Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Twenty years ago historian J.G.A. Pocock shook the academic establishment with a sweeping account of the development of republican political ideals, from Florence in the Renaissance to the American Founding. His work, The Machiavellian Moment , was perhaps the most ambitious of its kind to trace the transmission of a cluster of ideas¯including civic virtue, moral decline, and apocalyptic politics¯across the centuries. Whatever the merits of its arguments, the book’s themes seem enduringly relevant. Indeed, not since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 have questions about the American character and U.S. foreign policy loomed as large in a presidential race.

The Bush doctrine has been pilloried either for its Wilsonian idealism or its Machiavellian realism. A restatement of the doctrine, authored by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, appears in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. Called “American Realism for the New World,” it admits the seismic shift in U.S. priorities during the Bush administration. “We recognize that democratic state building is now an urgent component of our national interest,” writes Rice. “And in the broader Middle East, we recognize that freedom and democracy are the only ideas that can, over time, lead to just and lasting stability, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

As is well known, the Bush doctrine represents a remarkable about-face for an administration that initially swore off “nation-building.” Its repudiation of decades of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East¯stability at the cost of freedom¯has been no less astonishing. Nevertheless, despite its candor, the document leaves probing questions about America’s democracy agenda unanswered. Can a self-declared Islamic state, for example, support the political doctrines of equality, pluralism, and individual freedom? How can the United States promote democratic reform in societies that have little or no experience with these ideals?

Clues to some of the answers may be found in Florence, where Pocock’s story begins. In Florentine thought, he writes, there was “no ambiguity in the general assent that when men are not virtuous, the world becomes problematic and even unintelligible.” The problem, in other words, is located primarily in human nature¯its naturally selfish will to power. “Republics existed to mobilize the intelligence and virtue of all citizens,” writes Pocock. “Their stability was dependent on their doing so and if they failed they became governments of a few, whose intelligence and virtue were doomed to decline by their finite and insufficient character.”

We might call this “republican realism”¯the fact that self-government depends on citizens who are self-governing. The American Founders, down to the last man, held to this view as a core democratic doctrine. They worried that republican virtue might not exist in ample supply in the United States. “Even if every Athenian citizen had been a Socrates,” warned Madison in The Federalist , “every Athenian assembly would have been a mob.” Rice acknowledges the challenges facing emerging democracies. She admits that democratic development is “never fast or easy” and that “few nations begin the democratic journey with a democratic culture.” Instead, they must create and sustain it over time “through the hard, daily struggle to make good laws, build democratic institutions, tolerate differences, resolve them peacefully, and share power justly.”

What she doesn’t say, what the Bush administration has mostly failed to explain to the American people, is the fearsome difficulty¯and the terrible frailty¯of this task in states ravaged by despotic governments and religious extremism. How many Americans believed in late 2001, after the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan, that the nation today would remain threatened by the forces of tyranny and nihilism? Even now in Iraq, with the latest successes against the cohorts of radicalism, America’s military commanders openly admit that all of their progress is “reversible.” There is nothing¯nothing whatsoever¯inevitable about democratic development. Neither human nature nor an honest reading of human history allow us the illusion of believing otherwise.

This, in part, is why Machiavelli’s Prince introduced such a shock to the system. He did not describe political leaders as many hoped they might behave under the right circumstances; he described them as they actually do behave much of the time. Machiavelli changed the discussion from whether the prince should obey the moral law to when he should obey it. His answer to the question, “Is it better to be loved or feared?” was always the same. The essence of Machiavellian virtue “is to know which of these paired courses is appropriate to the moment,” Pocock writes. “But other things being equal, the better course is always the more aggressive and dramatic¯to be audacious, to act so as to be feared. To be loved takes time.”

In the face of Islamic radicalism, a democracy that seeks to be loved by extremists is a democracy headed for extinction. In this sense, a measure of Machiavellian aggression¯or something like it¯seems prudent.

Most Muslims aren’t extremists, however, and this is why the energetic use of diplomacy and “soft power” to encourage democracy is so crucial. The Bush administration has been right to insist that, as difficult as democracy-building may be, there really are no other alternatives; they have been tried and found wanting. “We can succeed in Afghanistan,” Rice predicts, “but we must be prepared to sustain a partnership with that new democracy for many years to come.” The same must be said of Iraq. “Our current course is certainly difficult, but let us not romanticize the old bargains of the Middle East¯for they yielded neither justice nor stability.” True enough. But what sacrifices ought to be required from the American people to sustain these partnerships?

Many complain that America’s democratic ideals seem quietly suspended with regards to the oil-producing oligarchs in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. “Admittedly, our interests in both promoting democratic development and fighting terrorism and extremism lead to some hard choices, because we do need capable friends in the broader Middle East who can root out terrorists now,” Rice says. “We cannot deny nondemocratic states the security assistance to fight terrorism or defend themselves. At the same time, we must use other points of leverage to promote democracy and hold our friends to account.”

Of course there will be hard choices¯only liberal utopians could imagine otherwise. Yet the resources devoted to “promoting democratic development” pale into near invisibility in comparison with U.S. military expenditures. Moreover, it makes little sense to offer unconditional “security assistance” to states that, by their own manipulation of Islam and grasping at power, create a domestic culture of insecurity and religious extremism.

Are we faced, then, with a choice between Machiavellian cynicism and democratic idealism? Perhaps what’s needed is a revival of “Christian realism”¯a hopefulness about the influence of American democratic values on the world stage, tempered by a severe realism about the moral ambiguity of human nature and human societies. Christian realism came of age in the 1930s, as American theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr rejected liberal schemes of appeasement in the face of fascist aggression. “Some of the greatest perils to democracy arise from the fanaticism of moral idealists who are not conscious of the corruption of self-interest in their professed ideals,” warned Niebuhr in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness . “Democracy therefore requires something more than a religious devotion to moral ideals. It requires religious humility.”

It requires, in other words, that democratic leaders maintain a stark view not only about themselves, but also about the limits of their democratic influence. As the Christian realists of an earlier generation understood, barbarism is the easy way. Civil society, human rights, democracy¯this is the road less travelled.

Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy and the editor of The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm.


The Machiavellian Moment by J.G.A. Pocock

Rethinking the National Interest: American Realism for the New World ” by Condoleeza Rice

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles