“I shall set aside fantasies considering only what happens in fact.”
Absurd was the only word I could conjure from a hurricane of impressions assaulting my brain. My elbows rested on the top of a thick white wall a dozen feet in the air. Twelve feet high and nine inches wide, to be exact. The stark white partition was an imposing structure stretching as far as I could see in either direction.
The first concrete elements went into place on August 17, 1961. The year of my birth. I stared across a barren expanse to another wall, equal in size, shape, and just as formidable. How had the world come to this? Why were these substantial impediments to human travel necessary in the 20th century? Had not we defeated the barbarians at the gates and the need for walls?
According to my intelligence, these two thick and tall concrete barriers, plus electrified fences and fortifications, extending 28 miles (45 km), dividing the two parts of a city founded in 1237. Additionally, the Wall extended 75 miles (120 km) around the ground I now stood on. I was in jail.
Not content with the island experience, I needed to confront my jailors. I walked down a narrow set of metal steps to the end of the concrete. A break in the Wall allowed sparse traffic to and from my island. Two U.S. Army MPs stared at me disbelievingly as I walked past them into a lifeless 160-yard wide strip between the two twelve-foot white concrete dividers.
With a grim determination, I walked almost the distance from a football field to the center of the “death strip.” It was a belt of sand or gravel-covered land between the two main barriers of Berlin’s Wall. This “no man’s land” was under constant surveillance by armed guards from the east in watchtowers, who had orders to shoot anyone they saw trying to escape. But not enter. Nor stand in the middle and stare.
I unnerved them.
The soldier in the guard shack opposite “Checkpoint Charlie” raised his binoculars, hoping to read my name and unit. I grinned and covered my nameplate. Frustrated, the soldier lowered his spy glasses. I dropped my hand. He raised his binoculars. I lifted my hand, hiding my identity. We played the cat-and-mouse game a couple more times before I grew bored. The guards in the tower, with their weapons at the ready, seem to enjoy the action. They rose to take in the spectacle of a peacefully defiant American soldier teasing their fascist tenure. I am sure that their daily roles in the lethal farce grew incessantly tedious over time.
I turned my gaze in the shooter’s direction. The East German tower guards were notoriously bad shots missing their fleeing targets by yards. Nobody missed by those margins aiming from an elevated perch. Their piss poor record spoke volumes about their humanity. Shooting women and children in the back as they ran for freedom lacked honor. No one wanted that memory running around in their head for a lifetime.
But I wasn’t a woman. Or a child. I was a large imposing young man in uniform. Unarmed. I was fair game for hunters. I let the tingly tension of their gaze wash over me. Their eyes bored into my flesh. Their intent was as clear as a bell. Still, something in me needed to experience the absurdity of the Wall and its inhumanity to man. And feel the hard stare of my enemy, only a trigger pull away from my demise. For me, the sharp jagged edges of reality are to be savored slowly, with intent. Satisfied with only dipping my toe into their dystopian nightmare, I nodded to my foes, signaling the end of my egress.
Two quotes came to mind as I turned my back on the East German soldiers. “Do I want to be the sculptor or the clay?” And, the “Devil doesn’t bargain. He takes.”
Instinctively, I knew these walls would not stand for long. Less than five years later, the Berlin Wall crumbled under the weight of ideological absurdity. I am proud to have played a quiet part in its demise. My years staring down my adversary with seventy thousand nuclear weapons at the ready left a mark. The stillness of my scared memory leads me to my premise for this short treatise. Niccolò Machiavelli, Hans Morganthau, and I are creatures of our chaos. Essentially products of our environment. But more than that, as thinking men, we crafted a personal philosophy forged from our journey as a mental map or a mind hack to cope with our possible future chaos. We would not repeat the mistakes of the past. I will not pretend to compare myself to Machiavelli and Morganthau regarding their contribution to political thought. I will only assert at the tip of America’s spear in a conflict that I grappled with the unthinkable like them.
Machiavelli’s Forged Perspective
Born in 1469 in Florence, one of the Italian City States, Machiavelli was a politician and diplomat. At twenty-nine, Machiavelli entered the Florentine government as head of the Second Chancery and secretary to the Council of Ten for War serving the Republic for fourteen years. In service, he had the time and opportunity to observe and study the attitudes and behaviors of the political actors of his day. When the Medici family overthrew the Republican government in 1512, Machiavelli lost his position and went into exile.
While in exile, Machiavelli began writing the Discourses. He interrupted his process to write The Prince, which he completed in December 1513. He hoped the book would re-launch his new Medici government under Lorenzo de Medici. Unfortunately, The Prince received a poor reception from the general public. Initially, the reaction to his book was indifference; however, soon, it was criticized as “immoral, evil and wicked”1 and is the primary source of Machiavelli’s realism label.2
By Machiavelli‟s own admission, his political thinking was the distillation of his practical experience as a politician and a diplomat. “I am well aware that many people have written about this subject; I fear that I may be thought presumptuous, for what I have to say differs from the precepts offered by others, especially the manner. But because I want to write what will be useful to anyone who understands, it seems to me better to concentrate on what really happens rather than on theories or speculations. For many have imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist. However, how men live is so different from how they should live that a ruler who does not do what is generally done will undermine his power rather than obtain it. I shall set aside fantasies about rulers then and consider what happens in fact.”3
What chaos did Machiavelli likely witness to inform his perspective in the writing of The Prince? The city-states of Florence, Milan, Venice, and Naples fought for control of Italy, as did the papacy, France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire. Each of these powers attempted to pursue a strategy of playing the other powers off of one other, but they also engaged in less ethical practices such as blackmail and violence. Seizing power wasn’t honest or virtuous. The same year that Machiavelli returned to Florence, Italy was invaded by Charles VIII of France—the first of several French invasions that would occur during Machiavelli’s lifetime. His impassioned pleas for Italian unity stemmed from these conflicts. He saw feckless kings, princes, and potentates fail to adapt to changing obstacles and challenges fueling chaos.
“And many have imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist in truth; for it is so far from how one lives to how one should live that he who lets go of what is done for what should be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation. For a man who wants to make a profession of good in all regards must come to ruin among so many who are not good. Hence it is necessary to a prince if he wants to maintain himself, to learn to be able not to be good, and to use this and not use it according to necessity.”4
Machiavelli seeks “the effectual truth of the matter rather than the imagined one.” The “effectual truth” is the only truth worth seeking. He believes “effectual truth” is required to act according to necessity. Machiavelli moves beyond the ancient virtue (a moral quality of the individual, such as justice or self-restraint) to a virtù, ability, or vigor. As a peddler of virtù, he offers his guide or maps to gain and sustain power. Machiavelli witnesses the good, the bad, and the ugly. He offered necessity’s end as leverage to triumph in the power struggle. Never before had a writer proven that truth can be hazardous. Machiavelli had the gall to say the Devil doesn’t bargain.
Morganthau’s Forged Perspective
Hans Morgenthau was born into an Ashkenazi Jewish family in Coburg, Saxe-Coburg, and Gotha, Germany, in 1904. In 1929, he passed his doctorate with a thesis at the University of Frankfurt. Post World War I, political chaos reigned in Germany, but the Great Depression, which began in August 1929, ended the Weimer Republic. The effects of the Great Depression in Germany brought the Nazi Party to its first nationwide importance. The rapid rise in unemployment in 1929–30 provided millions of jobless and dissatisfied voters whom the Nazi Party exploited to its advantage. From 1929 to 1932, the party vastly increased its membership and voting strength; its vote in elections to the German Parliament (Reichstag) increased from 800,000 votes in 1928 to about 14,000,000 votes in July 1932, and it thus emerged as the largest voting bloc in the Reichstag, with 230 members (38 percent of the total vote).
By 1933 big-business circles had begun to finance the Nazi electoral campaigns, and swelling bands of SA toughs increasingly dominated the street fighting with the communists. The political fears of the day were the communists, not the thuggish Nazis. On March 23, 1933, the Reichstag passed the Enabling Act, which “enabled” Hitler’s government to issue decrees independently of the Reichstag and the presidency; Hitler, in effect, assumed dictatorial rule using a version of power politics.
A core element of the Nazi Party ideology was anti-Semitism, and Hitler used this period of consolidation to mobilize the power of the Nazi police state against Germany’s Jewish citizens. Jews lost virtually all legal rights under the Nürnberg Laws of September 15, 1935, and prewar state-sponsored persecution of Jews reached its climax on Kristallnacht (November 9–10, 1938). Scores of Jews died in the violence, and tens of thousands of Jewish men and boys were arrested and imprisoned in concentration camps. After Kristallnacht, the bulk of all the Jewish property was confiscated, effectively erasing them from public life.
From 1932 to 1935, Morgenthau watched Germany morph into a Nazi dictatorship as he taught public law at the University of Geneva and then in Madrid from 1935 to 1936. Unable to return to Germany after Kristallnacht, he came to the United States in 1937 without sponsors or friends. World War II began in July 1937 with the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, a battle between China’s National Revolutionary Army and the Imperial Japanese Army. Germany had already re-occupied the Rhineland. Austria, Sudetenland, and Poland fell in 1939, churning up a world conflict. Pearl Harbor in 1941 drug the US into a global conflict. Germany and Japan lay in ruins six years later, with forty to fifty million lives lost. Upwards of 18 million Russians perished in fighting and starvation.
From World War II’s epic devastation, Morgenthau crafted “international politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power.”5 Woodrow Wilson’s goal of making the world safe for democracy proved to be nothing but liberal paper mache as it burst into flames on the world stage. Into that vacuum, Morgenthau envisions a new international zeitgeist. He articulates his ideas by redefining power “as man’s control over the minds and actions of other men. By political power, we refer to the mutual relations of control among the holders of public authority and between the latter and the people at large.”6 The Nazi’s weaponized propaganda apparently left a coffee stain on Morgenthau’s desk.
Morgenthau postulates that the US has a vast post-war responsibility as the predominant world power. Therefore, “the understanding of the forces that mold international politics and of the factors that determine its course has become more than an interesting intellectual occupation. It has become a vital necessity” 7 Again, we find necessity and budding chaos as the mother of theory. The political scientist slash international relations theorist sought to be a salmon swimming upstream to spawn a new lasting peace with his pragmatic study of nation-state interactions and interests.
Morgenthau conceives of political systems in terms of their principles of order. And how these principles help shape actors’ identities and frame their interests.8 The universality of the drive for power meant that the balance of power was a “general social phenomenon to be found on all levels of social interaction’. Individuals, groups, and states inevitably combine to protect themselves from predators.9 Carving out his theories from historical reality, Morgenthau pointed out that ‘All lasting contributions to political science, from Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine to the Federalist, Marx, and Calhoun, have been responses to challenges arising from political reality.’10 It is not difficult to imagine Morgenthau garnering a realist label and being compared and contrasted to Machiavelli in the ensuing years.
Recent Chinese Competition & Conflict
The history of the last half-century of relations between China and the West rests upon an aspiration. The U.S. and other liberal democracies opened their doors to China, believing its progress and prosperity would lead to political change. China grew rich off the west. But trade and societal interaction failed to sway the Chinese communists as hoped. With its wealth, China has become an increasingly powerful competitor, repressive at home and aggressive abroad.
According to the IR gurus inside the beltway, relations with our Chinese friends have become increasingly contentious over the last five years. Exposed to this thinking, I rhetorically cock my head and furrow my brow. Let’s recap our interactions with my Han Chinese brothers. On October 19, 1950, a mere year and eighteen days after its formation, the peace-loving People’s Republic of China (PRC) drew “first blood” in the Korean conflict. 36,516 Americans died in that conflict, many at the hands of Chinese fighters attacking in support of North Korea.
Internally, the PRC’s founder Chairman Mao “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” Zedong greenlighted the extermination of 49-78 million of his people due to starvation and waves of Maoist “assimilation,” referred to as the purges, Great Leap Forward, and Cultural Revolution. After the British handover of Hong Kong on July 1, 1997, the PRC continued to spread peace and love by breaking its promise to allow the “special administrative region” 50 years of political autonomy. Twenty-five after the handover, the Chinese repression in Hong Kong is visceral and ever-present.
Lastly, over the last five years, the Chinese authorities have seized and sold tens of millions of dollars in assets owned by jailed Uyghur business owners amid a broad government campaign to assimilate ethnic minorities in the country’s northwest Xinjiang region. Thousands of Uyghurs have been “ghosted” from their region. Many more Uyghurs died and were buried in unmarked graves.
Reality can be such a nagging mistress. What did I miss? In 1992, a small but vocal contingent of strategic thinkers in the intelligence community warned of Red Chinese duplicity. “All warfare is deception,” I remember reading that somewhere. Those dire warnings were out of step with the new cocktail party paradigm, the “End of History and the Last Man.” Where were The Price and Politics Among Nations avid readers when needed? What would Machiavelli and Morgenthau think of the grievous and willful blindness to an evident and unrelenting Chinese threat?
Fast forward thirty years, the culture that gave the world the wisdom of Sun Tzu, a recent flashpoint, has erupted in the shape of a social media platform called TikTok. A smartphone application accused of spiriting data into Communist hands for nefarious purposes. In dealing with my Red Chinese friends, the Alec Benjamin song the Devil Doesn’t Bargain lyrics come to mind. A song about the reality of relationships seems an oddly appropriate way to wrap up my wondering treatise. The lyrics are as follows.
The devil doesn’t bargain/It’s useless, don’t do this/It’s hubris to try/He’s ruthless, you knew this/I told you, didn’t I?/He’s abusive, elusive/The truth is, he lies/I know you don’t want to let go/And just like before/I can see that you’re sure/You can change him but I know you won’t/The devil doesn’t bargain/He’ll only break your heart again/It isn’t worth it, darling/He’s never gonna change/He’ll never be Prince Charming/He’ll only do you harm again/I don’t mean to meddle/But the devil doesn’t settle/No, the devil doesn’t bargain.
Machiavelli and Morgenthau’s writings of The Prince and Politics Among Nations offered their calculated framework crafted by the chaos of their times. Again, the adage, “we see the world, not as it is, but as we are,” informs us. Also, both men strongly suggested necessity dictated that one should not bring a knife to a gunfight. Machiavelli argues the fortunes of chaos and conflict can only be tamed by the violent and audacious. “[It is] necessary to beat and ill-use her…it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly…She is therefore always, woman-like, a lover of young men because they are less cautious, more violent, and with more audacity to command her.”11
Their respective writings shed a harsh light on future competition, chaos, and conflicts with our nation-state adversaries like the Red Chinese. Great political thinkers confronted with problems unable to be solved with the tools on hand must develop new ways of thinking. They must harness the past to illuminate the present.12 Facing the impossibly complex character of chaos, my military maxim of improvising, adapting, and overcoming rings true.
The grand illusion of any international relations school of thought is that an end-all-be-all solution exists to extinguish the nature of the beast. Evil exists in our world. I have seen its vast darkness up close and personal. And that devil doesn’t bargain. He takes. In opposition to evil’s aggression, someone must get their hands dirty. I wish for a different world, but alas, I am in this one. “I shall set aside fantasies about rulers then and consider what happens in fact.”13
This post memorialized my refined writing and more profound thoughts.
Until next time. Travel safe.