Prudence and the Prince

Prudence and the Prince

Mini Teaser: Carnes Lord Takes the gloves back off Machiavelli and gives us something we can use.

by Author(s): Fred E. Baumann

Carnes Lord, The Modern Prince: What Leaders Need to Know Now (Yale University Press: New Haven, 2003) 275 pp., $26.

Updates of Machiavelli's Prince are not unknown. Dick Morris's recent New Prince (Renaissance, 1999) is a low but representative example of the genre, in which a self-advertised tough guy shows you how important it is to be tough and invokes Old Nick as his patron devil. Carnes Lord's Modern Prince, by contrast, is a book of great value to the serious student.

Machiavelli said of the original Prince that it was the sum of the understanding he had acquired over the years. The same may be true for Lord's, reflecting his impressive career both as political theorist (a translator of Aristotle's Politics) and leading national security policymaker (on the Reagan NSC and in the first Bush Administration). As Lord suggests in a footnote, his book can be understood as arising from Harvey Mansfield's Taming the Prince (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), as it traces, through modern thought and practice, the institutionalization of the Machiavellian insight that everything, even domestic policy, is war--the move from the prince-executioner to "the Executive Branch." To oversimplify, Lord's plain message is that the taming has gone too far, that leaders can do a lot more than they think they can, and had better begin to realize it. In this, one might think that he is echoing Max Weber's fear of routinization and bureaucratization. That would be partly true, but mostly misleading.

For Lord neither seeks to return to Machiavelli simply nor in some breathlessly Nietzschean voluntarist or "charismatic" way. His own roots are in Aristotle and the traditional political science that Machiavelli both revolted against but still shared, and which knew important things that the taming of the prince, for all its virtues, perhaps necessarily had to forget. The commonality is that both knew and took seriously the reality of politics that is lived beneath the level of institutions and the rules of the game. As such, this book, combined perhaps with James Ceaser's Liberal Democracy and Political Science (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), provides the best introduction to the practical side of that traditional political science.

It is useful to know Machiavelli's Prince when reading Lord. There are, for instance, instructive correspondences of chapter topics. Chapter 11, which Machiavelli uses to describe the despised ecclesiastical state, Lord devotes to a critique of contemporary political science. Where Machiavelli's priests skillfully use political means to frustrate the true goals of politics and pretend (and worse, even believe) that there is a spiritual realm that transcends the merely human, Lord blames contemporary political science for an unspirited, essentially technical and materialistic understanding that in the end has similar effects in concealing the real possibilities of political life. But while you might miss some of the fun if you don't keep checking your Machiavelli, the essential argument of the book is straightforward.

That argument proceeds through a series of brief but nuanced expositions of topics that each merit a long book. Lord orders them, however, so as to give both a remarkably complete overview of what leadership in the full sense would involve and a cumulative argument in favor of it. He begins simply, making the case that political leadership is both possible and necessary. This means taking on the claim that we are entering a post-historical, post-political, administrative and economic world. He concedes that there is strong evidence for the tendency, but he reasonably insists that we are far from being able to dispense with politics. He is thus compelled to distinguish between the serious political leadership that is called for when stakes are high, and the comfy-cozy kind of "leadership" that CEOs like to talk about and which facilitates, administers and takes as given all the rules of the democratic game. It also means rehabilitating the Aristotlean concept of the "regime", as opposed to our notion of the "system", inasmuch as the former includes, along with the formal institutions, what we today call "political culture", the way of life of a political order. It is the real job of political leaders to found, re-found and preserve not just formal, political arrangements but ways of life, if (and not) only because the former depend so heavily on the latter. Hence the task of leadership is far more extensive and challenging than either politicians or political elites today tend to understand.

The second stage of Lord's argument comprises examples of contemporary statesmanship to show that Machiavelli's claim that good arms matter more than good laws still applies. Of course "arms" and "laws" aren't the simple opposites they at first appear. Properly understood, laws can be arms and arms can give laws. But Machiavelli's aphorism means that modern statesman cannot passively accept the rules of the game as they find them, and as social developments and the elites that they bring forward transform them under the statesman's feet.

The case is simple enough in many contemporary countries, where having "one's own arms" literally means that. But, though subtler, a similar lesson applies to the American Constitution. Here Lord makes an important distinction he will emphasize both at the end of the book and in his chapter on "autocratic democracy." There is a way in which we have a much stronger, more active government than the "energetic" executive the Founders proposed. But this apparent strength expresses itself increasingly in the powers of a largely independent bureaucracy and the courts. It actually paralyzes political doing and, perhaps worse, the possibility of real political thinking. Similarly, where Lord praises Lee Kuan Yew for reforming Singapore's government from the top down and recruiting an elite whose real purpose was to strengthen the legislative and deliberative parts of government, he criticizes the quasi-monarchical Gaullist model for a paradoxical weakening of the apparently all-powerful presidential state. (This is a criticism, however, that readers of Tocqueville's The Old Regime and the Revolution will quickly recognize.) For Lord is no Big Government buff. He understands well the ways in which Machiavelli is a republican. Real energy of government is inseparable from a high level of political understanding. That means deliberation, and that in turn means disparate viewpoints and powers, and the real conflict that goes with genuine republican politics. The kind of flaccid compromising that characterizes Japanese government comes in for severe handling: the Nakasone effort to break out of the colloidal goo of Japanese non-politics appears noble, but doomed.

Lord reminds us that a corollary of the perspective of the regime, as opposed to the system, is that the goals of politics are higher than the technical ones our elites usually think about. Morale, self-confidence and honor matter a great deal, however hard to quantify they may be. (This is a point that may not seem so archaic after the Madrid bombing and the election results of a few days later.) Thereafter, he gives some brief applications of his view to a number of institutions that amount to resources for real leaders and constraining excuses for inadequate ones. Law, education, the economy, diplomacy, the military, the intelligence services and the media all represent institutions and their respective elites who, on the one hand, constrain both political action and understanding, and on the other, can be overcome and used by sufficiently able leaders. Lord stops short, for instance, of calling for government intervention into higher education, but his contemptuous description of "the alternately lunatic and sinister pursuit of the agenda of political correctness" which "raises fundamental issues, including ones of legal due process" and his remarks about the tenure system leave little doubt about his preferences.

Readers of The National Interest will be especially interested in his support for Eliot Cohen's case advocating civilian leadership in overriding the often technical perspective of the military. Similarly, Lord's proposal to abolish the CIA deserves thoughtful consideration. It seems ill-timed right now, when the CIA appears in the media as the brave doubter of Iraqi WMD capacities. Still, Lord's summary of the CIA's track record in warning of incipient catastrophes (its original, post-Pearl Harbor purpose) gives one pause, as does his criticism of the insistence of the CIA on providing sociological rather than political information, as though it were the schoolmaster of government rather than its instrument.

The last section of the book puts all the tools together in the name of strategy, which comes into its far-sighted, well-coordinated and thoroughgoing own against mere Kennedy-style crisis management. Here Lord comes up against the problem of advisers. Machiavelli finally cuts the Gordian knot by insisting that the leader has to be the superior of the adviser if the adviser is not to rule him. In the end, Lord pretty much goes along with this. Leaders have to be able to control the elites. But this means that they have "to rise to a level of intellectually and morally informed argument that is for the most part sadly lacking in our political leaders and elites alike." Barring that, he suggests we face an ugly future, one in which the surface activity of government, featuring much use of the bully pulpit (and aircraft carrier), will mask the slow petrifaction into rule by bureaucrats, courts and the elite factions to which they listen. But how likely are we to get such leaders?

Essay Types: Book Review