History Restarted: The Return of the Machiavellian Moment


Francis Fukuyama’s thesis that history ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has exercised a baleful influence upon Western foreign policy. Fukuyama, of course, argued that Western liberal democracy triumphed over communism and fascism and thus constituted the “final form of human government.”

The imposition of a liberal, democratic, norm-based global order appealed across party political lines and found enthusiastic adherents in the United States and among its key allies. Thus, Democrats like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair’s New Labour and John Howard’s Liberal Coalition government in Australia also promoted, by various means, global democratic peace, as did their twenty first century Republican, Democratic, Conservative and Labour successors. Some, like Blair and Bush, adopted a more abrasive neo-conservative stance. Others were inclined to a more emollient “liberal imperialist” posture that maintained that running the world requires the United States to work closely with allies and international institutions. Regardless, Western political elites and democratic governments subscribed to some version of this project. This progressive cosmopolitan vision prompted interventions, humanitarian or otherwise, in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East in support of what was assumed to be a universal normative orientation.

Even though the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan exposed the limits of imposing the end of history by military means, the values associated with it lingered on in the wake of the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the brief Arab Spring of 2010 and overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in 2011, sanctioned as it was by the United Nations.

As we discuss in our article in the latest issue of International Affairs, after a quarter of a century it is now possible to assess the effectiveness of this liberal project. Its consequences have been ubiquitously disastrous. The United States has been at war for two out of every three years since 1989 and the world is by no means a safer or more integrated place. Given the evolving chaos in the Middle East and its impact on the stability of Europe, is it possible to envisage an alternative, less costly, and more prudent way to conduct international relations?

History restarted

A 19th century historicism informed Fukuyama’s thesis concerning the end of history. Progress occurred via a dialectic and in Fukuyama’s account capitalism had triumphed over rival economic models and alternative ideologies.  This teleology also implied the prospect of reforming capitalism’s more inegalitarian features. History would witness capitalist democracies transformed through their participation in post-national constellations like the United Nations and the European Union. These state-transcending organizations would over time facilitate human rights, transnational justice and economic re-distribution throughout the international system.

In the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan, however, this teleology has yielded countervailing consequences.  Intractable obstacles have appeared. The recrudescence of identity politics everywhere, Russian irredentism in the Caucasus, civil war in Ukraine, China’s emergence as a great but authoritarian power on the world stage, together with continued turmoil in the Middle East and consequent refugee flows, intimates not the end of history but the “revenge of the revisionist powers” and the return of geopolitics. History, after a brief nap, re-awakened, requiring states to reassess how they conduct themselves in an uncertain, anarchical international system where only three verities prevail, namely diplomacy, alliances, and war.

Faced with this changed reality, Western powers and regional institutions appear distracted and weak in the second decade of the 21st century. They are consistently out-maneuvered on the international stage by Russia and China, states with the will to assert their national interests. Thus, while the European Union considered the whole notion of geopolitics old-fashioned, geopolitics is happening on its doorstep.

Why have the United States and Europe lost strategic direction, and can a fragmented West recover its sense of purpose?

The 21st century world is a complex one, not susceptible to universal panaceas, and this should be the point of departure. The acknowledgement of complexity requires a return to realism in statecraft and balance, and order, in world politics rather than the promotion of abstract rights and norms. A prudent foreign policy requires the case-by-case analysis of the merits of intervention and a pragmatic assessment of its practical and moral limitations.

What, we might wonder, beyond pragmatic calculation, would such an interest-based and context-driven approach to foreign policy entail? Furthermore, how would it differ from the utopian vision of international lawyers and democratic peace theorists to fashion a world transformed into a morally acceptable, cosmopolitan, and just transnational order?

Return to reason (of state)

Contemporary understandings of international law discern that a predetermined set of axioms laid down in chapter 7 of the UN charter and developed most recently in the convention of the “responsibility to protect,” adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2009, must be fulfilled to justify the use of force. Preoccupied with an abstract, normative model adjudicated by the United Nations and international lawyers, it has lost sight of the particular and the contingent.

Effective state strategy requires a clear political aim that might deviate from axiomatic norms, especially in conditions of war. The failure of contemporary Western statesmen to address this paradox has led to global strategic confusion. In this context, it is necessary to abandon a failed liberal progressivism, and return instead to an earlier understanding of statecraft that prudently avoided utopian schemes.

Early-modern European political thinkers who defined the modern understanding of sovereignty had much to say about the relationship between the state and force. This statecraft is largely neglected in mainstream studies of international relations. Yet, attending more closely to the early modern theory of reason of state sheds an important light on the practical counsel it might provide modern Western democracies in their efforts to maintain their interests in a durably disordered world.

It was in the context of confessional division and internecine strife that the modern European unitary state emerged unsteadily from the disintegrating chrysalis of the medieval Christian realm. With it arose a new skepticism about morality, law, and order that came to be termed raison d’état, or the “reason of state.” The thinkers who outlined this political project from Niccoló Machiavelli at the start of the 16th century to the Dutch humanist Justus Lipsius at its end were notably wary of abstract moral injunctions when it came to difficult questions of war and governance. Instead they offered a distinctive counsel of prudence when considering the use of force.

Practical 16th-century guides to statecraft offered maxims rather than axioms or “norms” to address difficult cases like war. This understanding afforded practical advice to princes and republics on morality and war. It contrasts dramatically with contemporary international law and its application of a universal moral and legal standard to all cases of the use of force for humanitarian ends.

The return of the Machiavellian moment

It was Machiavelli who first drew attention to the gap between an abstract morality and the virtu required of a state if it wished to survive in a world of uncertainty. This dilemma and how to address it has obvious, but invariably overlooked, contemporary relevance.

In order to preserve the state in a sea of insecurity, rulers need both good counsel and to prepare for war. Significantly, Machiavelli’s only political work that waspublished in his lifetime, The Art of War (1521), treated military virtue as a necessary precondition for political or civil virtue. Effective rule, in other words, required a close attention to military strategy.

Machiavelli’s views on statecraft have proved controversial. Later étatist thinkers wrote in a cooler style, recognizing that Machiavelli had identified the mystery of statecraft but that it required a more nuanced application to diplomacy. This more restrained style of thought acknowledged the necessity of morally questionable behavior while simultaneously maintaining the virtue of rule for preserving and advancing the common interest.

By the end of the 16th century it was not Machiavelli but the Dutch humanist Justus Lipsius who did most to clarify this practice through a revised understanding of Roman military and political thought adapted to contemporary political needs. He taught the early modern political elite of Europe how to maintain political order and conduct internal and external war in the context of mounting confessional strife, or what we might term today politically religious or sectarian conflict. What does such counsel involve and how might it apply to contemporary statecraft?

Statecraft and Necessity

Early modern realist advice on statecraft reflected the extreme political and religious violence that devastated Europe between 1580 and 1648. This context in some ways resembles those political predicaments facing the major Western nations in the second decade of the 21st century.

In this developing idiom of statecraft, political acts were represented in terms more powerfully persuasive than justice – namely, necessity and prudence. These accept the potential for the dissolution of universal moral norms into different and sometimes competing spheres of life.

Because of its pejorative characterization as preoccupied entirely with the deliberations of government and its darker arts, this approach to rule is frequently misunderstood because that English phrase “reason of state” is an inadequate translation of the French raison and Italian ragioni. This is unfortunate because it obscures the fact that in French and Italian the phrase implies a guiding concern with the actual right of the state as the appropriate structure to preserve and sustain the common interest.

The right of the state may be expressed in terms of both the right of the state’s survival as well as the conditions for preserving or developing civic and military virtue. Such a realist understanding evinces an acute concern both with the presentation of policy that reflects the prevailing conventions of diplomacy, as well as a less obvious concern with the deliberation amongst the prince’s counselors directed to the maintenance of the state’s “right“ and its capacity to facilitate a condition of civic order and public morality.

Hence, as Lipsius averred, mixed prudence and virtue are the two principal drivers of political life, but prudence is the rudder that guides the virtues. In particular, the notion of mixed prudence offers insight into cases of war or peace and the state’s right in such decisions. Here, history and experience, rather than abstract norms, play a central role in determining a prudent course. Indeed, as Lipsius wrote, “history is the fount from which political and prudential choosing flows.”

Since the end of the Cold War, such a mixed prudential view of international politics has been honored only in the breach both by U.S. and European governments and their idealist critics. By contrast, the wise counselor to early modern monarchs recognized the danger of presenting actions in overly idealistic terms that could lead to a damaging loss of credibility. To give an example, the EU’s aspiration to expand its influence up to the border of Russia, undoubtedly fueled Putin’s reclamation of the Crimea and the Ukrainian war. Here, clearly, “the pretence” of idealism often “ignites the fires of strife” across Europe. A wise “prince” in such circumstances would prefer the mixed prudential application of the material of deliberation to the requirements of presentation. With troubling cases like Syria, Crimea and Ukraine, a wise prince would recognize that he “must do not what is beautiful to say, but what is necessary in practice.”


A 16th century realist would be astonished at how little prepared current statesmen in the United States and Europe are for war. Lacking knowledge of military prudence this, political class is unlikely to deliberate slowly over the reasons for the use of force or the outcome of using force. Lack of attention to history leads to the problems encountered in Syria and Iraq and a failure to appreciate, for example, either Russia’s long-term strategic interest in Eastern Europe and Caucasus or China’s in the South China Sea.

Ultimately, an appreciation of the national interest and how it may be maintained is premised on the state’s right to self-defense. In the disordered world of states, para-states, and failed states, policies based on an abstraction like the “international community” cannot achieve coherence, let alone order. Inter-state political diplomacy requires the abandonment of a failed utopian moral universalism and the return to a realist appreciation of history, past precedent, and state interest.


David Martin Jones is Associate Professor in the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Queensland. M.L.R. Smith is Professor of Strategic Theory in the Department of War Studies, King’s College, University of London. This article is adapted from their article in the issue of latest International Affairs, “Return to reason: reviving political realism in western foreign policy.”