Imagine for a moment that Al Gore were president. Would the United States have taken out Saddam Hussein? Unlikely. Would the economy be rebounding with such vigor? Equally doubtful. President Bush's bold decisions to liberate Iraq and slash taxes show that political leadership remains as crucial now as it was in Perichean Athens or Lorenzo de Medici's Florence - despite the factors that constrain such leadership in 2003.
In "The Modern Prince," former Reagan administration National Security Council member and presidential advisor Carnes Lord, currently a professor of strategy at the Naval War College, has written a sophisticated guide to modern leadership. The book is a model of political reflection, clearly written and grounded both in the high theory of Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Locke and in real experience and history.
It is modeled on Machiavelli's "Prince" (right down to the number of chapters) and, like that work, is accessible not just to academics and scholars but to busy men and women of action. It is at once descriptive, explaining the continuing relevance of political leadership, and prescriptive, showing political leaders what they need to know. Mr. Lord, a former student of the great political thinker Leo Strauss, finished "The Modern Prince" before the second Iraq war, but his many examples of political leadership in action confirm certain lessons it reinforced.
Mr. Lord admires, for example, the "transformative activism" of President Reagan that catalyzed the downfall of the Soviet Union and restored the U.S. economy to health, and contrasts it with the feckless approach of his predecessor, Jimmy Carter. Winston Churchill's rallying the British to fight off the Nazis, Charles de Gaulle's founding of the French Fifth Republic, Lee Kwan Yew's creation of Singapore as a wealthy if somewhat authoritarian modern state - all are examples, Mr. Lord says, of political leaders shaping the future in unique and positive ways. No inexorable social forces could have replaced the prudence - and boldness - of these historical actors. If they were not in place to make the decisions that moved events as they did, history would have turned out much differently.
Mr. Lord offers a rich analysis of the purposes of modern leadership. Leaders play a symbolic role of "considerable political significance," he argues, personifying "the majesty of the state and the unity of the nation." (Sometimes, as with Bill Clinton, the performance falls flat). They provide "an essential locus of authoritative decision making." They are "indispensable in times of trouble." Finally, they are a "vital mechanism for bringing political knowledge to bear on the business of politics."
What kind of knowledge? The "prudent and effective" democratic statesman needs to know many things - for starters, the domestic and international framework of his action. He must understand that in a constitutional regime like that of the United States, "law, not man, is king" and that other institutions - representative assemblies, courts, bureaucracies, and a vigorous free press - limit his decision making freedom. He must understand, too, that the goals that drive states and their leaders are as complex and varied as human nature itself: security, order, prosperity, national prestige and honor, and sometimes - as with the totalitarian ideological crusades of the 20th century or Islamism today - hopes of remaking the world.
These observations seem merely commonsensical. Yet contemporary political science and theory rarely reflects such prosaic wisdom. The prevailing model of human nature taught in poli-sci and political philosophy courses these days, Mr. Lord complains, is "narrowly rationalistic" - a kind of bloody-minded utilitarianism in which man comes off as a selfish jerk concerned solely with maximizing his own material well-being. You can learn more about politics from reading a few pages of Aristotle, whose "Politics" Mr. Lord has translated, or of Winston Churchill's "The River War," than you can from reading the collected writings of John Rawls.
But the statesman requires more than just knowledge of his decisionmaking context. He also needs to master the tools of statecraft at his disposal. The heart of "The Modern Prince" is a sophisticated discussion of these tools and how they operate in the modern world. The political leader needs to make prudent judgments about which to employ and when to do so.
Economics, for instance, can be a powerful weapon of foreign policy. President Reagan used economic statecraft to hasten the downfall of the Soviet Union - reducing Soviet hard-currency earnings by slashing the price of oil (with Saudi help), frustrating Soviet efforts to build a natural-gas pipeline that would bring oil to Western Europe, limiting Soviet access to technology, and increasing U.S. military expenditures so that the communists could not keep up. In fighting terrorism, economic statecraft will be equally important in shutting down terrorist finance networks.
Diplomacy, intelligence, political rhetoric, and force - both threatened and used - are other tools of statecraft explored by Lord. His discussion of the moral problem of "dirty hands" - that sometimes the statesman, if he wants to protect society, must act in a way that conflicts with other goods - is especially rewarding. In conducting diplomacy, Lord emphasizes, the democratic statesman cannot fear using his military arm; sometimes war is moral and wise. Yet he must also ensure a balance between civilian oversight and military expertise.
Mr. Lord is no crude Machiavellian; he believes in the moral purposes of statecraft. But there is something, he admits, to Old Nic's dictum that "A prince should have no other object, nor any other thought, nor take anything else as his art but that of war and its orders and discipline." (For more on Machiavelli's views on military affairs, consult the new University of Chicago edition of the Florentine's "The Art of War," translated and annotated by Christopher Lynch, 312 pages, $25.)
Mr. Lord laments the disappearance of great political rhetoric - "the decay of contemporary political discourse," as he describes it. With a few exceptions - he mentions President Reagan's 1984 speech commemorating the 40th anniversary of the allied invasion of Normandy; he might also have mentioned a few of our current president's speeches laying out the rationale for the war on terror - modern politicians do not use rhetoric to move and inspire citizens. This is the consequence of educational failures as much as anything else: How many aspiring politicians learn by heart, as they once did, the classics of rhetorical statesmanship?
As for intelligence, Mr. Lord is extremely critical of the CIA. If an agency spends most of its time writing academic reports on topics that it could easily farm out to university professors or think tanks, what good is it? Given the terrorist threat America now faces, it is past time, Mr. Lord rightly maintains, to reboot the nation's covert operations and intelligence gathering.
There is much more here, on law, education, culture, and many other topics relevant to leadership. The reader will leave this profound book elevated, with a fuller sense of the promise and risks of politics - leave it a better citizen, perhaps.