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Niccolo Machiavelli's "The Prince": A Textbook for Diplomacy

by Tim Hoyt




(Token Disclaimer: In the interest of political correctness, it is appropriate to note that most people consider the adjective "Machiavellian" both pejorative and demeaning: it is usually used as an insult. Most people have not read "The Prince", but almost certainly have an opinion about it anyway. I would not recommend that anyone bring up this article in polite company, or that anyone take the musings of the author as in any way suggesting that Machiavelli was anything other than a thug, a fascist, and a blackguard: such ideas simply won't do in the enlightened New World Order which, as we know, represents the end of history. The Author neither confirms nor denies that he has actually read "The Prince", or that it influences his Diplomacy play in the slightest, and if questioned in a court of law will dissemble to the best of his ability. Obviously, any negative repercussions for this fall strictly on Doug Kent's head-he's responsible, so blame him. This may seem Machiavellian to you: well, in the words of Frances Urquhart, you might think so, but I certainly couldn't comment.)

Niccolo Machiavelli's often-slandered volume "The Prince", written in 1513, remains one of the single most important works in Western political thought, and represents one of the fundamental readings in Western political science. "The Prince" was written in response to the decay of the Italian states-system. For over a century, Venice, Milan, Florence, the Papacy, and the Kingdom of Naples had vied for supremacy in the Italian peninsula, changing alliances and policies in order to ensure that no one state became supreme. Late in the 15th century, in an effort to change the regional balance of power, Italian states invited first France and later the Hapsburg Empire (Spain and Austria, at the time) to participate in inter-Italian warfare. The outside powers proved overwhelmingly powerful: even coalitions of all five Italian states failed to successfully resist French and Hapsburg armies. By the middle of the 16th century, Italy had become a battleground for the ambitions of France and the Empire, and the Italian states found their sovereignty and freedom of action declining as they relied increasingly on alliances with one or the other of the two "great powers".

This may sound familiar. Seven powers, two at "the corners" (in this case, France and the Empire), with the central powers attempting to maintain a balance of power and the "Wicked Witches" ultimately struggling for hegemony. I suspect that many of us have played Diplomacy games which followed this script virtually to the letter. The wars of the Italian states, in fact, represent the first real "balance of power" system in modern Western history. Avalon Hill produced a game called "Machiavelli", based on this struggle with the addition of an eighth power, the perfidious Ottomans (who spend a lot of time lurking about in the eastern Mediterranean). The rules are much more complicated than Diplomacy, and much more subtle, which may be one reason the game never caught on in a big way. (I've got a set, but have never actually played the damn thing<grin>).

Machiavelli wrote "The Prince" for Lorenzo de Medici, ruler of Florence. It was intended as a primer of sorts: a distillation of Machiavelli's service in the Italian wars to date and a reflection on recent Italian history. The intent, from Machiavelli's perspective, was to help Medici rule in such a way that not only ensured his survival and that of his dynasty, but also in a way that would permit Italy to be free of foreign occupation and invasion. One of the last lines of the book reads "THIS BARBARIAN OCCUPATION STINKS IN THE NOSTRILS OF ALL OF US", and the last chapter (XXVI) is entitled "Exhortation to Free Italy From the Barbarians". Much of the text is related to the duties of the Prince regarding his internal problems: when to oppress, when to cajole, when to bribe, and that sort of thing. Some of these passages are interesting for Diplomacy players as well, but most of this article will reflect on Machiavelli's observations of the international system as he knew it. His perspective, in many ways, can be compared to that of a Diplomacy player with three centers in the end game: he knows what went wrong, and has some good ideas about how to fix it, but it may simply be too late.

That said, let's take a look at some of Machiavelli's recommendations, and apply them to Diplomacy. I've taken the liberty of organizing them into several categories for consideration. I've included the Chapter and line numbers of each passage for those who are inclined to look them up.


III:146-149, 165-168) The Romans in these matters acted as all wise princes should, having regard not only to present ills but to future ones as well and preparing for the latter with all possible care. For if evils are anticipated they can be easily remedied...On this account they were willing to make war with Philip and Antiochus [leaders of other empires] in Greece rather than have to fight them in Italy though at the time they could have avoided either course.

III:253-254) a war is never avoided but merely postponed to your disadvantage.

Diplomacy is, ultimately, a game of conquest. To win, you have to grab half of Europe, arranging and discarding alliances with gleeful abandon as you stomp your way to rightful hegemony. Using that perspective, it makes sense to assume that every state is an enemy, and that war is inevitable. Cooperation, as we shall see below, has dividends, and is absolutely necessary to win the game. But refraining from involvement in a conflict may simply mean that when you go to war with the winner, it will be on their terms and they will be stronger for having defeated their present opponent. One of the most fundamental errors in Diplomacy is to rest on your laurels, especially in the midgame. Just because you've knocked out your neighbor and feel secure doesn't mean that you don't have enemies. Your neighbor's neighbor, who was probably your ally in the recent war, has just become a threat. (See the article on "Kautilya" a couple of issues ago, the author notes with a shameless plug. What was the deal on royalties for back issues, Doug?). And whoever you have been allied with is going to be either looking at you with visions of barbecue sauce and some minced onion, or else is about to continue expanding in other venues, and when he gets strong enough you'll be the next meal. Sorry, folks, but the war isn't over until you control the world. BWA HA HA HA!


VIII:138-142) For injuries should be given committed all at once so that, there being less time to feel them, they give less offense, and favors should be dealt out a few at a time so that their effect may be more enduring.

XVI:76-83) among the things a prince must guard against is precisely the danger of becoming an object either of contempt or hatred. Generosity leads you to both these evils, wherefore it is wiser to accept the name of miserly...than to seek a reputation for generosity...

There is no greater injury you can do to someone than to stab them. Therefore, in the words of the Bard, "...'tis best done quickly..." Every alliance has tensions: it's hard for two people seeking to maximize advantage at the expense of the other while still cooperating not to have minor, or indeed major, disagreements. The single worst thing you can do is to try to weasel your way a little bit at a time while the other guy's busy elsewhere. "Gee, I just took Rumania-it's not really a stab, and you don't lose anything because you got a center somewhere else..." Don't spend a lot of time whining, either: "PLEEZ can I have Rum, sniff sniff". These kinds of things may make your ally, with whom things seemed to be going so swimmingly while you were getting your way, just turn around and smack you upside the head. If you're going to put the knife in, do it well, in a way that really hurts. If you're not willing to stab yet, quit your complaining and do something productive. In the words of the great Bogart (sorry, I'm in a literary mood), "I don't mind parasites-it's cut rate ones I can't stand."

Generosity is another issue. In an effort to be cooperative, some people give away the store. Sure, why not give Turkey Rumania early in the game-it's no biggie if the Sultan will be your ally. NOT! If you give up important stuff to easily, your ally or neighbors may think you're soft, which is a good way to find yourself in exile somewhere like sunny Yakutsk or scenic Devil's Island. Or even that island in the Orkneys that humans can't live on any more because the British government was testing interesting weapons on it in the Second World War...


XVIII:78-83) In actions of all men and especially of princes, where there is no court of appeal, the end is all that counts. Let a prince then concern himself with the acquisition or the maintenance of a state; the means employed will always be considered honorable and praised by all, for the mass of mankind is always swayed by appearances and the outcome of an enterprise.

XVII:28-38) Here the question arises; whether it is better to be loved than feared or feared than loved. The answer is that it would be desirable to be both but, since that is difficult, it is much safer to be feared than loved, if one must choose. For on men in general this observation may be made: they are ungrateful, fickle, and deceitful, eager to avoid dangers, and avid for gain, and while you are useful to them they are all with you, offering you their blood, their property, their lives and their sons so long as danger is remote...but when it approaches they turn on you.

Gee, and you wondered why "Machiavellian" is considered a bad word? Well, Machiavelli was practical: he knew the difference between the society he lived in and the way idealists wanted to live. The same is true today, although our society is one hell of a lot closer to an ideal one than 16th century Italy. Freedom has always had its price: part of that price is the rule of law, and the costs of law and order are, in some instances, repression, deceit, and fear. In Diplomacy, the only law is force: if you can't defend yourself, nobody else will volunteer to help you unless they get something out of it. The problem with being loved is that it won't necessarily keep you from getting trampled. Everybody in this game has the same victory conditions, and the odds are that sooner or later, you will be a target. It's a nasty, dog-eat-dog world out there, so for goodness sake don't be a cat.


XVIII:27-30) a wise leader cannot and should not keep his word when keeping it is not to his advantage or when the reasons that made him give it are no longer valid.

XVIII:54-57)It is good to appear clement, trustworthy, humane, religious, and honest, and also to be so, but always with the mind so disposed that, when the occasion arises not to be so, you can become the opposite.

See above. Let's be honest: one problem with a game like Diplomacy is that people can take it personally. It is, in fact, something we all probably do once in a while. Let's also remember that it is a game. I recently had a private exchange with another player after a stab. He took it pretty well, but argued strongly that keeping one's word is both a better means of play and also a more effective one. I'm ambivalent, at best, about both arguments. Actions taken in Diplomacy should have no more bearing on one's moral character than actions on a stage: it is a game, a role, and does not in any way necessarily reflect one's personal standards or beliefs. As a more effective means of play, there is some truth to that, particularly in a gaming community where reputations are known. "Cross-gaming", which is frequently condemned, is a part of life: a player with a reputation for honesty and an utter lack of double-dealing will gain more allies in the long-run than one who is known to stab everyone at the first opportunity. On the other hand, that player will also frequently get hammered by less scrupulous allies once his usefulness is over. Even nasty Machiavellian player's can cultivate a reputation for honesty and integrity, within limits.


XXI:40-47) A prince is also esteemed when he shows himself a true friend or a true enemy, that is, when, without reservation, he takes his stand with one side or the other. This is always wiser than trying to be neutral, for if two powerful neighbors of yours fall out they are either of such sort that the victor may give you reason to fear him or they are not. In either case it will be better for you to take sides and wage an honest war.

XXI:72-81) if the prince chooses his side boldly, and his ally wins, even though the latter be powerful and the prince be at his mercy, nonetheless there is a bond of obligation and friendship...if your ally be the loser then he will welcome you and, as long as he can, he will give you aid...

XXI:82-91) when the two contestants are of such stature that you will have nothing to fear from the victor, it is even more prudent to take part in the war for you will accomplish the ruin of one with the aid of the other who, had he been wise, should rather have supported him. For with your aid he is sure to win and, winning, put himself in your power. And here it should be noted that a prince should never ally himself with one more powerful to attack another unless absolutely driven by necessity...

III:111-114) one,,,must make himself a leader and defender of his less powerful neighbors and strive to weaken the stronger ones...

XIX:13-15) a prince will be despised if he is considered changeable, frivolous...cowardly, or irresolute...

The meat of the Diplomacy game, with apologies to vegetarians, is the necessity to ally with other players, and get them to help you win. Players who have mastered the art of Diplomacy still don't win every game, or even half their games, over time. But the passages above provide some useful hints on how to view the utility of given alliances. If you are already engaged in a war, neutrality in a second conflict may be the best option. If you are not engaged in a war, and two of your neighbors begin fighting, neutrality is an extremely weak option. You must always be looking ahead to see what other powers are growing, and allow these perceptions to guide your alliance choices in the middle game. Ensure that others do not grow strong by allying with their weak enemies: a modest commitment of units on your part can severely slow the growth of your potential competitors. Allying with a stronger power to attack someone must only be done in extreme circumstances. To paraphrase Winston Churchill in 1941, when England allied with the Soviet Union to defeat Hitler: "To defeat my enemies I would sup with the Devil himself, but I should make sure to use a long spoon."


XVIII: 57-61) It must be understood that a prince and particularly a new prince cannot practice all the virtues for which men are accounted good, for the necessity of the state often compels him to take actions which are opposed to loyalty, charity, humanity, and religion.

XXIV: 4-9) For the actions of a new prince are much more closely scrutinized than those of an established one, and when they are seen to be intelligent and effective they may win over more men and create stronger bonds of obligation than have been felt in the old line, inasmuch as the minds of men are wrapped up in the present and not in the past.

These words are particularly addressed to new players and substitutes. The quickest way to get beaten in your first few games is to trust too much. People are going to try to wax you, and you have to be prepared to do unto others. Substitutes in mail games, both snail and electronic, face a slightly different situation: they have inherited positions (usually inferior) from players who simply didn't give a damn. Often, their position is complicated by an NMR (no move received) the previous turn. In these circumstances, survival often calls for the most drastic of power politics: lie early, lie often, do whatever it takes to secure support and keep it for a few turns, and make it clear that you have not joined the game to provide dinner for the other piranhas, but have a little nibbling of your own to do before you go. Offer accommodation, if necessary, but drive a hard bargain: if you're going to ally with someone, try to make it contingent on joint moves against a third party. Don't wait for others to approach you, though-they're looking at you as lunch.


XXI: 101-106) Let no state think that it can always adopt a safe course; rather should it be understood that all choices involve risks, for the order of things is such that one never escapes one danger without incurring another; prudence lies in weighing the disadvantages of each choice and taking the least bad as good.

This is, in this author's humble opinion, one of the most important facts of both international relations and Diplomacy (the game and the practice). Every action has consequences, and every decision has good and bad aspects. The best outcome can always be doubted and questioned, because perfection is unattainable. The defeat of the Soviet Union after forty years of Cold War has not provided the utopian world sought by idealists: instead, we have seen the Gulf War (which we won but lost, since Saddam Hussein is still around), changing security requirements which have increased the role of U.S. and multi-national forces in ethnic conflicts around the globe, increased concerns over the proliferation of nuclear and chemical weapons in the developing world.

At the time of this writing (9 February 1996) the "People's Republic" of China is preparing massive military maneuvers off the coast of Taiwan (also known as the "Republic of China"), and demanded that the U.S. cease all arms shipments to Taiwan. New evidence has recently been released that the PRC is selling sophisticated missile guidance technology to Iran, and has provided both ballistic missiles and critical nuclear weapons production components to Pakistan. U.S. law states that the President must impose economic sanctions on China for all of these violations. Business and economic interests argue that we cannot afford to risk access to the Chinese market or the loss of trade from that country. The Chinese government, noted for such staunch humanist measures as genocide in Tibet, running over student protesters with tanks, execution and imprisonment of democratic activists, and condoning both infanticide and slave labor, has recently announced a return to sounder ideological principles: a euphemism, perhaps, for yet another anti-democracy purge. Lest I sound like an unrepentant Cold Warrior, let me state categorically that the New World Order is unquestionably a safer and more just world than the Cold War international system. But without stooping to China-bashing, it doesn't take a genius to see that not every country subscribes to our ideals, and that states still use force to achieve goals which they cannot reach through other means. Don't throw your copy of "The Prince" out yet-it's going to be useful for more than just Diplomacy for some time to come.