Is Machiavelli relevant today? Applying Machiavelli’s “princely virtù” to the second Karabakh war. 

By Rasul Bakhshaliyev

This article assumes knowledge of the second Karabakh war, for more information on the conflict, follow the links below. 

The central idea of this article is to liberate Machiavelli’s re-interpretations of fortuna – fortune – and necessità– (political) necessity – as well as his appreciation of the role of contingency in princely affairs from caricatured interpretations of these concepts as condoning immoral violence. I will then discuss the relevance of Machiavelli in evaluating the actions taken by political leaderships of Azerbaijan and Armenia prior to the second Karabakh war. Hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia erupted on September the 27th 2020, escalating to an all-out war between the two states, resulting in Azerbaijan’s re-establishment of control over its internationally recognized territories. 

The intention here is not to show how the “eternal wisdom” of Machiavellian thinking prevails through history despite major subsequent reconceptualizations of civil society. Nor does the article aim to demonstrate that political association is above all other forms of association, debunking pluralistic and rationalistic interpretations of the state. It is an attempt to analyse the contemporary politics of such an international conflict, applying Machiavelli’s thinking.

Machiavelli produced The Prince in the context of a 16th century Florence: continuously intimidated and invaded by foreign powers, not to mention internal instability following the the collapse of the Soderini government. Indeed, The Prince could be read as a job application to Lorenzo de’ Medici, in an attempt to take an active role in the politics of Florence, given Machiavelli’s desire to free himself from the idleness of unemployment and achieve something greater for his state.

Contrary to some contemporary interpreters of Machiavelli’s works seeking to “learn the universal laws of history”, the advice contained in The Prince should not be understood as eternal truths on how statesmen must conduct themselves under specific circumstances. Rather, the central idea is the exact opposite – there is no a priori correct course of action. Statesmen’s decisions need to be judged against the sole standard of morality pertaining to ensuring the prosperity of their civil community. The rest is decided by contingency and by princely virtù – virtue:

Fortuna is the mistress of one-half of our actions, and yet leaves the control of the other half, or a little else, to ourselves (“The Prince”, Machiavelli)

Such sentiment was progressive for its time, acting in a disaccord of all previous prince “advisors” who emphasized the absolute primacy of God and fortune in directing human affairs. The central tenet of his philosophy, implicit in his definition of princely virtù, is that successful statesmen must appreciate the force of circumstances – fortuna. They must harmonize their behaviour with the times, recognizing the full scope of necessity to achieve and maintain the glorious well-being of the state. 

Though Machiavelli is not a modern thinker, considering his conceptions of “civic humanism” culture in 14-16thcenturies Florence, one can only admire his originality in comparison to his peers. 

He did take inspiration in the works of Aristotle and Cicero, glorifying the skill of persuasion and rhetoric in the conduct of state affairs. Although embracing the importance of persuasion and esteeming the glory of the state as the highest possible civil value, Machiavelli is different from Florentine civic humanists of the 14-16thcenturies primarily because of his original approach to fortune in politics.

One would be surprised by the second Karabakh war, given the thirty-year commitment of Azerbaijan to solve the dispute through lengthy negotiations under the existing legal international framework. Most importantly, it was perceived that Russia and other big states involved in the region were not interested in a war that would disrupt the status quo and shift the balance of power. 

In this context, it seemed unlikely that small states of the region would have a say in their destiny. 

A very disenchanting reality for the leaders of these states to face was the conflicting interest of their states and such superpowers. It might have appeared to them that they were at the mercy of fortuna with minimum control over their ability to decide and implement a long-term national strategy. One would not be irrational, although misled, to infer that the best strategy is to go with the flow, adjusting national prerogatives in response to changing whims of big powers. 

Machiavelli would deem otherwise.

In defiance of this rationale to give in to fortuna, the leadership of Azerbaijan has adopted a political strategy reflecting the main idea behind Machiavelli’s conception of princely virtù in the context of the 21st century Armenia-Azerbaijan military confrontation. 

They have managed deep military and economic relations with Israel without risking major escalation with Iran. They have reaped military & economic benefits from close relations with both Russia and Turkey – two states with historically divergent interests in the South Caucasus. They have entertained the idea of linking Central Asian natural gas into the SGC thus allowing the EU to significantly reduce its energy dependence on Russian gas imports. They have at the same time convinced Russia of the benefits of long term strategic economic cooperation. They have balanced interests, requiring acute attention to changing circumstances and subsequent adjustments in the mode of acting while building its own well-being of its primary interest: the state. 

This is not to suggest it was opportunistic of the political leadership, implying amorality of political action. Rather, their actions to balance interests were essential in the political climate, which arguably necessitated restoring sovereignty over national borders.

International observers would have believed that Azerbaijan’s leadership would not dare to liberate Karabakh without assuming patronage from a bigger power, working by fortuna. Instead, years of relentless thought-out military and political preparations have indicated readiness to take control over its own destiny. It might have been that the opportunity would never come, but the goal set by the political leadership was to ensure that if it comes, Azerbaijan’s military and civil community were ready to face the toughest of adversity. 

In an environment characterized by uncertainty, one should not naïvely assert absolute control over one’s destiny, nor shirk responsibility by accepting the unconditional power of fortune over human affairs. Machiavelli’s prince prepares for the right moment when fortuna is on their side and strikes with full force, gaining maximum benefit from a favourable political situation. This is not to be confused with hot-headed, risky opportunism, for the former mode of acting presupposes a well-thought understanding of how to achieve the long-term well-being of state-society. 

While realizing the advantages of sustaining peace in the region for Azerbaijan to accumulate economic power and slowly translate it into unconditional military superiority over Armenia, it seemed like the political leadership of Azerbaijan was constantly on guard for a condition when the intricate balance of interests in the region would work in its favour. Could it be that it was in the interests of Russia to change the status quo? Or is it simply that the increasing influence of Turkey in the region forced Russia to scale down its ambitions? Or maybe it was in the interests of both Turkey and Russia to “unfreeze” the conflict as a signal to the West that regional conflicts should be solved by regional and not global powers? It is hard to tell.

But for Machiavelli, its cause is irrelevant insofar as the Prince can recognize a positive change in fortuna and make sure that his state is ready for such an opportunity. He maintained that a successful prince is one who can function in uncertain environments, one “whose acting best adapts itself to the character of the times” (“The Prince”, Machiavelli). In other words, a prince endowed with virtù is he who can function in contingency, adapting their qualities and reasoning to the demands of a specific moment in history. This is what the Azerbaijani government excelled in.

Contrary to the Azerbaijani usage of princely virtù, the provocative statements by Armenian political and military leadership, such as “Karabakh is Armenia, period” or the announcement of “New war for new territories”, were at disjuncture with a constantly changing political reality of the region. Perhaps they misperceived the 28-year ceasefire as an indication of Azerbaijan’s complacency or inability to sustain an all-out military confrontation. It is also possible that they unconsciously bought into baseless myths that, “Azerbaijanis can’t fight” or that they are, “a nation of tradesmen” unlike “Armenian warriors.” In any case, the statements made prior to war seemed out of touch, injuring the dignity of Azerbaijan’s civil community, and further escalating the risk of war that would not be in Armenia’s interest. 

If there is one more insight from Machiavelli that could be relevant for the current topic, it is that chance is as essential as princely virtù in achieving political success. However, Azerbaijan’s victory in the second Karabakh war would not be possible if not for its political leadership’s deeper appreciation of contingency in politics and its preparedness to launch a military offensive only when the circumstances were correctly interpreted to be in its favour. 

Extensive information and analysis on the different aspects of the Armenia-Azerbaijan confrontation are provided on the “St Andrews University Azerbaijan Society” Facebook page. For more information on the conflict check out the following links:

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect

the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

Image: Unsplash

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s