is unjust, and our politicians, who have apparently not read Machiavelli, can't do anything to fix it.

    The problem of justice in Afghanistan is a real one, but Machiavelli's lessons could just as well be used at home.

  8. MK -- What Machiavelli and Benner are alluding to the high transaction costs of maintaining power through repression that I keep harping on.

    You often make reference to this, but I've never seen it sufficiently explained. Why are the transaction costs of repression high for the Nazis, for example?

  9. Anon @ 0352 -- This gets to the concept of justice. Whereas medieval justice meant some kind of divine rule (and sometimes whether rebellion is allowed against those who have turned against God), it seems Machiavelli describes justice as originating from a body of customs and ways to settle scores developed by a state.

    I think you're definitely on to something here, and it's consistent with my reading of Benner. She makes the case (I think) that Machiavelli's philosophical debt to the Greeks (Plato in particular) is comprised in some part of this belief in the creation of norms within human society (vice from cosmic realities or divine will or somesuch). But it's possible I'm misunderstanding this, and I'd need to read a whole lot more on this subject before I felt confident in that analysis. Benner's book is on the way so maybe I'll get into it in greater depth at some point... if I actually understand it.

    Also, Gulliver: Virtu = heroic = strategic?

    Gonna need more on this one.

  10. Keith -- I understand your point and see where you're going, but I'm just not gonna get into domestic politics. I know that's kind of rich considering the way I've engaged on defense/debt politics, but I feel like that at least touches my area of expertise. But I feel like I ought to leave the rest of that alone.

  11. There is also the theory, given Machiavelli's personal politics, that the Prince is in some ways an elaborate work of satire: Just something to think about when debating how to reconcile Prince Machiavelli v. non-Prince Machiavelli.

  12. Zack -- There is also the theory, given Machiavelli's personal politics, that the Prince is in some ways an elaborate work of satire

    I'm not sure she'd use the word "satire," but this is basically Benner's contention.

  13. This is something Starbuck, Mike Few and I have struggled with over the years and it's also something that appeared in our final draft on 13 COIN points to consider.

    I think a starting point for waging "total war" across the social topography of an occupied people could begin with Trinquier and a case study of the Casbah, at least if you're talking about pop-centric COIN and the notion of coercion.

    As I mentioned previously, Machiavelli's perspective can't be divorced from history. He was willing to put these tools into the hands of a prince in order to achieve his ultimate strategic goal: The unification of Italy under a secular, legitimate national ruler. In other words, the end was noble even if the means he discussed in quite some detail might not be.

    IR theorists would point not only to Machiavelli on this regard but also Hobbes and Thucydides, but regardless of source amongst the ancients or moderns the "realist" school of human conduct often is rarely proven wrong, which is something Mike Few brings up as he (in my opinion, very bravely) continues to explore the psychological cost of wars amongst the people.

    Mike, Starbuck and I came down on the pragmatic side of supporting traditional battlefield morality and the laws that scaffold our behavior during wars because they are vital to preserving the American military culture and discipline, which we believe to be more important than potentially marginal efficiencies that could be obtained through torture, mass murder of civilians and whatnot.

    Obviously, as wars approach their totality alongside the existential goals being pursued (all the way to thermonuclear holocaust), these subtleties are disregarded.

    But we don't believe this is likely for the vast majority of our small wars, and we reflect also on the reality that what isn't total war for us sure appears that way to the guerrilla enemy or a people supporting a rebellion.

    This also animates, I think, Exum's careful advocacy of HAM doctrine. Because he's a decent man and knows where much of HAM can lead, he's very careful about adopting a Casbah-like response and end up employing widespread, unrestrained terror against civilians.

    But there's nothing in HAM doctrine that prevents this, and the French actually might offer some tips on how to manage it, just as the Soviets in Afghanistan saw the nature of their war as Maoist and applied highly coercive pop-centric methods to achieving their strategic results.

    I would hope that we would do that. Partly, this is because I'm sentimental and hold to the notion that we shouldn't wish to become that which we fight against.

    But it's also, pragmatically, because it's very difficult to maintain unit discipline when you're running death squads, hauling in MAMs for their obligatory leg breaking and otherwise doing that which inherently rebels not only against American military culture but the laws that give it meaning.


  14. Carl -- I'm glad you brought this up, because I think the point you make here (and which you've consistently made over the last several years) about the pernicious effect of certain tactics and behaviors on military discipline is one that's generally overlooked.

    I wonder if this is what MK means when he writes about "high transaction costs," though I assume he's on about something rather more expansive.

    Again, though, I'm concerned that you're taking my reference to Machiavelli in a manner I haven't intended. The point of this post isn't to argue for "Machiavellian" tactics in COIN, but rather to illustrate that the power of "justice" in generating patriotism and military loyalty may have parallels for the non-military counterinsurgent, whose job it is to translate the physical control achieved by the soldier into the moral legitimacy desired by the representative state.

  15. Gulliver,

    Interesting timing. Many of my friends are convinced that we need to read more Machiavelli and less Clausewitz in order to understand the environment on the periphery of modernity.


    "the high transaction costs of maintaining power through repression."

    Please elaborate on this one. While I understand the high moral cost (loss) of maintaining through repression, the method still appears to work throughout many places in the world.


  16. MikeF,

    The method may work in many places of the world, but it's longevity is always in question. The stability of the repressed society is always in question, thus the tenure of its repressive leader is equally fragile.

  17. Anonymous,

    Maliki and Sadr might disagree. Instead, the method is considered a necessary one of survivability in a very brutal zero-sum game. Of course, that is until the power is monopolized OR the nation itself transcends such conflict.

  18. Just to add one more question for MK - is there any link(s) or book(s) you could point to get an idea of the HLA Hart/John Austin debate?