Was Machiavelli a Realist?

Machiavelli can be considered a realist in the overarching sense to which the term constitutes a varied collection of thought concerning the way in which international actors conduct themselves on the international stage. Distinction should be made nonetheless between different types of realist thinking, principally between that of classical realist thought and neorealism. There are some fundamental differences between Machiavelli’s ideas on how states should operate on the international stage and the neorealist viewpoint. These differences seemingly put Machiavelli into the classical strand of realist thinking and I shall explore this throughout this essay along with where the two viewpoints converge.

Machiavelli certainly demonstrates some of the key elements of contemporary realist thinking, the principle one being that, among states, power and self-interest are the primary motivations for state behaviour and the ultimate goal is self-preservation and security in an otherwise uncertain world (Forde, 1995). Furthermore, both Machiavelli and contemporary realists agree on the fact that because each state must defend its own interest’s, moralistic ideals must be negated in order to consolidate power (Brown, Nardin and Rengger, 2002). Furthermore Machiavelli acknowledges the existence of the international security dilemma resulting from the given balance of power within an international system of anarchy. For instance:

“Machiavelli presents imperialism as nothing more than the rational response to international anarchy. He asserts that under conditions of anarchy, threats to one’s security, if not imminent, are always forming on the horizon… war is never avoided, but only postponed to the advantage of your opponent. Pre-emptive strikes on your adversaries present and future… become the only secure means of coping with international anarchy… anarchy, or the international security dilemma, constitutes in itself a comprehensive threat, one that may be effectively neutralized only by force of arms” (Forde, 1995, p146).

This is similar to the view of Mearsheimer who is considered to be a neorealist. He argues that “it makes good strategic sense for states to gain as much power as possible, and, if the circumstances are right, to pursue hegemony. The argument is not that conquest or domination is good in itself, but that having overwhelming power is the best way to ensure one’s own survival” (Mearsheimer, 2006, p72).

Machiavelli however does not arrive at this conclusion solely on the basis of the structural consideration of international anarchy which for neorealists is the only reason why such a security dilemma exists. Instead he maintains that anarchy is a threat more because of the underlying impulses of human nature and how they express themselves within such an environment (Forde, 1995).

“The Discourses relies almost exclusively on appeals to human nature and human ambition rather than on structure to drive its realist argument” (Forde, 1995, p146).

 This is one of the fundamental ways Machiavelli diverges from contemporary realist thought and lines up more with the classical interpretation of the discipline, whereby human nature has always been considered as a driving force behind the struggle for power. Machiavelli discusses this idea further in The Prince by stating: “truly it is a natural and ordinary thing to desire to acquire” (Forde, 1995, p146).

“Following this thought to its conclusion, we arrive at the view that imperial ambition is a force that ought to be liberated on its own account, wholly apart from the security dilemma that may also be used as a justification for it. Given Machiavelli’s presentation of realism in his works as a whole, we would have to conclude that this is closer to his true view of the foundations of realism” (Forde, 1995, p147).

Machiavelli claims to focus on how things actually are rather than applying idealised notions or theories to international politics. In his view adhering to what should be rather than what is will lead to the downfall of the state. “This is the basis of the general claim by many of Machiavelli’s commentators that he is a realist on two counts: first, that he bases his discussion on historical and contemporary evidence which provides an empirical base for his work. Second, that in refuting ethical and moral claims and substituting them with the ‘real’ principles underlying statecraft, he is freeing the leader from any obligation to follow these ideals” (Ferguson, 2004, sec: 2a). This line of thought reminds us that realism’s initial conception came in part from opposing the moralistic or idealistic understanding of interstate relations and that realism’s central premise lies in this opposition (Forde, 1995).

Neorealists feel justified in shedding this aspect because of the reliance of contemporary realism on the theory of modern social science which is inherently value free and incapable of commenting on matters of ethics (Forde, 1995). “Neorealism is set apart from classical realism in methodological rigor and scientific self-conception. Waltz insists on empirical testability of knowledge and on falsificationism as a methodological ideal” (Korab-Karpowicz and Julian, 2017, sec: 3.1).

According to Waltz, the uniform behaviour of states over centuries can be explained by the constraints on their behaviour that are imposed by the structure of the international system. Anarchy, or the absence of central authority, is for Waltz the ordering principle of the international system. The units of the international system are states. He argues that states in the system are like firms in a domestic economy whose main interest is survival (Korab-Karpowicz and Julian, 2017, sec: 3.1).

“With this anarchical definition of the international structure, Waltz can develop a straightforward and classic balance of power theory. This theory openly assumes very little. Its most basic assumption is that, although states might want a lot of different things, fundamentally they all want to survive. The theory furthermore assumes that given the anarchical character of the international realm, the drive for survival will result in a security dilemma, and be expressed in a general system of self-help. Although such a system will not necessarily preserve all given distributions of power, the structure will influence state behaviour in such a way that the system will inevitably tend to restore a disrupted balance of power as the best mechanism for survival” (Guzzini, 1998, p127).

This rational state-centric view of the international system is especially important to neorealists. Only if states respond rationally to the conditions of international anarchy can we hope to establish observable and predictable patterns of behaviour of the kind that social science, in their view, is built on (Forde, 1995). For Machiavelli though state-centrism is an excessive idea, the dominance of power and self-interest in international politics stands regardless of whether states are the sole actors in that realm or not. He does share the view that realism at some level represents a rational response to international conditions; but this does not lead him to the assertion that international actors behave rationally (Forde, 1995). Assumptions are important to neorealism though as this simplifies international politics enough for them to carry out the research program envisioned by the theory. To classical realists this would be unacceptable “since it essentially lays the foundations of realism in stipulation rather than argument” (Forde, 1995, p144).

Furthermore, “Rather than resting on assumptions, the early realists embed the scientific elements of their theories in rich and comprehensive analyses of human nature and domestic as well as international political practice” (Forde, 1995, p144).

In conclusion, the essential premise that the structure of the international system is anarchic is a view shared throughout realism and this is idea is fundamentally what makes Machiavelli a realist. “But whereas neorealism aspires to build a theory on the bare structural fact of anarchy, the classical realists supplement this with an account of human nature” (Forde, 1995, p145). Neorealism eschews appeals to human nature and this is one of the main points where Machiavelli’s thoughts are in contrast to contemporary realism.


  1. Brown, C. Nardin, T. Rengger, N. 2002. International Relations in Political Thought: Texts from the Ancient Greeks to the First World War. Cambridge University Press, pp. 245-265.
  2. Ferguson, J. 2004. Political Realism, Ideology and Power: A Discussion and Critique via Machiavelli, Morgenthau and Sun Tzu. Essays in History, Politics and Culture. Available at: http://www.international-relations.com/History/Machiavelli.htm (Accessed 15/11/17).
  3. Forde, S. 1995. International Realism and the Science of Politics: Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Neorealism. International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 2, pp. 141-160.
  4. Guzzini, S. 1998. Realism in International Relations and International Political Economy. Routledge. Pp. 125-142.
  5. Korab-Karpowicz, W. Julian. Political Realism in International Relations, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/realism-intl-relations (Accessed 15/11/17).
  6. Mearsheimer, J. 2006. Structural Realism. Oxford. Pp. 71-86. Available at: http://mearsheimer.uchicago.edu/pdfs/StructuralRealism.pdf (Accessed 15/11/17).

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