A few months ago a friend gave me a present, The Education of a Christian Prince by Erasmus. Since reading The Prince back in high school I have been a devotee of Niccolo Machiavelli but I had never gotten around to comparing his views with his contemporary Desiderius Erasmus. With the gift from my friend I finally had the opportunity, and finished the relatively short work in a weekend. A quick search of the internet shows that comparisons between these two intellectual giants of the Renaissance are common to the point of being cliche, but it’s taken me two decades to discover this debate for myself.
The distinction between the two philosophers is that Erasmus believes that evil flows from ignorance and can be fought with education, whereas Machiavelli believes that all that matters is power – the struggle for and accumulation of it. Erasmus is a humanist, believing that the more educated one becomes the more enlightened and humane he or she becomes. Machiavelli is a pragmatist: Enlightenment is only a veneer for the wielding of power.
What is interesting to me is that these two schools of thought are still struggling today nearly 500 years after the deaths of their founders.
President Obama and the liberals that carried him to office believe that two components of education are the keys to making America safer. The first is apologizing for American past actions. By apologizing the administration and its liberal allies prove to the rest of the world that “we get it” – we understand that the world has suffered due to the arrogance of American exceptionalism. The second is educating the rest of the world by showing it that we aren’t at war with Islam: we allow Muslims to worship freely and without discrimination. This was one of the justifications for the Ground Zero mosque project used by New York Mayor Bloomberg, showing that he is an adherent of the humanist school.
In contrast, the pragmatists believe that the Obama administration’s apologies show weakness to America’s enemies and encourage them. As for education, most of the 9-11 hijackers and al-Qaeda leadership lived in America for long periods and understand it well enough. Al-Qaeda isn’t angry from ignorance about America, it is angry because America stands in the way of their goal: a worldwide Islamic caliphate.
From the Machiavellian perspective, the struggle between Islamic terrorists and the Free World is a zero-sum game of winners and losers whereas Erasmus’s humanists view it as a game where everyone can win. Once the Islamic terrorists are educated to understand that America isn’t anti-Islamic, they won’t seek to destroy it. Terrorists and Americans can coexist in peace – all that’s necessary is a few apologies and a worldwide media campaign showing the terrorists how much we love Muslims.
It’s no surprise that I take the Machiavellian position – what was once called the “Realpolitik” school of foreign policy. But over time I have come to realize that there are limits to this world view as well. A Machiavellian approaches information gathering on Islamic terrorists with suitcases of cash. Each of the top Islamic terror leaders has multi-million dollar bounties on his head, yet so far these bounties have gone unclaimed. Why? It doesn’t make sense to a Machiavellian; Islamic radicals are human and all humans are greedy.
So why hasn’t this bounty program worked? Erasmus might surmise that those who know the whereabouts of these top leaders are believers. They are idealists motivated by belief – not by greed – and religious beliefs are often the most resistant to worldly desires offered by money, power and US green cards for the informer’s families. Machiavelli would rightly state that cold hard cash isn’t the correct currency to use when virgins in the afterlife are offered. If you are going to fight Islamic radicalism, you’ve got to do it within Islam.
If Machiavelli appeared in Washington DC today and took up residence at one of the conservative think tanks, one of the first things he would point out is America’s paradoxical relationship with Saudi Arabia. America supports the Saudi regime by protecting it, funding it through oil purchases, and militarizing it with arms sales. Saudi Arabia then takes advantage of this by spreading Islamic radicalism throughout the world, inevitably leading to terror attacks on the United States and its allies.