In Defense of International Order: Grotius's Critique of Machiavellism

By Korab-Karpowicz, W. J. | The Review of Metaphysics, September 2006 | Go to article overview

In Defense of International Order: Grotius's Critique of Machiavellism


Korab-Karpowicz, W. J., The Review of Metaphysics


HUGO GROTIUS (1583-1645), Huigh de Groot in Dutch, lived during turbulent times in which politics mixed with religion. The emerging sovereign and mutually independent states of Europe were incessantly fighting over territorial, dynastic, and commercial matters, as well as over differences in religion. The Thirty Years War, arguably one of the most cruel and lawless wars in European history, broke out in 1618 as a result of religious quarrels. The sovereigns of Grotius's time did not consider themselves bound by international agreements, and they were rather unscrupulous in interpreting and applying them. They were thus followers of the doctrine of raison d'dtat and disciples of Niccolo Machiavelli, whose work The Prince taught them to break any treaty, when the advantages that had originally induced them to form it ceased to exist.

Machiavelli never used the phrase ragione di stato (reason of state) or its French equivalent, raison d'dtat. Nevertheless, the contention that, in order to maintain or protect the state, it is appropriate for a sovereign to engage in a morally reprehensible course of action, is central to his political theory. Under his influence, this view of international conduct became the main theme of an entire genre of sixteenth-century Italian political writings, the most notable contribution to which was Giovanni Botero's work Ragione di Stato. (1) It was, however, in seventeenth-century France, in the policies of Cardinal Richelieu aimed at the furthering of the Catholic faith and the benefit of the Christian state, and later in Germany, that Machiavellian political ideas came to prominence and contributed to a significant evolution of the doctrine of raison d'dtat. With the breakdown of the unity of western Christendom caused by the Reformation, the rise of the modern state system, and the expanding secularization of European culture, this doctrine lost its preoccupation with any religious ends and deteriorated into a materialistic ability for calculating what was necessary for the interest of the state. Frederick the Great (who called Machiavelli the enemy of mankind but closely followed his advice) expressed this doctrine as, "princes are slaves to their resources, the interest of the state is their law, and this law is inviolable." (2) Raison d'dtat became the main principle of European interstate relations and served as a justification of the methods a number of statesmen felt obliged to affirm in their foreign policy practice. (3) These methods, outlined in The Prince, involved conquering either by force or fraud, destroying cities, putting to death anyone who could do harm, moving the inhabitants from one place to another, establishing colonies, replacing old institutions with new ones, and extending the territory and power of the state at the expense of rivals. The question of morality, in the sense of norms restraining states in their mutual relations, either did not arise or was subordinated to the competitive struggle for power.

What ultimately counted for Machiavelli were not moral scruples or norms, but raison d'dtat, whatever is good for the state. Machiavellism has become associated with a certain kind of political behavior in which expediency is placed above morality. This kind of behavior existed long before Machiavelli and was debated long before him by political philosophers. The arguments of the Athenian envoys presented in the "Melian Dialogue" by Thucydides, of Thrasymachus in Plato's Republic, and of Carneades, to whom Grotius refers, all furnish a great challenge to the classical view of the unity of politics and ethics. However, before Machiavelli, this amoral or immoral stream of thinking had never prevailed over the dominant political tradition of Western thought. It was only the Machiavellian justification of resorting to evil as a legitimate means of achieving certain political ends that persuaded so many thinkers and political practitioners after him. This justification was further carried on by the theorists of the doctrine of raison d'dtat.

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