A review of The Modern Prince: What Modern Leaders Need to Know Now, by Carnes Lord

On the surface, Carnes Lord's The Modern Prince: What Modern Leaders Need to Know Now looks like the sort of book one might pick up in the business section of a bookstore, where the strategic secrets of Sun Tzu and Attila the Hun are regularly hawked to busy corporate executives. In short time, the casual reader, looking for something to flip through on the plane enroute to a conference or negotiation, would recognize that Lord's theme is, instead, political leadership. Like Machiavelli, Lord has written his book for political leaders as well as ordinary citizens, who need to know how to judge their leaders' performance on the job. 

Few today are more qualified to write such advice to leaders (and aspiring leaders). Like Machiavelli, Lord bases his advice on "long experience with modern things and a continuous reading of ancient ones." Like Machiavelli, he is no stranger to the practical business of politics. He served as director of international communications and information policy for the National Security Council under Ronald Reagan, and as assistant to the Vice President for national security affairs in the first Bush Administration. Yet Lord is also renowned as a translator of Aristotle's Politics and an authority on Aristotelian political science. With these qualifications, he proceeds to take those with a taste for leadership through 26 chapters on modern statecraft, many of which correspond to the chapters of Machiavelli's Prince. At the same time, these chapters are concerned with vitally relevant policy issues, such as intelligence, strategy, and diplomacy, with an overarching concern for the limits and possibilities of statecraft in our time. 

Note the bait and switch: Lord appears to promise readers a conventional handbook on leadership, rooted in such common themes as charisma and management; he delivers instead (or more accurately, in addition) a survey of what modern statesmen can and cannot achieve given the nature of modern elites (Machiavelli's few) and contemporary political culture (the attitudes of Machiavelli's many). On the one hand, Lord ascends from where his readers are likely to begin, with a Machiavellian focus on acquiring, preserving, and expanding political power and influence, to a larger, more comprehensive horizon in which statesmen establish and preserve regimes, which in turn establish and preserve the character of their citizens. On the other hand, Lord is no mere moralist preaching against the evils of Machiavellianism. He takes Machiavelli seriously, as all statesmen must, if only because you cannot use power well without first acquiring and keeping it. 

The result, then, is a dialogue between Machiavelli and Aristotle on the meaning of statesmanship, especially in the executive, for our time. As the dialogue develops, it becomes clear that Lord sees statecraft in terms analogous to how Clausewitz understood strategy. It is a matter of orchestrating means to serve clear political objectives. While experience with modern things informs Lord's understanding of the various tools available to statesmen today, his reading of ancient things consistently leads him to stress statesmanship as an architectonic art, as a shaping of the present and probable future, not merely in institutions, but also in the character of peoples. Not surprisingly, then, Lord concludes that the highest form of statecraft is a kind of soulcraft that usually goes hand-in-hand with founders and refounders of regimes.

In general, however, modern statesmen, whether elected or appointed, deal with mundane issues that may threaten or improve their regimes at the margins. They may despise bureaucrats (who doesn't?), but they know that modern government depends on effective administration, and thus on motivating bureaucracies that often have agendas of their own. If Machiavelli was right that good government depends on good laws and good arms, the bureaucrats are the civilian arms that give teeth to the laws, so the modern statesman has no choice but to learn how to make them serve his goals, not theirs. The trick is to do this without undermining ordinary citizens' efforts to take responsibility for their individual lives and communities. 

Following Tocqueville, Lord fears a combination of administrative centralization and egalitarianism that would undermine individual and public liberty, as hosts of bureaucrats appear to be doing in Brussels today. The implication is obvious. If good government depends on administration and bureaucracies, but large bureaucracies animated by egalitarian zeal threaten liberty, the statesman concerned with preserving the spirit of the laws would not render administration ineffective, lest he have no tools to govern when he needs them. Instead, he would keep government generally limited, never doing for individuals or communities what they could or should do for themselves, lest they lose the will and ability to govern themselves. 

This is just one example of the advantages and disadvantages posed by America's political elites, but it highlights Lord's central concern with preserving the possibility of self-government. For this reason, perhaps, his central chapter, on education and culture, is a significant departure from Machiavelli and modern political science in general. Rather than assume every citizen is a calculating, rational actor, on the model of homo economicus, he considers the extent to which the ends citizens pursue are shaped by education and culture, thus holding out the possibility of improving those ends, not merely managing them for collective security and individual prosperity. In these ways, the central concern of Aristotelian political science, the quality of the citizens themselves, comes alive as part of the texture of recurring American debates about the function of education and the size and scope of government.

To know well the nature of peoples, says Machiavelli, one needs to be a prince, and "to know well the nature of princes one needs to be of the people." Hence Lord hopes to teach citizens how to judge their leaders as much as he aims to teach leaders how to govern; perhaps even more so, because in our regime, effective government depends on the people's sobriety. Do their leaders understand the vital importance of constitutional forms in preserving the spirit of the laws, the political culture that gives animus to any regime? Do the leaders understand the vices and virtues of the various elites who compete with them in the media, the bureaucracy, the military, the Foreign Service, the courts, and Congress? Do modern executives especially understand that strong leadership, however valuable it may be for short-term advantage, often poses long-term dangers for a republican community? Are their leaders doctors or quacks? These are just some of the questions alert citizens would begin to ask after reading this book. 

Although Lord has not discovered much (if anything) new about Machiavelli, he has constructed a dialogue between the great ancient and modern political philosophers on the meaning, limits, and possibilities of statecraft in our time. This is difficult enough to do when confining one's field of vision to philosophers simply. It is breathtaking to watch the dialogue unfold when the debate focuses on the practical business of daily governance: how to command the military, how to use the media without being consumed by it, and especially how to marshal public support for government action without destroying the constitutional limits on executive power. 

As Lord's dialogue develops, we are compelled to make an imaginative effort, the sort that Machiavelli debunked in The Prince. While generally well disposed toward Hamiltonian energy in the executive, Lord recognizes that the need for strong executives is a function of the times. This implies that some eras and circumstances may require less and others even more strength in that department. It even implies that such strength may occasionally do more harm than good. To minimize the harm and maximize the good, we would be remiss if we failed to examine how other regimes have constituted their executive. So a survey of such far away places as Switzerland, with an extremely weak executive, and Singapore, with an exceptionally strong one, is necessary to investigate the uses and abuses of executive power. 

In turn, this question cannot be understood apart from the variety of regimes, their modes of governance and the ways of life they instill. Before we have even noticed it, Lord has done another bait and switch on us. We thought we were looking at other regimes to see how our own executive might be improved. Instead, he raises the fundamental question, what is the best regime, at least for us? For most today, the answer would probably be some sort of liberal democracy, of which Lord is a firm friend. Yet seen from a distance, with a critical eye, maybe what is best for us now is not the best as such. Maybe it contains seeds of its own destruction. Maybe saving it from the barbarians, which is what Lord aspires to in his concluding chapter, requires seeing it with all its faults. 

If only for these reasons, Lord's book will be essential reading for leaders, citizens, students, and teachers for at least a generation.