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What the Machiavellians Can Teach Us About the National Interest

It was through them that James Burnham learned to renounce ideology and see the world as it actually is.

When President Trump pulled 1,000 American troops from Syria last October, the response by the Democrats, many mainstream Republican politicians, a good portion of the general public, and a number of European governments approximated what President Roosevelt could have expected had he taken the United States out of the Allied coalition against the Axis in 1943. The president, they charged, had “betrayed” our loyal (and Christian!) allies the Kurds, thus disgracing America and ensuring that no country or government (including those that have been taking advantage of, and in some instances spying on, us for decades) would ever trust the United States in future. Further, Trump had let down, in addition to Christianity, the cause of democracy, and (somehow, they implied) the world.

Much of the hysteria, on the Democratic side especially, was feigned and hypocritical, inspired more by their hatred of Donald Trump than their gratitude toward the Kurdish people. Nevertheless it raises three important questions. One: should an ally, once an ally, remain an ally in perpetuity regardless of altered political and military circumstances? If the answer is yes, that is tantamount to arguing that one favor a nation does another commits that nation to further and unlimited favors so far ahead as eye can see. Two: to what end is a nation’s foreign policy ultimately responsible? And three: are public and international affairs accountable to the same moral code that relations between individual persons are—and if not, ought they to be? In Moral Man, Immoral Society (1932), the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr argued for a necessary distinction between public and private morality. Eleven years later the political philosopher James Burnham published The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom: “A defense of political truth against wishful thinking” as Gateway Editions described the book a generation later. Burnham’s conclusion was more forceful and less regretful than Niebuhr’s, with which it differed in perspective and other ways. Nevertheless the two men agreed that individual and political, or public, morality cannot be one indivisible thing.

Part One of The Machiavellians is titled “Dante: Politics as Wish.” Burnham begins by contrasting the “formal” meaning of De Monarchia (Concerning Empire) with its “real” one. In the first instance, the final aim of Dante’s treatise is eternal salvation in Heaven. Its subsidiary ones are the development of the full human potential of all men, universal peace, and the creation of a single world state. In the second, it is revenge on the author’s enemy, the Guelphs, who had caused the Ghibellines and himself to exile themselves from their native Florence. “De Monarchia is, we might say, a Ghibelline Party Platform.” As such, it makes sense in the historical context. But taking the work at face value, and as a study of politics, Burnham judges De Monarchia as “worthless, totally worthless.” To begin with, the achievement of salvation by political means is “meaningless since Heaven exists, if at all, outside of space and time, and can therefore have no bearing on political action.” Beyond that, Dante’s further goals are “altogether utopian and materially impossible,” while his arguments in behalf of them are, “from the point of view of actual political conditions in the actual world of space and time and history…almost without exception completely irrelevant.” Yet the formal meaning is far from being without purpose. It expresses “in an indirect and disguised manner” the author’s “real” meaning.

“By ‘real meaning,’” Burnham explains, “I refer to the meaning not in terms of the mythical world of religion, metaphysics, and pseudo-history (which is the world of the formal meaning of De Monarchia), but in terms of the actual world….To understand the real meaning, we cannot take the words at face value nor confine our attention to what they explicitly state; we must fit them into the specific context of Dante’s time and his own life. It is characteristic of De Monarchia, and of all similar treatises, that there should be this divorce between formal and real meanings, that the formal meaning should not explicitly state but only indirectly express, and to one or another extent hide and distort, the real meaning. The real meaning is thereby rendered irresponsible, since it is not subject to open and deliberate control; but the real meaning is nonetheless there.”


With this distinction in mind, I return to Donald Trump and the Kurds, America’s decades-long wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, the Commander-in-Chief’s desire to put an end to these conflicts, and the equal and opposite determination of the Washington establishment to prolong them and keep American troops in those regions of the world indefinitely. What is the real meaning—and the real intent—behind his critics’ argument that he, the United States government, and the country itself have a moral obligation, in addition to a strategic necessity, to pursue the foreign policy, in its general outline, of a long line of his predecessors in the White House?

Immediately after 1945 the American government and the American ruling class discovered a mission to protect “democracy” wherever it was already established in the world, to contain its enemies where it could not immediately destroy them, promote democratic theory and principles elsewhere, and assist in the establishment of new democratic governments around the world. This imagined mission was in fact a moralistic one, a fusion of secular liberalism and diffuse Protestant Christianity: an effort to make the world safe for democracy all over again, while evangelizing it on behalf of Protestant decency and middle-class niceness in the guise of a peculiarly American type of liberal Christianity, the Protestant work ethic, and the capitalist economic system Protestantism supposedly inspired. This system, in turn, was expected to lay the economic foundations for global liberal democracy and ensure its future by the endless provision of material goods that would guarantee general prosperity and a contented, peaceful, and obedient citizenry. Besides performing these good works, the United States would set a moral example to the rest of the world by conducting a national foreign policy based on conscientiously moral principles rather than on national self-interest, waging just wars only, being generous with foreign aid to poor countries with whom it would also share its technical expertise, defending human rights everywhere, maintaining liberal immigration policies, and an equally generous asylum program. 

All these things are part of the formal statement of the American mission in the American Century, and subsequently. The real meaning, of course, is quite different, and very simple. It signifies the creation, defense, security, and longevity of a new American Empire whose moral justification is simply itself: its ever increasing and expansive power and glory, and the enhanced majesty and wealth of its owners and operators. As Burnham argued in The Machiavellians, and later in “The Protracted Conflict”—his biweekly column for National Review—between the formal and the real falls the shadow.

In the conduct of foreign policy, including wars, and to a lesser degree in domestic politics, attempts to apply Christian and secular liberal principles in a conscientious and consistent manner is “irresponsible” in precisely the way that Burnham argued Dante’s argument on behalf of immanentizing the eschaton by political means is irresponsible. It is true that efforts to temper relations between and among Christian nations in what used to be called Christendom, when such an entity still existed, are both possible, laudable, and responsible. They are impossible—and therefore irresponsible—in hostile and even competitive relations between Christian and non-Christian and anti-Christian countries. Inevitably, the non-Christian societies will seek to take advantage of—or worse—their Christian adversaries’ Christian scruples, and the anti-Christian ones will use Christian restraint to annihilate them. In the latter case, adherence to the personal morality of the New Testament is a policy for national suicide.

Where the rulers of a particular Christian (or pseudo-Christian) state have an anti-Christian or a non-Christian adversary to contend with, their sole responsibility is for the lives and welfare of their own people, whether they are citizens or subjects. The same goes when the interests of their countries diverge from those of their allies. Alliances are nearly always formed from convenience or necessity rather than friendship or consanguinity. A government is responsible for its ally or allies only so far as it can maintain that alliance without damage to itself and to the country it rules, though it ought to be willing to tolerate as much inconvenience and expense as it can reasonably sustain.

In foreign policy and diplomacy, national self-interest should be the paramount, if not always the sole, aim of governments for reasons that are realistic, practical, and moral. “No greater love hath any man than to lay down his life for his friend.” But states have no friends except in a metaphorical sense; neither do the citizens of states considered as a whole. The people who die in wars and other dangerous national enterprises are usually not the same people who devised and executed the policies that launched them. They are the private citizens with whose welfare their governors are entrusted, and the children of those citizens. This fact does not preclude actions taken with a view beyond the immediate one in mind, to avoid greater disasters in future. In most circumstances, however, compelling collective self-sacrifice on behalf of a cause that neither benefits the citizenry nor serves their interests is immoral. Foreign policy should never amount to a crusade on behalf of some moral abstraction, like “democracy,” or for purely charitable ends; it is not a type of social work, as Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt thought it was. (Burnham wrote somewhere that, for Eleanor, the world was a vast slum project waiting to be taken on by Western liberal governments.)

National governments, which have an absolute obligation to defend and preserve their particular countries, have a more limited and circumscribed responsibility to that portion of the civilization of which their country is a part, including the religion that has shaped both by giving them their form and character. While no Western democracy today has an established religion, most do have a majority religion, however weakened and attenuated, that they have a duty to defend within their own boundaries. To go beyond them, however, is to risk Dante’s philosophical and historical confusions in De Monarchia. It is to pursue the salvation of the world by political means that include the reliance on deadly force; a spiritual end the state, as an institution working in time, space, and history, is neither suited for nor capable of achieving. One reason is the frequent need for private moral principles to be superseded by immoral public ones in the sphere of practical politics. Another is the entirely private and personal nature of self-sacrifice in a holy cause. A martyr is one who sacrifices his life for his faith. But a faith that compels individual self-sacrifice by its members, or collective self-sacrifice by the civilization it helped to create, is a traitor not only to its members but to God and to the world. (The People’s Temple, now more or less forgotten, is a supreme example of this.) A war to Christianize a single country, let alone the world, would be, according to the Catholic doctrine of just war, an unjust one.

The moral case for the supremacy of national self-interest justifies equally the principle of self-determination for other nations. No national government has a mandate to intrude upon and interfere in the business of another country and the lives of its citizens for any reason, except self-defense. (Stephen M. Krason offered a solid Catholic argument in Crisis magazine recently for an American military incursion into Mexico, with or without the consent of the Mexican government, to dispose of the drug cartels there, as President Wilson did in 1917 to punish Pancho Villa for his raid across the border on Columbus, New Mexico. The United States would be justified in taking this action, Krason believes, by the threat posed by the cartelistas to America’s “right” to be free of a widening range of criminal activities.) Here again, the principle involves the morally significant difference between personal self-sacrifice from noble motives and other-sacrifice from the same or equally noble ones. To suppose that the world could ever be converted either to Christianity or democracy is the ultimate example of Dante’s wishful thinking as a substitute for the real-world kind, and as such irresponsible. The Christian temptation, like the democratic one, appeals to particular human types that have always been a minority in this world and always will be. “When the Son of Man comes again, will He find Faith on earth?” Every attempt to impose Christianity and democracy on the peoples of the world is fatally misguided. It can end only as such things always end: in perpetual war for perpetual peace to be established by the coming of the Kingdom of God on Earth, or some secular utopia or another. 

Probably no one holding high political office in America today has read The Machiavellians, or is even familiar with the name James Burnham. It is equally unlikely that any of them, having read the book, would be convinced by its central argument, which goes directly against the grain of the political personality. By taking their power abroad, national legislators become legislators for the world, and the scope of their power expands to imperial and even global proportions. This expansion has been approved by their constituencies from 1945 until recently. People are apt to feel that national greatness reflects upon themselves as citizens, and so they take pride in their country when it wins contests and influence abroad and think themselves humiliated when it loses them. When one considers this strong popular tendency today, Donald Trump’s popularity and the enthusiasm the president continues to inspire in 63 million Americans is an historically significant fact, as well as an encouraging one.

“Through the Machiavellians,” Burnham wrote, “I began to understand more thoroughly what I had long felt: that only by renouncing all ideology can we begin to see the world and man.” When he wrote those words in 1963, Burnham, a former Trotskyite, was not yet a practicing Christian, if indeed he was a Christian at all. (He was received into the Roman Church on his deathbed 14 years later.) Had he been one at the time, he might have added that we can begin to see the world and man only by accepting Christianity. It is likely, even so, that he died believing that Christian politics is no less wishful and irresponsible than the ideological kind. In embracing the author of La Comedia Divina, James Burnham did not embrace the consummate poetic artist who wrote De Monarchia along with him.  

Chilton Williamson Jr. is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture and the author of many books, including fiction and nonfiction. His latest novel, The Last Westerner, is due soon from Perkunas Press.

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