Is “The Prince,” Niccolo Machiavelli’s famous, some might say notorious, primer for politicians still relevant?
Yes and no, says Percy Kemp, a Beirut-born writer best known for his espionage novels.
Yes, because, as in Machiavelli’s time, the art of seizing and maintaining power could be learned. No, because the political landscape has changed fundamentally since the 1532 publication of the book.
Hence Kemp’s decision to rewrite “Le Prince,” adapted for the modern world. His subtitle says it all: “Useful Tips for Our Rulers, Harassed by Events, On How to Exercise Power and Hold Onto It.”
Since the end of the Cold War, we’re told, foreign politics is no longer a game of chess with a clear distinction between friend and foe. It has become a contest with numerous players including markets, terrorists and other elusive forces.
As luck would have it, the less the modern prince controls in this multipolar game, the more he is held responsible for everything that goes wrong: Epidemics, tsunamis, banking crises, heat waves, ruptured breast implants -- they’re all blamed on hapless politicians.
“Events, dear boy, events,” said Harold Macmillan when someone asked him what he feared most. Without expressly quoting the former U.K. prime minister, Kemp agrees: Events are the worst enemies of politicians.
That’s why they desperately try to organize the events themselves. Summit conferences, royal weddings, international championships have no other purpose than to keep the malcontents happy.
That recipe, however, doesn’t always work. The 1972 Olympics in Munich were derailed by a terrorist attack on the Israeli team. And the fairy tale wedding of Charles and Diana turned into the royal family’s worst PR disaster.
Does that mean that the politician is completely powerless against the force of destiny? Not quite, says Kemp. He still got three weapons -- intelligence, diversion and mystification.
By intelligence, you may have guessed, the spy novelist means secret information collected by well-trained, unprejudiced professionals.
The Iraq war could have been avoided, he suggests, if George W. Bush and Tony Blair had listened with open minds to their experts instead of distorting their findings on weapons of mass destruction.
Even the best spy cannot avert disaster if his boss doesn’t believe him -- as happened to Richard Sorge, Stalin’s scout in Tokyo: He correctly predicted Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union only to be dismissed as a fabulist.
Diversion is the high art of finding a scapegoat.
Kemp recommends the Chinese way: After the Wenzhou bullet train crash in 2011 which killed 40 people and injured 200, three high officials were fired within 24 hours to placate the wrath of the people.
Mystification, on the other hand, or spin, as it’s usually called today, needs more careful handling. It can easily backfire.
The true colors of Jose Maria Aznar, Spanish prime minister from 1996 to 2004 and another backer of the Iraq war, were quickly revealed when he tried to blame the bombing of a commuter train by Arab terrorists in 2004 on ETA, the Basque separatist organization. He was promptly voted out of office.
Mystification, says Kemp, used to be easier. We still believe that the Greeks attacked Troy because of Helen’s affair with Paris, not because of the city’s immense riches, and that Richard III was an evil king who deserved to be dethroned and killed.
No wonder: The Greeks and the Tudors had talented spin doctors like Homer and Shakespeare.
“Le Prince” is published by Editions du Seuil (140 pages, 15 euros).
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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