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After 500 Years, A More Machiavellian World Than Ever

What would Niccolo Machiavelli, the author of "The Prince" (published exactly 500 years ago), have thought about modern China? What would he have done with the Internet?

What would Machiavelli say?
What would Machiavelli say?
Gianni Riotta

TURIN — Half a millennium after the publication of Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, one of the most brilliant books ever written on political theory, the world has become more Machiavellian than ever.

The United States, which has been democratic for more than two centuries and invented the Internet as a place of transparency, has now ended up in trouble for its National Security Agency (NSA) spying on allies. The former KBG agent, Vladimir Putin, in his semi-free country where independent journalists are murdered, welcomed NSA mole Edward Snowden as a political refugee, as he put on his laticlave and preached to the world about human rights and privacy.

Meanwhile, in Syria, just because President Bashar al-Assad is massacring his subjects doesn’t mean that he’ll meet the same fate as Hosni Mubarak or Muammar Gaddafi. He’s still in power in Damascus, a merciless and bloodthirsty character lifted right from the pages of Machiavelli, who pays no attention to his conscience, just to power and its cruel nature.

The clash between China, Japan and the U.S. over the minuscule Senkaku-Diaoyu islands oozes pure Machiavelli. Beijing implemented an “Air Defense Identification Zone” around the islands, Tokyo challenged it and Washington still sent B52s into the zone, declaring they would continue to carry out unregistered flights in the region.

In chapters 12-14, Machiavelli warns against troops borrowed from an ally because if they win, he is indebted to them. And if he loses, he is ruined. Thanks to the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan, a threat to the islands would require the United States to come to Japan's aid.

Evil and ethics

Who is right? Who is wrong? Who is on the side of ethics? Machiavelli would have laughed at such questions. He would have explained to those interested, as he tried to do with those who wanted to rise, that where power and politics are concerned, moral questions and ethical integrity aren’t even factored in.

In this way, America, in a delicate and yet existential way, has been celebrating the 500th anniversary of The Prince diligently. Canadian philosopher and politician, Michael Ignatieff, in The Atlantic magazine, commends Machiavelli, remembering that Barack Obama’s choice to eliminate Osama bin Laden, was a Machiavellian moment of excellence, even if it was outside the bounds of moral and international rights.

The assassination of an enemy, as well as innocent bystanders around him — something condemnable by any democratic jury — was deemed pardonable by the Florentine writer. Obama, he would have said, did well to defend his republic with each decision he made. Yet, Machiavelli also praises restraint when it serves the republic. Ignatieff notes that it may even be advisable, for example, for the president to call off the cruise missiles to Syria if he cannot discern a clear target or a defensible strategic objective.

Five hundred years later and history has finally vindicated Machiavelli. Throughout the years he has been placed on the list of banned books in 1559 by the Pope and deemed by modern conservative political theorist Leo Strauss a “master of evil.”

New books argue that in order to understand Machiavelli’s brutal honesty, we must understand the times that produced him. These authors declare that he wasn’t “a gangster” of critical indulgence, but a patriot and a republican who fought for unification of the city-states that had too long been kept at odds, searching for a virtuous and true politician who was not superficial but capable of sacrifice and harsh choices.

He’s more alive than ever. Our world can be found in his: violence, hypocrisy, clashes of personalities and forces, as well as interests. The only thing that would surprise Machiavelli in this modern world is the web, the huge information network where The Prince would be subject to direct debate, analysis, criticism and censorship.

Trading in his evenings networking in taverns, Niccolò Machiavelli would have delved to the depths of the Internet to make his plans, plotting and looking for his Prince, using the new technology to bring him to government, and then, with the help of Big Data, keep him in power as long as possible.

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