Machiavelli's Paradox


So here’s how I open my seminars on the French-Algerian War: is it better to be loved or feared when combating an insurgency? Inspiring this question is Florentine philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli’s counsel, tendered in Chapter XVII of The Prince. At bottom an insurgency is a contest over political legitimacy. It’s a fight over who has the right to rule.To overcome an armed group disputing its authority, the governing regime must defeat that enemy while preserving or winning the allegiance of a critical mass of the populace. The counterinsurgent must deploy some mix of force and socioeconomic development in order to prevail, and thereby sustain its rule. The latter-day prince must get the proportions right between force—the implement for vanquishing foes and inspiring fear in prospective foes—and nation-building measures that buttress his legitimacy vis-à-vis the populace.

Machiavelli’s commentary on statecraft explores the art of founding and maintaining regimes. He took the subject to heart owing to hard personal experience. Florence alternated during autocratic and republican rule during his lifetime. Indeed, a regime change sealed his fate as a statesman. A leading official in the Florentine Republic, he was tortured and exiled from the city when its first family, the Medici, regained power and purged the servants of the republican order. Addressed to the city’s new, old masters, The Prince represented Machiavelli’s effort—a vain one, as things turned out—to ingratiate himself with the Medici and return to public office.

So much for the capsule biography. Back to fear and love. For Machiavelli, knowing when to use cruelty and how to use it well—swiftly, surgically, and thus, in his view, more humanely—was central to statecraft. He observes that new princes “cannot escape a reputation for cruelty, since newly acquired states are filled with danger.” The long-established prince who faces no armed revolt might evade such a reputation. But what about the established prince who confronts a mortal challenge? Because he must use armed force to uphold his rule, the incumbent—like the upstart he faces—presumably cannot escape the need for harsh measures. He too must deploy cruelty judiciously, smashing his enemies while arousing fear in others who might stand against him. Fear 1, Love 0.

What about love? Machiavelli maintains that it’s better to be both feared and loved, “but as it is difficult to combine love and fear, if one has to choose between them it is far safer to be feared than loved.” Why? Because fear is under the prince’s control. People can withhold their love, as they’re apt to do because “they are inconstant and ungrateful, simulators and dissimulators … hungry for profit and quick to evade danger.” Their love is flimsy and ephemeral. Fear, by contrast, “is held in place by a dread of punishment.” And punishment is something the prince can apply at his own discretion.

So Machiavelli would likely advise the counterinsurgent to assign force pride of place in his strategy, on the logic that sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. Inspiring dread among the insurgents and those inclined to join them sets the prince on the path to victory, creating space for measures that bolster the security and welfare of the populace. Fear leads love more than it replaces love on the prince’s menu of strategic options. But here’s the rub: Machiavelli warns the prince not to overuse fear as an instrument of statecraft, lest he sow hatred. For instance, he must resist the temptation to live by plunder, forcibly seizing property from its rightful owners. He must never execute an offender without “adequate justification and a manifest cause.”And so forth. Prudence imposes bounds on the use of cruelty—however necessary harsh measures may be to protect the regime.

No long-dead Florentine can supply all the answers to 21st-century strategic problems. Still, he can help statesmen and military commanders—the latter-day equivalent to his prince—ask the right questions. Forget Field Manual 3-24. Crack open that copy of The Prince.

Daniel Zotti
January 29, 2013 at 19:57

I completely agree with you. I was sitting nearby Machiavelli's Albergaccio (villa), a few miles from Florence, last sunday, reading Il Principe, probably in the same days when he first conceived the idea to write that smal treatise (un opuscolo), exactly 500 years ago. It's quite inspiring a reading, particularly in these gloomy days.

January 21, 2013 at 02:07

Dr Holms,
It apears that you are perhaps more reflecting what Machiavelli wrote in his Discourses on Livy's History of the Roman Empire than what was writen in "The Prince." Machivelli also had a wicked sence of humor. I remember reading, in translation, "Belfagor arcidiavolo."
former "Gamewarden"

Leonard R.
January 19, 2013 at 12:45

"Their love is flimsy and ephemeral. Fear, by contrast, “is held in place by a dread of punishment.” And punishment is something the prince can apply at his own discretion."
So Machiavelli saw 'deterrence' as a viable strategic option? I agree. But conditions change.
The level of threat necessary to deter a foe must necessarily change as well.

January 19, 2013 at 12:39

A better question to ask is: When is counterinsurgency even in a country's best interests?
As an American, I'd argue that a good rule of thumb is: Only in a place where Americans would be willing to live and work. Counterinsurgency is more of a tactic than a strategy. Of course, like all buzzwords, it has become brutally overused and misused. For example, it's accepted as common knowledge that the United States is waging a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan–supporting GIRoA and opposing the Taliban. However, at the peak of the Marine Corp's involvement, there were 30,000 Marines in country. 20,000 were located on Camp Leatherneck, a mega-base miles from any actual Afghans. That's before you get to the Regimental FOBs (2000 apiece), or all the overhead at Battalions and Companies. So for our "light" infantry force, essentially 80% or more are never even seeing a local. Try and find that tactic in FM 3-24.
Really, you seek to be either loved, feared, or respected. You need at least one. We find ourselves in the unenviable position of being none.

January 19, 2013 at 07:40

I always enjoy Machiavelli. His points emphasize the difficulty western liberal nations face when trying to conduct modern counter-insurgency under the world's gaze, which leads to the current consenus that the only sensible interventions are those that only aid changes initiated by a country's own population, and a strong majority at that.

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