by Sara Babb, Rhodes College
While international relations has always fascinated me as a field of study, reading Machiavelli's The Prince opened my eyes to the complex nature of incorporating the notion of human rights into a global system dominated by ideas of state sovereignty and power politics. I first encountered his ideas in Introduction to International Relations, and further explored them in a humanities course entitled The Search for Values in Light of Western History and Religion (philosophy track). First, I studied Machiavelli as a scholar who defined the international relation's paradigm now labeled "realism," a paradigm that has come to dominate the way world leaders and academics view global politics. In the humanities course, I analyzed Machiavelli in terms of his political philosophy and the context of the time in which he wrote. Perhaps the most essential concept to take away from Machiavelli's political doctrine is the idea that without security of the state, the sanctity of human rights cannot be protected. With the restriction of some rights, the citizenry are awarded protection through domestic and international security.
The impact of an increasingly globalized society has heightened awareness of human rights violations and has brought Machiavellian notions of state sovereignty and security in direct conflict with desires to alleviate these abuses. Such an example is the sale of people across and within national borders, or "human trafficking", which has become a multi-million dollar global industry to which children are especially vulnerable. People are sold into virtual slavery for things such as labor, sex, organ harvesting, and drug smuggling. Other examples of the human rights abuses in question are: the genital mutilation of young girls in Africa, the forcing of children in Eastern Europe into prostitution to satisfy a demand that stems largely from Western Europe, the severe lack of rights for women in Saudi Arabia, and the raping, disfig-uring, and murdering people in the Dafur region of Sudan by a radical Muslim militia.
Civil rights are also an issue of concern both internationally and domestically: American, European, and Arab citizens have been incarcerated without being afforded habeas corpus by the US government following the events of 9-11 and the Iraqi invasion, Russia is reverting back to its dictatorial tradition, and Chinese citizens may not speak out against or protest any government actions. Events like these have brought the notion of human rights to the forefront of discussions concerning international relations. They have primarily been given such attention by the more highly developed Western nations such as the United States and countries of Western Europe. The reason such countries are able to trumpet the inalienability of human rights is because their military capabilities allow them the freedom to do so. Machiavelli relates this concept in The Prince by stating that those in power commonly set the standards for acceptable international as well as and domestic behavior. This idea has been interpreted as "might makes right."
The concept of inalienable human rights may be easy to sell but can be quite difficult to implement. There are many considerations to be made such as: when international intervention in warranted, the use of the resources necessary to secure the rights of the citizens of another state, sensitivity to cultural differences, the relativity of values, and perhaps most importantly the concept of state sovereignty. These questions are becoming more and more prevalent in the everyday discourse of world leaders and policy makers.
In The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli defines the international system and illustrates its seemingly brutish nature. He also states what constitutes the effective and virtuous use of state power. Machiavelli takes a positive rather than normative view of international relations. He bases his claims on "effectual truth": what the actual condition is, not what it should bei. The modern world is constructed largely according to his realist ideology, and to state that human rights, or anything for that matter, could supersede state sovereignty would directly counter his arguments.
Machiavelli contends that politics has and should have its own rules and ethics. A state cannot afford any sort of justice which transcends the interests of its own preservation. If the state allows itself to be constrained by anything other than this concern, then its citizens will have no guarantee of security. They will be threatened by both the condition of domestic anarchy they will inevitably create, and from the abusive foreign powers that will invade as is their nature. This was an issue on which Hobbes and Machiavelli agreed: that people have a natural "desire to acquire," and all who can necessarily willii.
For Machiavelli, anything done in the interest of state security and preservation is just and honorable. Virtue in a leader is the capability to protect one's state and thereby protect one's citizens. The best means to establishing this condition are strong military capabilities and effective laws. Being very armed leaves a state very free because it alleviates the security dilemma under which all states exist. The leader must, however, keep tight control over the military as without proper discipline it can easily become an instrument of domestic terror and a grave abuser of human rights.
Asserting that any action taken in order to provide security for the state is justified has significant implications for the behavior of leaders in respect to both their own people and in their relationships with other states. Being a leader, Machiavelli affirms, means having the ability to "learn to be able not to be good," and to use this in accordance with necessity." iii Often a leader is forced to make an example out of the few in order to provide stability and security for the many. Public executions, torturing prisoners of war for information, and taking away civil rights such as limiting free speech are all justifiable actions as they serve the greater good of state preservation. Machiavelli takes this concept so far as to say that chopping up the body of a criminal and leaving it in the town square to dissuade others from committing the same crime is an honorable feat. Concerning other nations, the utmost priority must be the protection of one's own citizens, not to the effects that a war may have on the civilians of an opposing state.
Machiavelli does not, however, sanction the arbitrary abuse of the citizenry. He asserts that all offenses must be committed with the greater purpose of state preservation in mind, and that all abuses should be eliminated over time. Cruelties that increase in number and severity or those which are not committed in the interest of state security are neither just nor virtuous. Leaders should strive to be seen as merciful, not cruel; they should satisfy the people and keep them content. Ultimately, however, leaders must not concern themselves over incurring a reputation for committing those offenses without which it is difficult to preserve one's state.iv
There is a great deal of modern applicability to Machiavellian concepts of human rights versus issues of state sovereignty and security. The Unites States has been a very active proponent of the validity of inalienable human rights, yet has largely followed a Machiavellian line of foreign and domestic policy. Most recently this issue arose with the Iraqi invasion of 2003. Initially the government offered as its reason for going to war that Iraq and its nuclear capabilities posed a threat to American security. When these claims turned out to be false, the explanation for invasion became one that consisted of an assault of Saddam Hussein's character as a leader and of his violating the human and civil rights of his own citizenry. For Machiavelli, this would not be a justifiable reason to make war. If a state poses no significant threat to another state, then the use of society's limited resources for the purpose of "liberating" another people is illegitimate and lacks virtue. He would most likely have come to the same conclusion regarding intervention in the Balkans, East Timor, and Somalia.
For Machiavelli, there exist no truly inalienable rights because morality is relative, and state preservation relies upon leaders being able, on occasion, to breach the rights of the citizenry. Violating the rights of the few is justified as it secures the rights of the many. This has led to misunderstandings about Machiavellian theory, and some have labeled him an "war-mongering realist." What is important to remember, however, is that Machiavelli defines the world as exists in reality, and condemns arbitrary abuses of power and unjust violations of human rights. His intention is to provide security for citizens in the best way possible given the brutish nature of power politics: the security and preservation of the state.
In regards to how Machiavellian ideology fits into the foreign policy initiatives of contemporary states, a "moderated Machiavellianism" may be the best course of action. Although states still exist in what is essential anarchy, the modern world has created many international institutions which provide a semblance of order. As the global community increasingly places significance on issues of human rights, these ideas must be reconciled with the Machiavellian notions concerning state action, power, and sovereignty which have shaped the world order since the dawn of the Renaissance. As I pursue my career fighting against human trafficking, I must also reconcile my desire to end this practice with the Machiavellian ideas and the realist approach to international relations that I hold to be true and valid.
i. Machiavelli, Niccolo (The Prince. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 61.
ii. Machiavelli, 14.
iii. Machiavelli, 61.
iv. Machiavelli, 62.