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An Infamous Advisor for Obama and Putin

Politics / US Politics May 24, 2014 - 06:33 PM GMT

By: Stephen_Merrill


Unusual Villain

Some people develop an undeserved bad reputation. It is typically the work of past enemies or the consequence of harsh fortune.

It is quite the unusual person though who develops a bad moral reputation only long after his life has ended, never considered so during his life.  In the case of today’s main protagonist his reputation for calculating power-lust and purposeful deceit was earned by the reading of his texts centuries later; not due to any evil deeds of his own.  The truly wicked seldom leave confessions of their hidden crimes and thoughts.

Niccolo Machiavelli was the son of an unsuccessful lawyer who rose to be the top political functionary for the Republic of Florence at the turn of the 16th Century.  His lack of noble title and family stain always hindered Machiavelli in his diplomatic and political career.

Machiavelli lived at the time of the reign of Pope Alexander VI (1492-1502), the pope well known for his treachery in war and for his lust in all other matters, the notorious Borgias.  The pope’s illegitimate children shared in their father’s debauchery and tyranny in fabled ways. 

Italy at this time was a patchwork of principalities in frequent war with each other and also with France, Spain and Switzerland.  In their time in power the Borgias managed to unite and rule under the papacy all of Romagna for the first time.

Alexander’s son Cesare Borgia became for Machiavelli the model prince due to his cunning, boundless methods in dealing with his rivals. 

In 1494 the barons of Florence overthrew their rulers, the Medici family, and installed a Dominican priest in power.  After the new ruler lost favor with Pope Alexander, he was burned at the stake in Rome for heresy in 1498.   Florence was then declared a republic, to Pope Alexander’s liking. 

Machiavelli, often in person but not in title, quickly advanced as a diplomatic leader in the Florentine Republic.  He ultimately became the “Soft Hand” of the ruling baron.  Machiavelli himself, as much as any man at the time, became the ruler of Florence. 

Maybe the achievement Machiavelli treasured most was his creation and effective leadership of a private militia to defend Florence.

Fortune shifted dramatically for Florence in 1512 when their ally France was driven from Italy and the Medici were forcibly returned to power.  Machiavelli was imprisoned and tortured for several weeks, the fate or worse of most of his republican colleagues. 

While in impoverished exile at his small family farm Machiavelli penned what would prove to be his most famous work by far, The Prince.  It was a private essay written specifically for the eldest prince of the Medici family. The work was Machiavelli’s way of regaining favor in the halls of power in Florence. 

 “In my desire thus to offer Your Magnificence some testimony of my devotion, I have not found anything in my possessions which I hold so dear or esteem more so highly as the knowledge of the deeds of great men which I have acquired through a long experience of modern events and constant study of antiquity.  The result of my long observations and reflections are condensed in one little volume that I am now sending to Your Magnificence.“

Machiavelli was finally restored as a top advisor to the Medici Prince of Florence in 1520; appointed as the well-paid official historian for the city.

The Prince was first printed for wider readership in 1532, five years after Machiavelli’s death.

A Man of His Times

Though Machiavelli read as widely as anyone of his era, his lowly beginnings did not allow for the traditional training given to Italian aristocracy in the humanities.  Machiavelli prides himself on being a most practical of advisors, and the most penetrating observer of human behavior. 

Machiavelli’s view on Christian religion is that it is a beneficial thing for the masses and quite a useful symbolism to a prince when well-managed.  To Machiavelli, religious values had no connection to conducting politics.

There is no hint of blood lust in The Prince.  Violence is seen as the central means of expressing political power within the rivalry between principalities and among aspiring princes back at home.  Indeed, Machiavelli counseled princes to generally remain “good” when it came to practicing violence and treachery, but to be sure to turn to the “bad” and employ either method freely when needed to preserve or advance the prince’s state, even if cruel in its nature.

Machiavelli explained the necessary reason in candid detail.

“The distance is so great between how we live and how we ought to live that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation; because a man who wants to make a profession of goodness in everything is bound to come to ruin among so many who are not good.”

In The Prince, Machiavelli offers key advice on many subjects from building one’s reputation to making foreign alliances to conducting warfare to how the masses are best managed by their prince.  The Prince is a blunt assessment of human character.  Unlike other 500-year old genre texts you may have read or tried to read, The Prince is a clear, insightful book for any modern reader.

Within 20th Century thought the very kind of calculating self-interest laid out in The Prince by Machiavelli was adopted as the scientific view of global conflict between states, known as geopolitics, characterized by the West v. East Cold War divide. 

On the level of the individual, Machiavelli’s conception of humanity and its tendencies is little different from the general perception that many, many modern trial lawyers also begin from.  You can add our present day politicians to that list.  In Jungian psychology Machiavelli was clearly a “rational” type rather than the harsh “artisan” personality Machiavelli is now so widely known for.

Coming to the 21st Century
Many of Machiavelli’s recommendations to his prince are directly relevant to present times as they are to all human times.  US President Barack Obama and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin would be remiss to not seriously consider Machiavelli’s advice on many subjects.

On the traits and sensibilities of the common man it seems Machiavelli’s vision is largely shared by Obama and Putin.

“The vulgar crowd always is taken by appearances, and the world consists chiefly of the vulgar.”

“...because men are wretched creatures who would not keep their word to you, you need not keep your word to them.”

 “Of mankind we may say in general they are fickle, hypocritical, and greedy of gain.”
“…he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived.”

“[A Prince] ought, moreover, at suitable seasons of the year, to entertain the people with festivals and shows.”

There is little Obama or Putin are better known for than their craftsmanship in presenting a vulgar equation of reality to invigorate the people by.  The bread and circus in their domains always cool the masses.

Obama and Putin though both have something to learn from Machiavelli when it comes to the desirability and proper method for expanding a prince’s state into principalities with different laws and customs.

“… there is nothing more difficult to manage, or more doubtful of success, or more dangerous to handle, than to take the lead in introducing a new order of things. … the innovator has enemies …… and he has only lukewarm defenders… his enemies … attack … with the zeal of partisans, and the others only defend him tepidly… it is necessary to disarm that state …but when they rely on their own resources and are able to use force, then the [Prince] is rarely in danger.  … he who has acquired them should go and reside there… send colonies to one or two places, which may be as keys to that state, for it is necessary either to do this or else to keep there a great number of cavalry and infantry. A prince does not spend much on colonies, for with little or no expense he can send them out and keep them there.”

The many past foreign adventures of the United States and Russia that have turned to ashes is great testimony to Machiavelli’s wisdom on this subject.  Neither Obama nor Putin possess the capital and staying power for their hopes to dominate the Middle East and Eurasia.  No superpower colonies will be possible in those places.


In meeting the basic reputation of an effective prince it seems Putin has a better grasp of Machiavelli’s method than Obama does.

“And here comes in the question whether it is better to be loved rather than feared, or feared rather than loved. It might perhaps be answered that we should wish to be both; but since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved… because is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”

But Obama is steadily trying to work on this trait with his would-be attacks on Syria and eastern Ukraine and his police surveillance state, possibly too little too late though.  The love stuff is quite tired for Obama and not much working these days.


According to Machiavelli concerning the mental faculties and sharp practices needed by a prince to rule effectively, it seems Obama and Putin could both use a further dose of one necessary talent and a firm bolstering of the depth of their attacks.


“The lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.”


“Men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.”

“… Alexander VI never did anything, never thought of anything, other than deceiving men, and he always found material so that he could do it. And there was never a man who was more efficient in swearing oaths and in affirming a thing with greater promises who kept his word less.”


“The promise given was a necessity of the past: the word broken is a necessity of the present.”

Though Obama is thought to be a great fox, he is not thought of as lion-hearted.  Putin’s macho ways make the Russian lion roar, but until recently his natural ability to recognize and lay traps was in severe question.

But neither man lacks any willingness to reverse political promises made that are no longer useful to them, just as
Machiavelli advises

In certain ways both men do have the killer instinct preferred by Machiavelli, but they both also tend to fail to end key matters when the chance arises.

When it comes to the use of brutality both Obama and Putin need a greatly shortened half-life, if they are to prove effective according to Machiavelli.

“…when he seizes a state the new ruler ought to determine all the injuries that he will need to inflict. He should inflict them once and for all, and not have to renew them every day…nor can they attach themselves to him, owing to their continued and repeated wrongs.”

Obama’s Afghan debacle and drone war create the very deepening conundrum Machiavelli advises against.  Putin’s brutal war in Chechnya and beyond constantly drains the vitality of Putin’s state.


When it comes to the present hotheaded standoff between Obama and Putin in Ukraine, Machiavelli had particular advice for European nations stuck in the middle and for both sides in the civil war.


“…a wise prince sees to it that never, in order to attack someone, does he become the ally of a prince more powerful than himself, except when necessity forces him ... If you win, you are the powerful king’s prisoner, and wise princes avoid as much as they can being in other men’s power.”


Machiavelli had a most basic recommendation to help remedy one of the disastrous effects of Obama’s grandeur in office.


“There is no other way to guard yourself against flattery than by making men understand that telling you the truth will not offend you... otherwise … exposed to the flatterers … he changes his mind as often as opinions vary, with the result that he gets little respect.”

Machiavelli had a special recommendation for Putin, too.

“The wish to acquire more is admittedly a very natural and common thing; and when men succeed in this they are always praised rather than condemned. But when they lack the ability to do so and yet want to acquire more at all costs, they deserve condemnation for their mistakes.”


But where Obama and Putin are utter failures as a leader in Machiavelli’s judgment is when it comes to economic planning.


“… whenever the majority of men are not deprived of their property or honor, they live contentedly …”

 “ … a Prince should show himself a patron of merit, and should honor those who excel in every art. He ought accordingly to encourage his subjects by enabling them to pursue their callings, whether mercantile, agricultural, or any other, in security, so that this man shall not be deterred from beautifying his possessions from the apprehension that they may be taken from him, or that others refrain from opening a trade through fear of taxes; and he should provide rewards for those who desire so to employ themselves, and for all who are disposed in any way to add to the greatness of his City or State.”

Machiavelli was a free-market advocate more than two-hundred years before the works of Adam Smith.  He knew Obama and Putin’s economic model would eventually lead to ruin.


A Life for the Ages

In a final twist of fortune for Machiavelli, the Medici rule in Florence was put to an end in 1527 through a new French military campaign on the Italian peninsula.  A Florentine Republic was declared for a second time.

Machiavelli assumed he would quickly ascend again to becoming the lead official for diplomatic affairs in Florence.  When he was passed over for the high post due to his recent allegiance to the Medici, Machiavelli fell into despair and died only a few weeks later.

No hero, but no villain, with the keenest understanding of human motivation, Machiavelli was possibly the first Enlightenment figure to begin to demystify the rule of men, just as Copernicus and Newton led to a much greater understanding of the physical world.

The noble spirit that caused Machiavelli to rise with passion after a great fall, to aspire for greatness in the face of impossible obstacles, is possibly best portrayed in his closing words of The Prince.

“Valor against furor will take up arms; and the combat will be short, for ancient valor in Italian hearts in not yet dead.”

Mr. Merrill, a practicing attorney, served in the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps and as a Navy Reserve Intelligence Officer.

Mr. Merrill is the editor of the Alaska Freedom News, formerly the Hampton Roads Freedom News

© 2014 Copyright  Stephen Merrill - All Rights Reserved

Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisors.

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