It is fair to say that Machiavelli – or to be more specific, the quality of being Machiavellian – has an ambivalent reputation in society today. This is largely based on his work The Prince, a short treatise on the way those who wield power who should behave. However, this book was written in a time of exile, rather than from a position of power. Niccolo Machiavelli had been exiled, having enjoyed power in Florentine society before the overthrow of the regime for which he had worked. He wrote to a friend of his misery in the countryside, and the joy he found in going to his library in the evening and reading his books; I make bold to speak to [the ancients] and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity reply to me. Although his treatise on The Prince was intended to restore him to favour with the new regime of the Medici family, he was never to return to Florence.
Both Machiavelli’s work, and his situation when he wrote it, are especially relevant to two politicians on either side of the Atlantic; Dick Cheney whose influence, the New York Times reports, is on the wane and Gordon Brown who is commonly expected to become British Prime Minister within a year.
On the surface of the situation, Cheney appears to be the more Machiavellian of the two. His statement that “I believe in a strong, robust executive authority, and I think that the world we live in demands it” resonates with Machiavelli’s statement that a ruler should have no other objective… nor occupy himself with anything else except war and its methods and practices. His belief that such measures as the camp at Guantánamo Bay are necessary to maintain power would seem to accord with the belief that the ‘prince’ must act immorally where the situation calls for it.
Yet Cheney’s slide out of influence seems more reminiscent of Machiavelli’s personal struggles; his wry statement that “I give him the best advice I can. He doesn’t always agree. Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t” seems to speak of a man who is not secure in his position from day to day. The New York Times indicates that Cheney’s power began to wane following the pictures of abuse at Abu Ghraib. This exemplifies one of the central tenets of The Prince; that cruel deeds are committed badly (and in a way that will cause the prince to lose power) when they begin as few, and then increase in number; when the ruler decides he can inflict cruelty as and when he chooses.
By contrast, Brown has generally been considered poor at public relations, or at least as cutting an unprepossessing figure. Frequent jokes are made about his meanness, and he is even more frequently accused of waiting for Tony Blair to resign power. Unlike Cheney, however, Brown could well be following the advice of The Prince to his advantage. His reputed meanness could work to his advantage as he will not have to rob his subjects; he will be able to defend himself; he will avoid being poor and despised and will not be forced to become rapacious. Indeed, meanness is one of those vices that enable him to rule. The job of Chancellor of the Exchequer in a parliamentary democracy is a very different role from that of the prince of an early modern city state, but the same arguments for frugality could still be used in either case.
However, his caginess about his policies may count against him. If it will always be better to intervene in favour of one side and fight strongly, Brown must start fighting strongly – or showing indications that he will do so – if he wishes to be considered as a potential strong leader.
Brown has the potential, therefore, to be a Machiavellian in the better sense of the word; a statesman who can use both his weaknesses and any given situation to his advantage. Cheney, by contrast, seems to have fallen foul of Machiavellianism in the popular sense of the word; assuming that the ends justify the means without considering either the morality of the situation or the best way of acheiving those ends. For this he seems to be suffering the fate which befell Machiavelli himself.