Since we launched the Strix in May, our political horizons have changed beyond recognition. Instead of working together to battle inequality and climate change, leaders in Europe and the United States will, for the foreseeable future, find themselves dealing with disintegration, degradation and damage limitation. “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,” wrote Yeats, and yet, much of the turbulence of 2016 was no accident. There have been winners and losers who have been elevated and pushed away, not just by electorates and the tides of history, but also by the finagling we forgot about while we were busy gasping. And so as the hosts of the Prince’s Podcast, we wanted to identify a Machiavellian of the Year for 2016. One person, who, more than any other, crafted power out of chaos. But first, we should consider a few other candidates.
Starting in Britain, 2016 was an excellent year for Theresa May. Although she found herself on the wrong side of the referendum result, she quickly ascended to 10 Downing Street without a single vote. May had quietly told the financial and political elite that Britain would be worse off outside the European Union, but she also sensed the political volatility. She stayed quiet during a divisive campaign and thus emerged unscathed from the tribalism and trench warfare surrounding her. Today, without a compelling enemy in UK politics, May now seems politically insurmountable. Despite her dominance, it is hard to respect a politician who disingenuously follows an economic trajectory she knows to be severely damaging, merely to appease conservative backbenchers and tabloid newspaper editors. Theresa May is a follower posing as a leader. An isolated and disunited kingdom with a shrunken economy will have her name written all over it for decades to come, and it is hard to imagine Niccolo Machiavelli having anything nice to say about a Prince in thrall to the mob. And so we cannot choose May this year because becoming the captain of a sinking ship is quite a generous definition of astute leadership.
Another obvious candidate for our Machiavellian of the Year for 2016 is the man to which the Strix has devoted more words and paragraphs to than any other: Donald Trump. The property mogul destroyed every expectation, norm and candidate in his path, including the two established political dynasties of Bush and Clinton. One of his smarter gambits was to suggest that all of his opponents were beholden to billionaires such as himself. He claimed to have been able to phone almost any of them and demand favours in return for political donations. Not only did he make this unprecedented (if slightly obvious) accusation, he made it during live debates right to the faces if his dumbfounded opponents, creating shocking and captivating television in the process. In a political ecosystem that many on the left had assumed was the plaything of Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers, he won by spending less than almost everybody else. But it would be remiss of us to call a man who has made so many unsustainable promises to his voters a Machiavellian. Chapter six of The Prince instructs those who gain power through promises to form a watertight way of maintaining their support when their pledges collide with the reality of the world around them. Trump cannot bring back the coal industry, deport tens of millions of Mexicans or bring industrial jobs back from China. His voters are headed for heartbreak. That’s why it would be easier to give the award to one of his acolytes. After all, Niccolo Machiavelli never wielded any direct political power himself beyond that of a high-ranking bureaucrat. For instance, Mike Pence, a religious fundamentalist, has smuggled unelectable socially conservative ideals into the West Wing by jumping onto the Trump Train at the right moment. Similarly, Steve Bannon has emerged from the sewers of the white supremacist blogosphere to the corridors of the White House in under a year by attaching himself to the next president when few other media outlets would. A year and a half ago, when Breitbart started supporting Trump, the odds were long, but the potential payout was staggering. Bannon is now one of the most powerful and influential human beings on earth, a fact that is remarkable as it is repulsive.
Nevertheless, we want to give our first ever award to the man who has done more than anybody else to disrupt American democracy and has done so from that furthest possible distance. We do not name him to celebrate or to satirise his behaviour, but to draw attention to it and to remind our readers of that unshakeable Machiavellian truth, that politics is as much about skill as it is about ethics and when the former collapses it can create a vacuum of the later.
Our Machiavellian of the Year for 2016 is Vladimir Putin. In the space of twelve months, the Russian President has redefined the war in Syria, reset relations with Turkey and, with the assistance of an underground online army, helped to elect pro-Russian leaders in Bulgaria, Estonia, Moldova and even the United States of America. It experiences that Vladimir Putin personally instructed hackers to break into the Democratic National Committee servers to steal and leak embarrassing information about the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, who Putin personally blames for Moscow’s 2011 anti-government protests. In doing so, the Russian President not only removed a potentially hostile leader of the free world but also earned a debt of gratitude from her rival, Donald Trump who has now appointed a Russian friendly oil executive, Rex Tillerson, as his chief diplomat. Twelve months ago, Russia was struggling under the thumb of Western sanctions following the annexation of the Crimea and the attempted annexation of Eastern Ukraine. In 2017, Russians will live next door to a diminishing European Union, and Putin may have enough sympathy from Donald Trump and the next President of France – be it Fillon or Le Pen – to relieve himself of sanctions. The shift back to normality was already evident last week when Glencore and Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund bought 19.5% of Rosneft, Russia’s state oil company.
For the last few years, Putin has deployed the techniques of Vladislav Surkov, an enigmatic advisor at the Kremlin. Once described as “Putin’s Rasputin”, Surkov has returned to prominence after spending a few years in the wilderness after backing a presidential rival. Surkov is known for his ability to blur and entangle the political world around him. He has sponsored Russian political groups at every end the ideological spectrum, from white supremacists to human rights activists, including groups working in direct opposition to Putin’s government. But Surkov then told the world what he was doing and thus created an indefinable and bewildering political landscape where nobody could ever tell whose side anybody was ever really on. Meanwhile, Russian television keeps much the population on an almost constant war footing by manufacturing a siege mentality assembled around the fabricated caricatures of an aggressive western hemisphere. The perpetual paranoia allows Putin, who has watched sanctions tear through his economy and bite into the living standards of the Russian people, operate in a word free of accountability. When the food runs out in Russian supermarkets, it’s Obama’s fault. In 2014, Surkov applied the same principles of constructed confusion to the conflict in Ukraine, where he attempted to create a chaotic world of hard and soft power in which it was almost to define the enemy. Putin’s fighters become “Russian-backed separatists” volunteering their lives to save Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea from fascism. Surkov likes to think of it as “non-linear warfare.”
On an international level, Russia has granted loans to the French Front National while using Kremlin propaganda channels, such as RT and Sputnik, to amplify the radical left. On RT you can watch shows hosted by fringe socialists like George Galloway being broadcast back to back with those made by apologists for Donald Trump. In America, Russian trolls and hackers have acted in the interests of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump to undermine the centre ground. In a world of Facebook clickbait, fake news and a shrinking public sphere, where algorithms feed us more of the articles we want to read, muddying the waters from every ideological position is easier than ever before. The message from these outlets is less a defence of an infallible Kremlin, but a consistent suggestion that western capitalism and western democracy can be just as insidious as Russia’s kleptocracy. As it happens, this narrative may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. America already has its own vainglorious kleptocratic leader in waiting, and European electorates are embracing strongmen while rejecting liberal democratic norms and almost every opportunity. By luck or by genius, but probably by both, Putin has not only managed to rescue Russia’s fragile economic and geopolitical position, but he has also helped to spread a new kind of popular illiberalism in his own image.
On the Prince’s Podcast, we have spent the last year defending the character and the motivation of Niccolò Machiavelli, who sought stability and stewardship about all else. It may seem strange to name a man who has committed war crimes in Aleppo and made life so difficult for so many of his own people as a good Machiavellian example. Indeed, much of Putin’s behaviour has derived from his own desperation, paranoia and weakness. Strategically, he was hemmed in by Nato alliance countries, from the Baltic nations to Turkey, while the Russian economy was gasping for air after the global fall in oil prices. Russia is riddled with corruption because autocracies are infamously inefficient and the Kremlin isn’t brave enough to allow for any kind of meaningful public accountability. But being a Machiavellian is about making the best of what you’ve been given. Russia tried to become a westernised democracy in the 1990s, but the speed and clumsiness of the reforms led to chaos and mistrust. Putin, for all the blood on his hands, has returned his country to relevance.
The strength of Putin’s candidacy is laid out in chapter seven of The Prince. Machiavelli was keen to note that those who ascend to power quickly, like Donald Trump, will find it difficult to manage their principalities without the experience, respect and connections that come from years (and sometimes even decades) of political life:
“Those who solely by good fortune become princes from being private citizens have little trouble in rising, but much in keeping atop; they have not any difficulties on the way up, because they fly, but they have many when they reach the summit.”
Leaders cannot rely on the popularity and goodwill of the general population because people are fickle. Organic goodwill is an unsustainable resource. Meanwhile, Putin has been operating at the peak of international politics for 16 years, and he has been cultivating his influence in Russia since the fall of the Berlin Wall. He fought his way to the top in the power vacuum left over after the fall of the Soviet Union, and once he got there, he started to apply his skills to geopolitics. When he saw a similar vacuum on the world stage, he was ready to pounce. By intervening in Syria, Putin gained leverage in the middle east, and by bombing civilian areas he exacerbated the refugee crisis in Europe and contributed to the continent’s ongoing political disintegration.
And yet, even now, it is hard to know if his influence can last. If it doesn’t, it will not be because of Putin’s Machiavellian instincts but his petty personality. There is evidence that all is not well behind those infamous eyes. Knowing that she was afraid of dogs, Putin once invited his black Labrador to sit in on a bilateral meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a childish effort to unsettle her. Using a pet to try and intimidate a contemporary is not how confident people behave. Intimidating your perceived rivals with an animal is how a coward behaves. Merkel herself has pondered whether Putin is even in touch with reality himself. He was, she once remarked, “in another world.” She may be right. Every Russian generation has grown up with an inbuilt suspicion of almost all public intuitions, and who could blame them? Russian intuitions didn’t work for ordinary Russian people under the Tsars, they didn’t work under the communists, they didn’t work under the free-marketeers, and they don’t work now. Russians have always had to depend on their direct personal relationships with other Russians. When times are hard, as they often have been, everyone and everything had a hidden agenda, and if you wanted to win you had to bend or break the rules. Putin, it seems, is now projecting his own lack of trust onto the rest of the world. In 2016, Western liberal democracies have validated his scepticism, in 2017, they will have to prove him wrong.
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Written by the editors of the Strix