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  • Danielle Han

“Useless and dangerous”: what Machiavelli got wrong

Though I've never submitted this for peer review, I would love to pursue it as a potential article. This was a paper I wrote for a Strategic Studies class, where I explained why Machiavelli might rewrite parts of The Prince if he were to see the success of private militaries today. This is just a preview: contact me for the full document.

“Useless and dangerous”: what Machiavelli got wrong

The future of international security suggests a growing presence of private militaries. Though the question of morality in using these contractors are largely contentious, one particular view remains clear: Niccolò Machiavelli, in his time, despised the use of mercenary and auxiliary armies. In his words, they are “useless and dangerous”, “disunited, ambitious, and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies” (Machiavelli). Machiavelli’s stance, albeit partial by Italy’s fall to mercenary powers in the 14th and 15th century, is used as an argument relevant to the statelessness of private military contractors today. However, what modern interpreters ignore is that Machiavelli’s argument on mercenaries is dated, at least within the very context he creates in the rest of The Prince. What he could not and would not have anticipated is that the challenges of global security in the post-war era would call for very different priorities in state leadership, and that powers like the US and UK would not need to learn how to gain power, but merely preserve it. The Prince, if adjusted to the scope of current US and UK leadership, would then refocus its stance on private forces, and praise these states for a Machiavellian approach where the outcome promises a stronger rule over the people. Machiavelli would find that mercenary and auxiliary armies are no longer “useless and dangerous” (ibid.), but practical tools for military strategy. Analysis of “The Prince” Machiavelli’s disdain for mercenary and auxiliary armies are descriptively noted throughout Chapters 12 and 13 of The Prince. They are probably best understood within the historical context of Naples, Milan, and Florence, where all cities and actors ceded control to the private forces they had placed high-security trust in. Mercenary services and their disloyalties are mostly explained by Machiavelli through the accounts of the recurring mistake to hire Francesco Sforza, who treated his own military conquests as Italy’s. The aftermath of each of Sforza’s victories showed that he only sought to serve his own best interests, leaving Italy in a constantly vulnerable position. Beyond an anthropological predisposition against these armies, though, are Machiavelli’s more historical examples, such as his take on the story of David and Goliath. Once David had been granted the permissions to fight on behalf of Saul’s army, he “rejected [Saul’s armor] as soon as he had them on his back, saying he could make no use of them”, affirming that “the arms of others either fall from your back, or they weigh you down, or they bind you fast” (ibid.). This ancient case of outsourcing power leads back to an overall issue of how individual victories share too much power with the state who employed them. In the same way that Saul entrusts David with winning his own victory, states are vulnerable to their champions and forced to make concessions regardless of the enemy. Though Machiavelli’s point here briefly switches to speak on the account of the private soldier, he makes clear the immortality of his argument: no state leader is exempt from the rules of the mercenary world. The Prince also asserts that while both mercenary and auxiliary armies threaten the state, they are precarious for different reasons; with one holding “dastardy” and the other “valour” (ibid.), respectively. Private militaries and soldiers only hold concern with the money they are to receive at the end of the day, and thus have no actual loyalty whatsoever. Mercenaries will not risk any more damage than what their pay can afford, and auxiliaries will only win to advantage their own national glory. Machiavelli makes clear that employing either armies will mean that the fight has already been lost, “because with them the ruin is ready made; they are all united, all yield obedience to others, but with mercenaries, when they have conquered, more time and better opportunities are needed to injure you; they are not all of one community, they are found and paid by you, and a third party, which you have made in their head, is not able all at once to assume enough authority to injure you” (ibid). The statelessness of these armies’ identities and actions, then, will not advantage the state leader that Machiavelli speaks to. In the other parts of The Prince, Machiavelli creates a roadmap of state leadership, many times justifying the use of power as a way to appeal to a larger goal. He notes throughout chapters 16 and 17 that there exists no binary priority between being loved, feared, generous, parsimonious, cruel, or merciful to the people under control. Rather, rulers must calculate what actions are most appropriate to the circumstance, with the perpetual end goal of maintaining power. For this, Machiavellian strategy is often cited as manipulative and sly, parallel to an infamous motto he is often—though falsely—attributed to: the ends justify the means. The rest of Machiavelli’s writings, in spite of this, mostly imply that the biggest concern of a leader should be to gain and preserve control.


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