The anarchic world of Italian Renaissance city-states was more violent and dangerous than that of today’s democracies, but elements of Machiavelli’s advice remain relevant to modern leaders. In addition to the courage of the lion, Machiavelli also extolled the strategic deceptiveness of the fox. Idealism without realism rarely reshapes the world, but as we judge our modern democratic leaders, we should keep both Machiavelli and Acton in mind. We should look for and support leaders who possess an ethical element of self-restraint and a need for achievement and affiliation as well as for power.
But there is another aspect of Acton’s dilemma besides the ethics of leaders: the demands of followers. Leadership is a combination of leaders’ traits, followers’ demands, and the context in which they interact. A Russian public anxious about its status; a Chinese people concerned about rampant corruption; a Turkish population divided over ethnicity and religion: All create enabling environments for leaders who feel a psychological need for power. Similarly, to satisfy his narcissistic need for power, Trump magnifies the discontent of a part of the population through clever manipulation of television news programs and social media.
This is where institutions play a crucial role. In the early United States, James Madison and the new country’s other founders saw that neither leaders nor followers would be angels, and that institutions must be designed to reinforce restraints. They concluded from their study of the ancient Roman Republic that what was needed to prevent the rise of an overweening leader like Julius Caesar was an institutional framework of separation of powers, whereby faction would balance faction. Madison’s answer to the possibility of an “American Mussolini” was a system of institutional checks and balances ensuring that the US would never resemble Italy in 1922 – or Russia, China, or Turkey today.
The American founders wrestled with the dilemma of how powerful we want our leaders to be. Their answer was designed to preserve liberty, not maximize government efficiency. Many commentators have complained about institutional decay, while others point to changes – such as the advent of reality television and social media – that have coarsened the quality of public discourse. Later this year, we may find out how resilient the American founders’ framework for power and leadership really is.
By Joseph Nye. This article was reproduced from Project Syndicate