We are in an undisclosed location. Machinery needed to re-animate the dead, developed and installed here for the benefit of a certain former high official, hums quietly in the corner. On one side of the long table sits Niccolo Machiavelli. Opposite him is the President of the United States, hemmed in, here as elsewhere, by advisers. Machiavelli flicks a bit of grave dust from his robes and regards the company with the characteristic half smile so beautifully captured in the portrait by Santi di Tito—an expression somehow communicating both obsequiousness and disdain.
The President explains that all the arts of modern science have been employed to conjure the Florentine from his eternal sleep to help unravel a dilemma. Everywhere, the President’s plans have miscarried. The gains he once thought he had made in the Levant, with the Persians, the Muscovites, the Chinese—all have proved illusory. Those he had considered allies had adopted a vexing neutrality; great powers he had considered collaborators were now pressing him on every front; agreements negotiated with seeming comity were being ignored and even mocked; armies trained at great expense were dissolving at the first hint of battle. He had shown resoluteness and flexibility, and sometimes both simultaneously, but nothing had worked. Does Machiavelli have advice that might yet rescue the situation, and with it the President’s power?
Machiavelli smiles. He has read briefing papers and instantly recognized the origin of the problem. A brief glance around the table confirms him in his conclusions. Human nature has not changed in five centuries, nor will it ever change. He gathers his robes about him and speaks:
“You were ruled by a dynastic family,” he begins. “The weakness of dynastic families is the varying quality of their progeny. This is a matter of fortune, of course, and in the case of your predecessor, fortune was not kind. But his actions do have the virtue of proving, by negative example, nearly every principle that I so clearly enunciated in my modest work of advice to princes. Allow me to give examples.
“He had conquered a new province, dissimilar in habits, language and culture from his own. It had been a land of warring tribes, pacified by a tyrant whom your predecessor determined to overthrow. I shall not dignify by repeating the public justifications given for this; distorting reality for his own purposes is a skill any virtuous Prince should practice. No, the error came when, in the process of deceiving others, he also deceived himself. In the end, he ordered the invasion of an imaginary country he and his advisors had conjured from thin air, and were amazed to find it different from their imaginings. Still, as men do, they clung stubbornly to their illusions long after reality had engulfed them
“This was a grave, but perhaps not yet fatal error. But now they compounded it by a series of missteps that ensured they would lose what small power they had gained. I advised, for example, that in conquered lands, a conqueror should on no account change mores or culture. Your predecessors showed ill-disguised contempt for the culture of the people they had conquered and tried to force their own culture upon it. To—as they supposed—consolidate their gains, they promiscuously transferred power from one tribe to another, only to find, as I foretold, that those dispossessed became their enemies and those empowered thought their rewards too meager. True, they eliminated the deposed prince and also, as I suggested, his sons. But though they bragged of shock and awe, in fact they used insufficient power at the outset, only to discover the difficulties of increasing power later as enemies gained confidence and learned how to oppose them. The trick, if I may paraphrase my own advice, is to know whom to placate and whom to eliminate. But they placated and killed indiscriminately, in large part out of ignorance—an ignorance which, because it was fed by those they had conquered, became deeper the longer they were engaged. Initial anarchy yielded to a civil war that they lacked the means to end or the forthrightness to acknowledge. Far from being feared or loved, they became the objects of hatred and contempt and were forced, in the end, to ransom themselves from those they had conquered. That bill came due in your time, Signor, but it was they who incurred it.”
The President looks impatient. “Of course, of course,” he says. “This is not far from my own analysis. But these things are done. What of me and my Administration?”
Machiavelli is thoughtful. “Perhaps I should first commend you for behaving in accordance with my precepts. For example, this wonderful new weapon of yours, the drone. I assure you, had Cesare Borgia possessed such a weapon, no enemy of his would have been left standing the length and breadth of Italy, nor—to speak frankly—many of his friends either. Princely virtues, adorned with weapons such as this, create a formidable power, and at first your cause prospered. Your hated enemy, Bin Laden, grew careless and his protectors lax, allowing you to eliminate him. Your great national rivals, though you pushed forward heedlessly toward their frontiers, seemed to react calmly enough. And the artificial state planted in conquered lands appeared to weather the civil war your predecessors had incited and, with a belated show of your power, survived long enough to allow your retreat.
“I see that you object to the word retreat. Call it what you will, it was perceived accurately by your enemies as a defeat and a token of weakness. Their previous quiescence had not been a sign of their enlightenment, but a product of your power; as that power faded, so did their amiability. They circle around you now like wolves, waiting to feed.
“Your mistake, if you will excuse my frankness, was to judge your former successes as a function of virtuous leadership rather than the gifts of fortune. When fortune turned against you, as it quickly did, you were therefore slow to react. The state your predecessors had established in the conquered province—lacking deep roots—quickly fell to shambles. What you called their national army was in fact a mercenary force bound to you not by conviction and true allegiance, but by the cash and weapons you provided. Offered battle, it disappeared. My experience was exactly the same five centuries ago, which is why I advised so strongly against relying on such arms. This should have been obvious to you from your country’s own experience of supposedly national armies, fueled by your wealth and formidable only in despoiling their own people. But I gather your cultural memory of such things is short.
“And here is the painful irony: A national army did emerge from your efforts—not the one you intended, but rather the one now fighting with terrible conviction against you, using both the weapons and the opportunity you supplied. Blinded by your own agents, you underestimated its potential and allowed it to gain confidence. Like all armies of conviction, it will be difficult to defeat and certainly won’t be defeated by the remnants of your mercenary bands, even with Persian officers prodding them from the rear. Perhaps you can suppress it briefly with these marvelous flying machines. But defeat it? Hardly. I admit this is a sobering prospect, but only self-deception could make it otherwise.”
The President asks what Machiavelli for suggestions. What should he do? The aides shift uncomfortably in their seats and cast hostile glances at the Florentine. He knows their type; in life, he played their part. He speaks again.
“You will excuse me for again referring to my modest little book, but I must quote myself in telling you that fortune varies, but men are obstinate in their modes. This has been true in your case. Caution served you well as an antidote to the rashness of your predecessor but only because fortune also favored you. Just as caution served you once, so the changing times demand assertiveness, perhaps even impetuosity. You must rouse yourself on all fronts and shake off this awful lethargy that seems to afflict you and infect those around you. You have played the fox, but the fox won’t frighten the wolves I spoke of. It is time to wake the lion. I note as well that you were once advised by wise and independent lords. But the more freely they spoke, the more you rejected them. You should have held them close—both to reward their frankness and to ensure their silence. Now, outside your control, they enrich themselves by writing books denouncing you. In their absence, you have surrounded yourself with flatterers who depend entirely upon you for their power. They have made you their captive. You could easily remedy the situation, but instead you conspire in your own captivity.”
The hostile stares from the assembled party intensify. Someone—a woman—stands, moves toward the machine in the corner and flips a switch. The Florentine’s image begins to flicker. He says: “Perhaps history will form a better opinion of you than have your contemporaries. It may be that five centuries hence, schoolmen will dispute your motives as the useless prattlers now dispute mine.” (The voice is weaker now and Machiavelli, noticing his image growing faint, becomes alarmed.) “Wait,” he pleads. “We had a bargain. You promised I could meet Kissinger.”
The President shrugs. “I’m sorry about that. He heard it would be pro bono. But he sends his regards.” And with that, the image disappears.