When the King of France, Louis XII was threatening to retake Milan from the Swiss, Machiavelli was asked by his friend what advice would he give to the Pope at the time. Should he side with the French, the Swiss or stay neutral? Machiavelli answered that he should support the French.
In his view, staying neutral when two others are fighting would lead to defeat for the neutral party, as they have left themselves in a position to be hated by both sides.
If one side has performed favours for the uncommitted party or they are old friends (as Louis XII was with Pope Alexander VI), then they may feel that they are obliged to side with them and failure to do so could result in hatred. The other side will also feel contempt for the neutral party as they will be seen as timid, indecisive and not an enemy to be feared.
As he explains in The Prince, by not throwing your hat in the ring and declaring which side you’re on, you will be at the mercy of the conqueror and will also earn the scorn of the loser:
A prince is also much respected but he is either a true friend or a downright enemy. In other words, when he declares himself without any reservation in favour of one party against the other. This will always be more favourable than remaining neutral.
It’s fair to say that Machiavelli was not a fan of neutrality as a policy as it often leads to weakness. He identifies indecision as a destructive vice in a leader. There is an obvious risk associated with picking a side, but to not pick a side is indecisive, unforgivable and eventually fatal in his eyes. Action is often preferable to inaction, even if it leads to eventual defeat.
Princes who are irresolute usually follow the path of neutrality in order to escape immediate danger, and usually come to grief.
That’s not to say you should just pick any old side. It matters who you choose as friends and as enemies too. But in the event of your side losing, people will still recognise that you took a firm stand on the issue. By being hesitant, dithering or just preferring to wait and see what happens in a situation both the winners and losers of a conflict will regularly come to dislike you.
It will always be more advantageous for you to declare yourself and to wage a vigorous war. If you do not declare yourself, you will invariably fall prey to the winner, which will be to the pleasure and satisfaction of the loser, and you will have nothing nor anyone to protect or to shelter you.
If an issue needs dealing with, a decision has to be made, regardless of how uncomfortable or controversial it may be. You have to take a stand, otherwise both the victor and loser of the situation will lose respect for you. A prince is respected most when he reveals himself to be either a true friend or a real enemy.
The winner does not want doubtful friends who would not aid him when he was in difficulty; and the loser will not harbour you because you did not willingly come to his aid with your sword in hand.
Postponing a decision should only be done if it provides you with a strategic advantage. Overusing this tactic however, will soon show you as indecisive. Machiavelli recommends bold action as when all is said and done and the dust has settled, indecisiveness may lead to finding yourself without any friends.
So when following Machiavelli’s general rule on avoiding neutrality in your affairs, which side should you choose? If you are able to avoid it, he states you should not ally with a side more powerful than your own. The reason being that, if they win, you may then be in their power.
However, there have been scenarios since Machiavelli’s death that have questioned his judgement, as he may have overlooked the value of showing discretion as a leader. There is a difference between staying neutral due to a lack of courage and staying detached by being cautious.
In World War II, two fascist dictators made a decision on which side they should ally with. Italy’s Mussolini (who read and studied Machiavelli) joined Hitler but Spain’s Franco decided to adopt an official policy to stay neutral in the war.
Mussolini’s decisive decision was a Machiavellian move but it ultimately meant that he lost the war which in turn led to his death. Franco on the other hand, survived the war and ruled his country for another thirty years. His discretion when making his decision helped enable a continuation of his reign of power.
When you have made your choice, whether your ally wins or not, if they survive they will be appreciative of you siding with them. If your chosen partner is victorious, they become indebted to you. If defeated, they may protect you until you can rise again and the bond of friendship between you will grow stronger.
Despite generally taking a negative view of human behaviour, Machiavelli does see a positive reaction in this situation, observing that men carry enough honour and gratefulness to not immediately turn on their allies.
Other articles about Machiavelli: