The New Machiavellianism

Les Gelb, President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, has written a new book, Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy. One piece of advice: Read it!


Gelb has—as the New Yorker's George Packer puts it bluntly in a recent blurb—“as much foreign policy experience as anyone alive,” and while the current Administration’s policy bench is uniquely deep, it never hurts to have a Wise Man like this weigh in at a time like now, especially one who uses clear, compelling prose. 
 
What power is and how it works has been an increasingly popular philosophical question, but Gelb rightly returns to the start of the debate—or, at least, its unique apex: Niccolo Machiavelli’s sixteenth-century love letter to Lorenzo The Magnificent de Medici, The Prince. Macchiavelli is Gelb’s stated inspiration, and the Italian philosopher/politician’s work carries a similar tone of gentle, but authoritative wisdom.  With a new President, and with so much in the balance, we might be grateful for Gelb’s subtle implication: Let me tell you how it works. 
 
The Prince was published posthumously. It has never been quite clear whether Macchiavelli meant the work as reasonable proposed policy or subtle political satire. His ideal Prince wasn’t about ideas like audacious hope or the bending arcs of history; rather, this Prince preferred reason, calculus, and guile. With emblematic cool, Machiavelli cautioned Lorenzo to remember: “Many men have imagined republics and principalities that never really existed at all. Yet the way men live is so far removed from the way they ought to live that anyone who abandons what is for what should be pursues his downfall rather than his preservation; for a man who strives after goodness in all his acts is sure to come to ruin, since there are so many men who are not good."
 
Gelb is less cynical. And Gelb has been there, central in the trenches of our trickiest foreign policy crises; he doesn’t need to show off.  His experience places him in a strong position to eschew trends and theories and state a new case for how power really works.  Just last week in a Times op-ed piece, he urged President Obama to employ power “more creatively and practically." We must be honest with ourselves. We must know our strengths.  And we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
 
The era of reading Machiavelli as the right way to do things has come to a close, in part pace George Bush: The ends no longer justify the means, and it is no longer better to be feared than loved. The world is not flat, Gelb points out. Sooner or later, someone was bound to reveal this, and other, truths. Let’s listen.

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