Machiavelli Thucydides Comparison

Many are familiar with gripping and entertaining series such as the political drama House of Cards, or films such as Hunger Games, or literary works such as Game of Thrones. Few are able to see the parallels presented before them in every day sports, news media, politics, and entertainment. Real life dramas are being played out on the world stage, and no media business model (liberal or conservative) is missing out on the ability to shape and direct the public conversation.

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Contrary to our favorite fictional depictions of diplomacy, espionage, warfare and propaganda, today’s nations face obstacles, and deploy strategies described by the likes of Thucydides and Machiavelli. What follows is an analytical comparison of the writings and philosophies of Thucydides and Machiavelli, and how their prescribed techniques in diplomacy, warfare, and governance have been used to maintain the order of a state. (Betts, 1994)

Thucydides’ Melian Dialogues

The leaders of Melos faced a grave choice: Sacrifice their countrymen as free men or live as slaves. During the War, they had signed a treaty of peace and friendship; however, this treaty did not fill the gaps in trust that existed between them. Each feared the others’ hegemonic pursuits and sought to increase its power to thwart the subversion, each power willed to strengthen itself and weaken its rival. This struggle for hegemony by Athens and Sparta was felt most by small, psuedo-independent states like Melos. Despite being one of the few island colonies of Sparta, Melos had remained neutral in the struggle between Sparta and Athens. Melian neutrality was unacceptable to the Athenians who arrived in Melos to pressure it into submission. In the face of Athenian superiority the Melians argued that by the law of nations they had the right to remain neutral, and no nation had the right to attack without provocation. Having been a free state for several hundred years, there was no conceivable option to give up that sovereignty. (Betts, 1994) To allow the weaker Melians to remain free, according to the Athenians, would reflect negatively on Athenian power. Destroy, do not maim – as Machiavelli would suggest. Aware of their weak position, the Melians hoped that the justice of their cause would gain them the support of the gods.

WWND? (What would Niccolo do?)

Niccolo Machiavelli argued that we ought not think politicians are simply immoral or bad for lying and maneuvering. A good politician is not one who is friendly, honest, and kind. It is someone, however occasionally dark and nefarious they might be, knows how to defend, enrich, and bring honor to the state, which is also an extremely important goal. Being nice may well be a virtue in general, but what citizens most need from their rulers is effectiveness, which may call upon some darker techniques. Once we understand this basic requirement, we stand to be less disappointed by our politicians. Machiavelli came upon his ideas during the time when the Medici Family experienced their upheaval and then eventual return to power. (Britannica, 2016) Over a few decades he was a diplomat, general, and exile; a failed politician. Posterity pays homage to Machiavelli’s works in ?The Prince’ where he justifies the use of the most heinous techniques to accomplish a more stable social and political environment. Machiavelli described a central problem to politics that is evident as much now as it was in his time; it is near impossible to be a good politician and a good person in the traditional western sense. Machiavelli proposed that the overwhelming responsibility of a good prince is to defend the state from and internal threats to stable governments. A prince must know how to quarrel while preserving his reputation in the eyes of those around him. The people should not think him a pushover, but they should not be disgusted by an overwhelming use of violence and cruelty. A prince should be unapproachably strict, but reasonable. While it may be ideal for a leader to be both loved and obeyed, a prince should always lean toward inspiring terror, fear keeps people in line. Machiavelli asked his readers to dwell on the incompatibility between Christian ethics and good governance. Nice guys in politics are the first to be sacrificed.

Virtue requires wisdom, strategy, strength, bravery, and when necessary heartlessness, ruthlessness. Machiavelli also describes criminal virtue, wherein lies a paradox of the necessary ability of leaders to be cruel in order to preserve the state. WHILE maintaining status as good leaders. Any violence must be necessary for the security of the state. It must be done swiftly, often at night. It should never be exploited too often, so as not to develop a noticeable pattern for senseless brutality. Cesare Borgia knew how to be tough, but not too tough. Borgia employed mercenaries to bring order to his conquered terroritories, and it often involved swift and brutal tactics. (Orwin, 2013) Borgia would remains of the very mercenaries he employed to carry out his terror campaigns in the city center as a reminder. Borgia, a true Prince by Machiavelli’s criteria, would later cut taxes, provide a surplus of food and grains, and amplify the arts and festivals to revive the people’s spirits. (Orwin, 2013)

The Catholic Church banned Machiavelli’s words for two centuries because of how honest he was about Christian virtues not aligning with good leadership. Machiavelli’s insights reach across ideologies and are important because we must accept that we cannot be good at, or for, all things. Not just because of our limited resources and abilities, but also because of conflicts within moral codes and ethos systems. If not politics or business, military, or something so engrained as family development in a proper home environment; we are ALL faced with difficult decisions. Ethical agreements or trade offs. A leader ignores feelings or hardships of certain subordinates to keep the status quo, to keep business as usual at the micro level. Machiavelli focuses our attention on the uncomfortable tension between trying to maintain a relationship with effectiveness and niceness.

Thucydides, Machiavelli, and how their principles relate to the current the current security environment faced by the nations of the world in the modern era

Idealists believe that human beings are naturally altruistic, and questions of morality ought to be a primary consideration of forming the policies of the state. Idealists are not pacifists; Melos chose the most honorable and symbolically sacrificial of terms. Athens was motivated by the maintenance and acquisition of power. Machiavelli agrees there are successful princely moves to be made with virt??, however criminal virtue will likely triumph. Ultimately the victory of realism over idealism or vice versa, depends on the military strength of the states that embrace each theory. However, just to provide some context, in World War II, idealism achieved a victory over realism because the allied powers (motivated by moral sentiments) possessed military superiority over Axis Powers (motivated by acquisition of power). Or so history has written. History has demonstrated that the victory of one theory over the other is dependent on the military strength of the states in conflict, The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must. (Betts, 1994)

The international relations between the United States and China currently reflect how rising powers flex their expanding power, and it puts fear in the ruling powers faced with staving off a hegemonic rise to power. During a trip to China in the Summer of 2015, I had the opportunity of hearing from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, professors at the Beijing Foreign Studies University in the capital, and political scientists and researches at a pair of think tanks in Shanghai. I left with the understand of five paradoxes faced by China and their hegemonic rise;

China is a centralized authority with a de-centralized government. A party-state with one ruling party seen in the Communist Part of China, there is centralized decision-making but little autonomy in the local governments. Leadership positions such as provincial governors, municipal mayors, and legislators are not elected, but appointed. While decision-making is centralized , governance is decentralized, especially on the fiscal side. Local governments in China are compared to unfounded mandates in the United States. Basically, you will accept this selection or decision because the consequences of not doing so is a direct loss of funds to programs that sustain the community. Local governments fill gaps by borrowing with land sales as primary source of revenue (China’s GDP growth was dubbed in country as land sale, straight from China’s own Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this is their narrative to Honor Students from every major university, fraternity, and honors society from around the world). This has led to local governments and developers forcing residents to sell. China is a de facto federal system that pretends to be unitary.

The People’s republic of China embraces the idea of One nation, many nationalities; and they prefer to use nationalities instead of ethnicity despite the vast expanse of China being home to a number of different ethnic backgrounds and cultures, especially along its enormous border. Of the 56 nationalities in China, they do not consider their state a nation-state, however their sharpest minds and diplomatic officials agree acknowledge they pretend to be a nation as it enforces their party rhetoric. That being said, it is not entirely unlikely China runs into some of the same issues as the former Soviet Union. ( I think they may move past those problems with relative ease) China is an authoritarian state with a liberal society. It has become increasingly liberal since Mao opened its doors to the west for trade. Liberalization occurs hand in hand with economic reforms because of the exposure to the outside world.

Since opening the avenues for trade and commercial prosperity China has seen extraordinary growth coupled with unsustainable development. The dark side to China’s break-neck economic growth include environmental degradation, appalling inequality, corruption, over investment (Soon, J.C, 2014), and the the rural urban divide; while china has cities of millions, most of its population consisted of rural agrarian people who have constantly faced being displaced by attempts to balance out the disparity. China does little to hide the fact that the state has become predatory vice developmental; some economic challenges China faces in the not so distant future are listed, but not limited to: domestic consumption of its (as of 2015) 999,000+ population., property rights, state-owned giant corporations, welfare networks, aging population, and energy supply.

China has become a global actor, if not a global power. China is well aware they pose a threat with their growing military, their tensions with the United States which include maritime disputes, as well as their relationships with non-democratic countries. China’s own cultural offensive is that nobody can become Chinese, and it asserts that they will continue to rise despite the argument that the rise of China inevitable leads to conflict with status quo powers. Such a pattern in dilemmas has been seen throughout history sixteen times, and twelve of those sixteen saw warfare with extreme sacrifice of human resources. It is from studying these paradoxes that one may observe both United States and Chinese governments are unprepared to view their relationship, historically, outside of a narrative that depicts a weak China and China takes great offense to that assertion.

The Chinese Dream is that of a Chinese Nation, the American Dream is that of the prosperity of the individual for the greater good of the Nation. It is not easy for Americans to conceive of China’s determination toward that dream because much of China’s international development has been carried out in secret. (The dragon’s gift & Africa China’s Second continent). Some common grounds between U.S. and China can be found in bi-lateral trade investment treaties, and both sides are restructuring their economies, pushing reform on many fronts. China and the U.S. share mutual corporate respect for the most part. The reason why the poorest parts of America can shop at places like Wal-Mart so affordably is because of trade deals with China and subsidies where the government acquires cheap goods, while China siphons American dollars. At the risk of over-generalizing, Western consumption has essentially turned China into one giant sweatshop and China will use that astronomic growth to propel itself past any world super power.

Recall President Obama’s APEC summit visit. China had hopes for the two sides to put aside differences to make the visit successful, seeing how the U.S. is the #3 export to China and the #1 importer of Chinese goods. There are more U.S. students in China than in any other nation. Despite the strong indication of shared interests, China is sensitive to interference from outside countries. The U.S. has a justifiable reason to put pressure on China, if only for their environmental issues and economic development. It knows all too well as China’s #1 importer of goods, the U.S. recognizes its role in demanding such industry. China claims it is making great efforts to reduce pollution. Population growth hinders a speedy progress but China feels progress is being made. All those factors considered, the United States will work to uphold its good guy status on the world stage, while China will do everything it can to maintain its rise to power. Both states understand the potential loss to human life should they not come to peaceful agreement.

The Rise of China, U.S. & China relations; Glimpses of Machiavelli and Thucydides in this modern day geopolitical dilemma;
When Kissinger and Nixon initiated their own dialogues with China, the U.S. was trying to fit what was going on in Vietnam into a greater concept; Nixon decided not to talk about the past but to talk about what needed to be done; Mao agreed. We have an entirely different history, to the U.S.; foreign policy is based on how to manage the relation of sovereign states that are considered equal to each other. The Chinese do not believed foreign policy is based on the adjustment of differences among equals; they believe foreign policy is sorted out through a hierarchical set of relationships. (Allison, G.T., 2017)

The Ministry of Ceremonies handled the beginning of the 20th century in China; assigning a stamp to each country which defined the degree of its tributary relationship to China, never a conversation simply between equals. The first British Would-be ambassador arrived in China circa 1790’s with the agreement to have emissaries who would be treated kindly, but would have to wear Chinese clothes, live in a Chinese house, and never be permitted to leave the country. The challenge faced by the Unites States is that they have never had to deal with a country of equal strength on a permanent basis. For the U.S., designing a grand strategy that relates priorities to each other is a new effort.

For the Chinese, the problem is also power. The Chinese Dream goals imply that by the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (2049), they will be equal to the most powerful country in the world, whoever it may be. They have conceived a strategy that has created a sense of order and hierarchy, rarely using force. The Chinese have never thought of conquest in the sense that they need to possess something. In fact, part of outside concern in the South China Sea is because China is making its own islands, presumably for military purposes. (Allison, G.T., 2017)

Right now there are two trends in China, one group of people think the United States has had it and is declining, therefore there are people whose interest it is to stave off Chinese encroachment of hegemony. That there will be a war with the United States and should be prepared. There is another view framed, that the potential for global war and the consequences of using weapons of mass destruction and cyber warfare techniques are so grand that it will leave the world devastated – if only for this era’s version of a Great Depression, a reset, a New World Order.

Kissinger suggests that we have what he calls, ?Co-evolution’; that we both do our thing but try to be coordinated enough, at a minimum, to avoid war. To have regular dialogues in order to instruct each other. Two cases emerge from my perspective; The South China Sea is a security problem for a China that wants to keep the American navy as far away from Chinese shores as they can. Part of the intractability, are the different perceptions of history. There was a Chinese emperor 300 hundred years ago, he looked across the sea and said to himself, everything to the next landfall belongs to China. (Allison, G.T., 2017) Having known nothing about the magnitude of the sea or maritime history. There was no international law about the Sea. It was a mystery across recorded history at that time. The United States, in its attempt to be pre-emptive says, the Chinese see it one way, we make different claims, let’s have arbitration. Arbitration, where in disagreement, two parties bring in a disinterested third party in attempts to find resolution. Such a measure seems perfectly reasonable to the United States, however to China they see it as having to negotiate by giving up something that they have possessed for at least three centuries.

There is a fundamental issue with the freedom of the seas. The Chinese believe it is their right to determine who passes through the South China Sea and how, and they say they shall permit the U.S. through those water ways. It is the United States’ contention that passage on the sea is not dependent on Chinese permission. The United States’ top leaders feel we have to have an international rule, and that China must agree to that. The hopes are that some practical accommodation will be found that divides the islands. The more crises that arise from dividing up the South China Sea’s islands, the closer the United States and China become to the described Thucyidides Trap.

Another American concern appears to be China’s One Belt, One Road, and it is difficult to stop because it is not a military plan. (Meltzer, J.P., 2017) It’s a combination of strategic and economic infrastructure projects all over Central Asia, for example, a fast rail, high-speed railway to Europe, projects that organically links territories. Some in the U.S. are in favor of joining OBOR in order to get a voice in it. The U.S. refuses to get on board. Thucydides and Machiavelli might agree, the afformentioned hegemons face obstacles, and deploy strategies described by the likes of Thucydides and Machiavelli in hopes that the gods will favor their ventures. Sacrifices are made, rituals are carried out, symbols are upheld to the highest honor and degree in order to make the most powerful impact on the global population. 

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Machiavelli Thucydides comparison. (2019, Jul 08). Retrieved January 29, 2022 , from
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