The Prince and the People
December 1, 2003
The Modern Prince: What Leaders Need to Know
Carnes Lord (Yale University Press, 2003)
Is it possible to educate political leaders? Put differently, can human wisdom, in the form of political science or philosophy, offer meaningful guidance to those who must act in the world of day-to-day public affairs?
Aristotle evidently thought so, in practice as well as theory—he undertook the tutelage of Alexander the Great, with less than happy results. But the most famous effort of political science intended specifically to instruct a leader was that of Niccolo Machiavelli, in his 1513 missive that has come down to us as The Prince.
Carnes Lord, a Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College, follows this path in his new book, The Modern Prince: What Leaders Need to Know (Yale University Press). Lord’s study does not embrace or update all Machiavelli’s ideas. He uses The Prince selectively—from a classical, or Aristotelian framework—as a point of reference for understanding the particular character and limitations of democratic leadership today.
How can contemporary politicians lead effectively? Lord’s answer has little to do with the tactics and techniques of winning elections or maintaining a strong position in opinions polls. Nor does he advocate what Max Weber termed charismatic leadership—a kind of personal dynamism. Instead, Lord calls for an appreciation for what he calls the “grammar of leadership”—statecraft. The mode of knowledge that is at the core of statecraft in the traditional sense is sound political judgment, or prudence. From the perspective of statesmen, the weightiest political issues are connected in complex ways. Their relationships are governed by a particular logic that is more than the sum of their parts. The grammar of statecraft gives these issues their articulation and provides the logic that links them.
Statecraft must be concerned both with the goals a nation pursues and the ways and means necessary to achieve them. The exercise of leadership may amount to articulating what President George H.W. Bush derisively called “the vision thing,” but statecraft properly understood is also about something else: the ways visions are implemented. Effective statecraft requires an understanding of the various instruments available to statesmen and an ability to use them in coordinated fashion in differing circumstances to achieve the objectives of state policy.
In practical terms, what should leaders today seek to know? First, they must master the facts of their own political environment—the nature of contemporary states and regimes or forms of government, and the national elites that both enable and limit the statesman’s power. Second, the goals that states and leaders pursue. Finally, the tools or instruments available to leaders in pursuit of their goals.
In exploring such topics, Lord engages in a rich and thoughtful discussion that is impossible to summarize with justice. Let me then focus on one critical point in his argument: the relationship between statecraft, properly understood, and liberal democracy, properly understood.
Modern political scientists and practitioners once saw liberal democracy as a demanding ideal that could not be expected to take root everywhere. Today, however, as Lord observes, we are much more inclined to see liberal democracy as a practical model for most if not all nations on the world scene, one that can be exported with only minor adjustments to societies that have no experience of it. Lord is clearly skeptical on this point, although he acknowledges that democracy has apparently made greater progress in many parts of the world than might have been expected.
The exportability of democracy is a highly contentious policy issue, one very much at stake today in Iraq and throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. Lord’s analysis raises the question of whether liberal democracy—or at least its essential respect for human rights and the rule of law—can best be promoted through top-down efforts by statesmen such as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew (so-called liberalizing autocrats); or by bottom-up experience with the popular forms and practices of democracy, even if this risks the emergence of an illiberal democracy. Lord seems to favor the former model; although he would presumably admit this calls for prudential judgment.
The real problem for the United States and the cause of civilization, as Lord recognizes, is that in this process, the democratic ideal itself tends to be reinterpreted—“defined down”—so that it becomes easier to obtain or to claim to have attained. Many leaders now set the bar of democratic performance as low as possible. Politically, it is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain the argument that democracy demands effort and sacrifice from citizens or that it has unique social, educational, or cultural preconditions.
Even more worrisome, we tend to take for granted the permanence of liberal democratic regimes and of the liberal democratic dispensation more generally. The prudent statesman cannot make such an easy assumption. The threat of international terrorism and Islamist extremism is an obvious challenge to our democratic way of life. But, Lord writes, the real problem facing the modern prince is not the barbarians at the gates; it is the barbarians within. The multiculturalist mentality, which finds special virtue in non-Western cultures and tends to favor preferential treatment for presumptively oppressed racial and sexual groups, represents at bottom an indifference or hostility to the principles and traditions of Western liberalism.
To combat these challenges, Lord argues that the modern prince needs to be more wary of the elites who are his partners—and rivals—in government. Their characteristic limitations and private agendas must be factored into all his policy decisions. He must be prepared to stand up to them. More than that, he must see them as a problem that needs continuous management (and on occasion dramatic intervention) in the larger interests of the nation.
On the other hand, Lord contends, the modern prince needs to use his potentially very substantial executive powers with more restraint and selectivity than is the case in many democracies today. Leaders should greatly reduce their involvement in day to day politics and decision making. They should make an effort to encourage policy initiative on the part of legislatures, all the while reserving for themselves the strategic or regime-related functions that the executive is uniquely suited to perform.
The executive has a particular responsibility and aptitude for maintaining a strategic perspective on the state of the nation. He or she should be alive to the dysfunctional tendencies of the bureaucracy and should be readier to intervene in this sphere than is typically the case for presidents and prime ministers today, especially in the area of national security. Lord also points specifically to the risks posed by high technology, such as recent advances in genetic engineering and biotechnology. Political leaders must take a less deferential approach to the scientific-technical establishment as a whole, insofar as it appears to have a vested interest in the essentially unchecked march of scientific-technical progress.
Leaders should work to ensure the proper functioning of the legal system and the constitutional order supporting it. This includes rhetorical and symbolic measures designed to foster the “political religion” of constitutionalism that Lincoln thought essential for the preservation of liberal democracy. Leaders may be justified in taking extraordinary political action intended to remedy potentially regime-threatening developments in the legislative or judicial branches, even where this might carry some risk of overstepping accepted boundaries of executive power.
It is impossible to say if future democratic princes will learn from Lord’s book. One hopes so. But we ordinary democratic citizens, who must select among would-be princes, surely can read with profit.
Patrick Garrity is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.