Is the US obligated to do what is best for its people regardless of justice, or is the United States obligated to be a force for freedom in the world? Donald Trump seems to take (in his own bombastic way) the Machiavellian position, while Rubio takes an idealistic point of view. One asks too little of the US morally, while the other asks too much of both his fallen country and the fallen world.

Leo Strauss wrote that Machiavellianism wasn't just (or even primarily) about how The Prince might use the dark arts to gain power. Strauss's Machiavelli was also a patriot for whom those dark arts were tools for advancing the interests of the patriot’s polity against other communities. Strauss wrote of this public spirited Machiavellianism:

The indifference to the distinction between right and wrong which springs from devotion to one's country is less repulsive than the indifference to that distinction which springs from exclusive preoccupation with one's own ease or glory. But precisely for this reason it is more seductive and therefore more dangerous . . .To justify Machiavelli's terrible counsels by having recourse to his patriotism, means to see the virtues of that patriotism while being blind to that which is higher than patriotism, or to that which both hallows and limits patriotism.

This patriotic version of Machiavellianism can be seen in Donald Trump's foreign policy proposals. There is his zero-sum understanding of international relations in which the US is always losing to sharp foreign leaders. There is his promise to make Mexico pay for America's border fence. Finally, and most bizarrely, there is Trump's proposal to seize Iraq's oil in order to defray American expenses for a war that Trump (to his credit) opposed. So Trump thinks that the Iraq War was a bad idea and that the US should steal another country's oil as a result of that American mistake.

This is an understanding of morality in which questions of justice end at America's borders. When it comes to how the US deals with other countries, the only thing that matters is that we “win.” Strauss is obscure, but Trump's cartoonish Machiavellianism is comparable to that of another character who started life as a cartoon.

General Zod (as portrayed in the film Man of Steel) is a patriotic general who wants to make Krypton great again. He is willing to trample on the rights of anyone who gets in the way of advancing the interests of his polity—including seizing the Earth for his people. Zod's apologia, “every action I take, no matter how violent or how cruel, is for the greater good of my people,” would be out of place in a Trump speech as a matter of style, but not of substance.

Leo Strauss also wrote that the United States could be said to have been founded “in explicit opposition to Machiavellian principles.” While the US was a particular political community, it was also based in recognition of universal human rights. Rubio is an exponent of this anti-Machiavellian view of the US, but Rubio also demonstrates the ways in which anti-Machiavellianism is not enough.

In a super Pac advertisement, Rubio promises:

We will have a foreign policy of moral clarity—that is clear whose side we're on[sic.]. We are on the side of freedom and democracy, and those who are willing to fight for their own freedom and democracy.

The problem is that much of the fighting in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere is morally unclear. Many of those who fight against America's most virulent enemies might regard freedom and democracy as only contingent goods. Before fighting for freedom, they might be fighting to advance the interests of their coreligionists, their co-ethnics, or their party associates. Misunderstanding (and overestimating) the relative importance of freedom vs. tyranny as an axis of conflict in Iraq was one of the reasons why the Bush administration was so surprised at the difficulty of the postwar occupation. It turned out that the fights in Iraq were not about who wanted democracy and who didn't. This problem of not being able to find capable allies who are motivated primarily by freedom and democracy has been replicated in Libya and Syria.

But on the other hand, the Machiavellian view tends toward a destructive and blinding cynicism. In the most recent Republican debate, several Republican candidates tried to distinguish themselves from the idealistic Rubio by pointing out that Syria was more peaceful (and less of a source of global terror) when the Assad regime ran the whole country, and that Bashar al-Assad might be the lesser evil compared to ISIS. That might be true in some abstract sense, but it misses the reality that ISIS and the Assad regime are fighting relatively moderate rebel groups rather than each other. Rather than a choice of two evils, we have two evils that are, for the moment, feeding off each other.

In the second half of George W. Bush's second term, at great expense in lives and money, the US was able to cajole former Iraqi Sunni insurgents and Iraqi Shia who were former allies of Iran to work together to defeat and marginalize al-Qaeda and the most radical pro-Iranian elements in Iraq. The former Sunni insurgents and the “moderate” Shia didn't come together based on a shared commitment to freedom and democracy, but they might have been able to share a relatively stable country together. They were certainly an improvement over the al-Qaeda terrorists and Shia torture squads that had overrun the country prior to the “surge.” But the withdrawal of the US under Obama pushed the Iraqi Shia back to Iran, and this in turn pushed Iraq's Sunnis to al-Qaeda's even more hideous successor organization of ISIS.

Ignoring questions of justice won't make us safer. We will still have to choose between evils, and ignoring questions of justice will only even more enemies into existence. Idealism is not enough, for we will often face situations in which our choices of allies will be no approximation of our ideals. We will have to try to advance our values in circumstances where our options will be constrained and tragic, and which will require resoluteness to make the best of even those bad choices. Neither the harsh answers of Machiavellianism nor the naïve answers of freedom and democracy idealism are sufficient to our circumstances.

Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Show 0 comments