Merkel, Refugees and Machiavelli : Refugee Crisis

Welcome Refugees – A banner in Frankfurt Source: The Guardian

As refugees continue to arrive in European shores, the distinct government responses highlight the delicate political environment enveloping the continent. In order to fully understand these responses, it is vital to look at the political and social dynamics that determines tolerance, xenophobia and the humanitarian sentiment towards seeking a better life. After my colleague Samina Ansari’s brilliant application of Sartre’s optimistic philosophy to call for humanitarian action during the refugee crisis, I utilize Niccolo Machiavelli amoral approach to politics as a valuable analytical tool to discern the causes and implications of Germany’s generous refugee policy.

The Perils of Benevolence

Germany’s willingness to accept hundreds of thousands of refugees has ignited an unprecedented wave of praise for a country historically associated with racism and intolerance. Nonetheless, Niccolo Machiavelli teaches us that benevolence and humanitarian sentiment may not be the only factors guiding Angela Merkel’s policy. His amoral approach to politics indicates that behind Merkel’s welcoming arms lies a political necessity for her to maintain and exude power both domestically and internationally.

Machiavelli’s political philosophy determines that the longevity of the state is the only indicator of effective governance. In his classic treatise The Prince, he claims that glory must be measured not through collective societal gains but through the ability of a ruler to remain in power. Thus, a discourse of benevolence and love of the people is non-existent in politics. Instead, “A man who wishes to profess goodness at all times will come to ruin among so many who are not good. Therefore, it is necessary for a prince who wishes to maintain himself to learn how to not be good, and to use this knowledge or not to use it according to necessity” (Machiavelli, 53). Machiavelli views humans as fickle beings, a notion that is accentuated in positions of power. As a consequence, anyone wishing to engage in politics must be aware that success is not established through the sole expression of the good, but through the ability to act malevolently when required to do so.

According to Machiavelli, politics is not a field for idealists. Those that come into it thinking of only doing good must therefore “learn” how to not be good. Virtues can easily become excessive and lead politicians to ruin. Rulers must always seek to be seen as virtuous by subjects but must also be ruthless in doing what it takes in order to preserve order. Machiavelli indicates that rulers who commit vices are the only ones capable of great deeds.

Thus, politics for him is not about doing the right thing but doing what is necessary to remain in power. The notion of necessity is an essential component to his deliberations on how to achieve glory and longevity. A ruler must learn to not be good but can only act in such a way when it is propitious. Power relies on the application of adaptive strategies because a leader cannot follow a single moral path; he or she must be capable of acting malevolently when the circumstance requires him to do so. Ethical deliberations only serve to confuse and distort the political process.

Refugees Welcome

Hence, it is vital to discern why Germany’s generosity towards refugee is necessary. The humanitarian crisis that arose from hundreds of thousands of refugees crossing the Mediterranean has affected all of Europe. As the economic powerhouse in the continent, Germany has been required to directly respond to the crisis and ensure that viable solutions could be achieved both through the European Union and through domestic deliberations.

Additionally, the arrival of suffering Syrians, Iraqis and Eritreans coincided with the fallout from the Greek debt crisis, in which Germany ruthlessly forced Greece’s hands in accepting further austerity in exchange for staying in the Eurozone. The criticism endured by Merkel threatened to discredit Germany’s international stature.  Machiavelli’s claim on learning how to use and not use malevolent tactics is relevant at this point, as Germany cannot afford to be feared and hated by their European counterparts. In a political federation like the EU, cooperation holds sway even with the presence of a hegemonic power.

Crucially, Germany’s acceptance of refugees after decades of stringent asylum policies further demonstrates that people in power must be able to not to be good. Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has a history of bigotry and xenophobia towards refugees. It has established refugee camps intentionally built to dishearten people from seeking asylum in the country and even Merkel herself claimed in 2010, “We feel tied to Christian values. Those who don’t accept them have no place here”. Just as Machiavelli believes a prince must never profess goodness at all times, Merkel refused to profess acceptance of refugees throughout her political career. When it has been politically profitable she has turned to stringent nationalism and xenophobia to attract voters who see asylum seekers as a threat to their way of life.

Furthermore, Merkel continues to follow Machiavelli’s advice in not accepting every single refugee. Those that are not fleeing political and military conflicts, mostly coming from the Balkans, are being deported from Germany. If she were to accept every single refugee she would face opposition from her own party and weaken her position with the German electorate.

When faced with a Palestinian refugee who was getting deported, Merkel acknowledged Germany’s inability to take in everyone by stating, “Politics is hard sometimes”. It is precisely that political conflict that Machiavelli seeks to resolve. In a democratic society imbued with notions of individual rights, Merkel has to contend with a humanitarian discourse as well as the realities of her political environment. Machiavelli would dismiss the Palestinian refugee’s remarks by pointing out that the glory of the state and the ability to remain in power will always take precedence over an individual’s struggle.

Merkel had the ability and the opportunity to act amorally towards the refugees. Nonetheless, she was capable in the Machiavellian sense to not use this ability. Ultimately, Germany can profit from an increase in refugees not only politically but also economically. Germany’s population is expected to decrease by 10 million in 2060, and a lack of a vibrant workforce threatens the country’s position as Europe’s economic power. By taking in thousands of eligible workers, Germany can profit from being seen as a benevolent country concerned with human rights while also ensuring further economic prosperity.

Thus, Machiavelli’s amoral approach to politics continues to be relevant despite the popular discourse of individual rights and societal concerns that dominate democratic governance. It is clear that the need to thrive in a position of power continues to be a priority for politicians even in a democratic environment that seeks to interpret politics through ethics.  While Syrian refugees name their babies after Angela Merkel, it is essential to acknowledge the political necessities that underlie benevolent policies. Machiavelli teaches us that good policies are never implemented because they are good, but because they are vital to maintain power and achieve glory.

Gabriel Funari

Gabriel Funari

Associate Editor, Latin America at InPRA
Gabriel Funari  is a Brazilian by birth and an internationalist by circumstance. He has lived in the Netherlands, South Africa, Germany and the UK prior to attaining an International Studies degree at American University in Washington, DC. Passionate about Brazilian politics, Latin American regional integration, New Left movements and post-colonialism, he aspires to challenge conventional narratives surrounding international politics and seeks to contribute to the crucial issues of our times through vibrant dialogue and debate.
Gabriel Funari

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