Through this work hardly appears in the most recent bibliographies, I believe that the following work by the German historian Friedrich Meinecke is still a very important study of a concept that has dominated political thinking for many years—The Idea of State Reason (German original 1957, common English version titled Machiavellianism). The concept, usually quoted in its French translation as raison d’etat, does indeed derive from the work of the Italian author Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), whose handbook for rulers, The Prince, has been plausibly interpreted as the first textbook of modern political science—self-consciously written not as a treatise in political ethics but as an empirical description of what a ruler must do in order to achieve certain practical results, including many which must be morally condemned. I think the saddest sentence written by Machiavelli is this: “In order to save the state, the prince must be willing to risk the eternal salvation of his soul.” Meinecke was well aware of this tragic relation between ethos, the moral principles that apply to the exercise of power, and kratos, the necessary actions dictated by the autonomous logic of raison d’etat. Sadness is the unavoidable condition of a political actor who is not completely cynical and yet who understands the empirical realities of his field of action.
Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, impresses me as a prototypical case of this moral dilemma. Her entire political career in the Federal Republic was an exercise of prudent, practically oriented action—no absolute moral enterprises, no great moral crusades, no adventures. Then, like out of the blue, Merkel embarked on a reckless adventure of opening the borders to more than a million refugees, a majority of them Muslims from the Middle East. Why did she do this, in sharp deviation from her customary political practice? She must have known what she was doing, and what price she might have to pay for this politically irrational policy. I can think of no clear political motive. Almost from the beginning she put her job on the line—and it still is. I can actually imagine that I saw on television the moment in which she was overcome with reckless compassion. She was visiting a refugee camp, talking with a young girl who spoke quite good German. She begged Merkel to let her stay in Germany—she liked it here, all her friends were here. Merkel was evidently at a loss for what to say. She said nothing, rather helplessly patted the girl’s back. Merkel them uttered the politically senseless sentence—“wir shaffen das”/“we’ll manage this.” Well, they didn’t quite. The exhilarated “welcome culture” has survived (consistently supported by the churches and other institutions of civil society), and Merkel is still favored to win the coming election—but domestic opposition to her migration policy has intensified in Germany, including in her own party, while most EU countries refused to cooperate. Finally Merkel traveled to Turkey and got the Erdogan government to agree to help stop the immigrant invasion at the “outer border” of the European Union—in fact entrusting the fate of the refugees to the tender mercies of the Turkish police. Another, even more dubious partner in stopping refugees from reaching the borders of the EU was the conglomerate of Libyan gangsters who organize the often lethal transport in leaky vessels across the Mediterranean (in the hope that the heroic Italian Navy will be there to pick them up. (“Willing to risk the eternal salvation of her soul?”)
It is clear that Merkel could not continue to preside over the mass influx of migrants into a pretty much uniquely welcoming Germany. State reason had to kick in sooner rather than later. The question has been raised whether Merkel was influenced by the morality of the Lutheran parsonage in which she was raised in the hostile environment of the Communist regime in East Germany. Merkel, like most European politicians, rarely talks about faith. Around the time of the onset of the migration crisis Merkel remarked that she always prays before important political decisions. Perhaps something stuck from the Lutheran catechism of her childhood—that there are no Christian saints, only sinners justified by faith.
I’m also intrigued by two women who served in succession as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations—Samantha Power and Nikki Haley. Power, the child of Irish Catholic immigrants, was a young journalist reporting on the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. In 2002 she published a much-discussed book—A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide. It was a sharp criticism of states, including the United States, that stand by while terrible crimes against human rights are being committed and an argument for what is now called “humanitarian intervention.” She joined the Obama campaign in 2008, though that engagement was somewhat marred when, in an interview with a British publication, she called Hillary Clinton “a monster.” I don’t know what triggered this characterization. In any case, Power apologized for the remark, blandly stating that Clinton was a not a monster. I doubt whether the two women then became good friends (“meet my friend Hillary, who is not a monster”), but they evidently made up sufficiently to collaborate for the remainder of the Obama Administration, including her term as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Power was credited as a strong influence in getting Obama to intervene against the Qaddafi regime in Libya (hardly a convincing case of humanitarian intervention). Perhaps I was thinking of Machiavelli when it seemed to me that Power looked sadder over the years. What must she have felt serving Obama, whose main criterion for intervention was “no American boots on the ground?” What must she have thought of the threat to intervene in Syria if the Assad regime crossed the “red line” of using chemical weapons against its own civilians—and then of Obama doing nothing when the line was indeed crossed and inviting Russia to take care of the problem (“Vladimir, over to you!”).
And now Nikki Haley is U.S. Ambassador to the UN, representing Donald Trump who, until two days ago, maintained that any American interventions in the Middle East were contrary to U.S. interests (“America first!”). Haley, a child of immigrants from India, has become a prominent Evangelical and is known as a moderate Republican. As Governor of South Carolina she played a role in removing the Confederate flag from the state capitol. While the drama of Trump’s relations with Russia continued to rage in Washington, Haley continued at the UN with Power-like denunciations of Russian misdeeds in Ukraine and Syria. Will she now have to scramble in order to catch up with Trump’s sudden attack of humanitarian empathy with Syrian victims of their own government? And for how long? And with Trump’s following Obama in his willingness to send American bombs if not boots against evildoers in far-away countries?