AMAC Exclusive – By David Lewis Schaefer
According to popular usage, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin exemplifies the term “Machiavellian”: ruthless, cruel, unscrupulous. Even at the superficial level, however, the aborted revolt against Putin by his erstwhile ally and henchman Yevgeny Prigozhin, the equally amoral head of the mercenary Wagner Group, suggests that Putin is only an incomplete or incompetent Machiavellian.
Those who have closely studied Machiavelli’s best-known work, The Prince (1527) know that there is much more to his teaching than advising leaders to adopt an “ends justify the means” approach. Indeed, there is a sense in which Machiavelli was a humanitarian, seeking to liberate humanity from the tyranny of oppressive rulers who professed Christian piety while really seeking only their own gain – just as Putin appeals to nationalist ideology and absurd claims of self-defense to justify his self-interested, unprovoked, and brutal invasion of Ukraine.
The Wagner Group, meanwhile, which had been responsible for much of Russia’s military success (such as it is) in Ukraine, has recently relied heavily on recruits drawn from Russia’s jails as cannon fodder to shield the advance of its professional “employees.” In return for their emancipation, the recruits are told that they will be shot should any of them attempt to retreat, let alone go AWOL.
But Machiavelli expressly warns princes against relying on mercenary troops rather than citizen armies, since mercenaries owe no loyalty to the ruler they are hired to serve, and hence will always prefer to pursue their own interests rather than his when the two conflict. The same goes for “auxiliary” armies – an equally apt analogy to the Wagner force – who are hired through their leader rather than individually.
In sum, a ruler who must depend on non-citizen mercenaries rather than his own citizens should not be surprised, as Putin apparently was, when they turn against him.
But Putin had no choice other than to rely on Prigozhin’s force, given his incapacity to motivate enough of his own subjects to fight from civic loyalty. Many young Russian men have done their best to dodge the draft, including by fleeing to other countries. The war is reportedly deeply unpopular among the regular Russian army, which has suffered huge losses at the hands of the highly motivated Ukrainians defending their homeland.
It is inspiring to witness the heroic resistance that the far-outnumbered Ukrainian people have thus far put up against the Russian invasion – in further confirmation of Machiavelli’s praise of citizen armies. But there is a lesson for Americans here as well.
Ever since Richard Nixon abolished the draft late in the Vietnam war, America’s all-volunteer force has had to offer sufficient personal rewards – reasonable compensation, educational and medical benefits to veterans, and so on – to meet its enlistment quotas. But there can be no doubt that the vast majority of enlistees are motivated as well by patriotism and by the civic honor that choosing to serve their country bestows. After the end of the Vietnam debacle, polls have consistently shown the armed forces to be among the institutions most esteemed by the American people.
Now, however, things have changed. In June 2022, NBC News reported, “every branch of the military [was] struggling to make its 2022 recruiting goals” for the fiscal year that ended September 30. In that fiscal year, for example, the Army wound up falling 15,000 recruits short of its 60,000 goal.
Meanwhile, the decline in public confidence in U.S. government institutions as a whole was reported to have hit the military as well. In 2021 the annual National Defense Survey conducted by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute found that just 45 percent of Americans said they had a great deal of trust and confidence in the military, down 25 points since 2018.
At the time of the NBC report, retired Lieutenant General Thomas Spoeher of the Heritage Foundation observed that the military had not had such a hard time signing recruits since 1973. An internal Defense Department survey obtained by NBC News found that only 9 percent of those young Americans eligible to serve in the military had any inclination to do so, the lowest number since 2007.
Various official explanations have been offered for the shortfall, such as the declining generational pool of young people eligible for recruitment, the impact of isolation during COVID, and the reduced familiarity of the people as a whole with the military, owing to its decreased size. But these excuses hardly suffice.
One factor to be considered is the continuing decline in real (inflation-adjusted) funding for America’s military, which has adversely affected, for instance, the maintenance of our warships and the amount of training that naval personnel receive – which may have caused a couple of accidents and near-accidents in recent years.
More generally, as Seth Cropsey, president of the Yorktown Institute and former deputy undersecretary of the Navy, observed in a February 7 webinar, the “prevailing ideas and culture both within the military and politically” mistakenly assume that the U.S. currently enjoys a peaceful situation in which military needs are reduced.
The United States today spends somewhat more than three percent of its gross domestic product on defense, Cropsey noted. But, recognizing the high cost in manpower and materiel for both sides in Russia’s war against Ukraine, he warned that the U.S. military and its logistical/industrial base are too small and insufficiently resilient to be sure of fighting and winning a single war, let alone defend against multiple aggressors. In Cropsey’s judgment, Washington should be spending around seven percent of GDP on the military – a proportion that was last approximated during the Reagan administration in the 1980s.
By contrast, the White House’s national security strategy and national defense strategy documents released last fall epitomize, according to Cropsey, “what’s wrong with the Biden administration’s security perspective.” As a “bureaucratic” compilation of virtually all issues on which the United States should either be confronting opponents or working cooperatively with them as well as with allies, including climate, health care, inflation, and other non-military topics, these policy statements effectively mean that “if every issue is a security issue, then no one is,” Cropsey argued.
They are not strategy documents in any significant respect, he said, but rather “more a messaging exercise to various domestic audiences.” They cater to the demand of the Democrat Party’s left wing that the military budget be hollowed out in order to fund its own nonmilitary priorities. Such an approach hardly encourages patriotic young people to sign up for military service.
But there is a more specific problem affecting military morale owing to Joe Biden’s executive order requiring an emphasis on “diversity, equity, and inclusion” throughout the federal government. As Christian Watson observed in the Washington Examiner in April, whereas colorblindness and meritocracy have long helped make the U.S. military the strongest in the world, the military is now being “bogged down and distracted by the Left’s woke agenda.” For instance, one recent report on the Navy compiled for members of Congress noted that “non-combat curricula consume Navy resources, clog inboxes, create administrative quagmires, and monopolize precious training time.”
Additionally, a recent poll conducted by the Heritage Foundation found that 65 percent of active-duty personnel are concerned about growing politicization in the military, including woke training programs and equity-minded reduced physical fitness standards.
The Institute for Family Studies has observed that military service has long been an effective tool for upward mobility, offering a way for individuals to escape poverty and build a better future for themselves based solely on merit. Black men from poor backgrounds, for instance, are more likely to reach the middle class by midlife if they serve in the military. Now, mandatory, partisan DEI curricula are promoting racial hostility and may be deterring young African Americans from signing up.
So here are some Machiavellian lessons that America’s leaders need to recall. First, to achieve military success, the Florentine teaches, princes must do their best to keep their people united behind them (rather than divided among factions) and maintain their loyalty in part by promoting conditions of economic freedom that enable ordinary individuals to advance in life through their own efforts.
At the same time, given people’s natural utopianism – their belief during “quiet times” that security can be taken for granted, rather than requiring advance preparation for inevitable future conflicts by maintaining a strong military – governments must find a way to keep their people’s minds focused on such dangers, even at the expense of present comforts.
It appears that Vladmir Putin has no promising way out of the problems he brought on himself by underestimating the strength of an armed and patriotic citizenry who will do everything needful to preserve their liberty. But one must hope that the American people, confronting multiple threats to their freedom and security and that of their allies, will elect leaders who are cognizant of these lessons and focus on applying them.
David Lewis Schaefer is a Professor of Political Science at College of the Holy Cross.