Private Military Companies and the Modern Machiavellism

How many people would call themselves Machiavellists these days? Probably no one, and certainly not those who contemplate a political career in a democratic country. The cold and strict ragion di stato (reasons of state) that is often identified with the Renaissance writer seems highly unfit for political communities build on negotiation, consensus, and inclusive thinking. Nevertheless, many politicians are real machiavellists, although they are often not aware of it. They would never put it so succulently, but the following two quotes from the Floretine politician would almost certainly receive a lot of endorsement:

"Mercenary and auxiliary forces are useless and dangerous. If someone bases his reign on mercenary forces it will never be stable and assured; for these troops are divided amongst themselves, lusting for power, undisciplined, unreliable, tough amongst friends, cowards amongst enemies."

"Because if there is one sort of people that is quarrelsome, lazy, lavish, godless, rebellious against paternal authority, rude, fond of gambling, without education, then it are those who choose a soldiers profession; similar practices are contrary to what can be expected from real, true soldiers.

Niccolò Machiavelli, Il Principe, 1515.

With these words Machiavelli indeed predated contemporary opinions about guns for hire. Because they only fight for personal gain and not for the collective interests captured by the authority of a democratic state, they are often depicted as despicable people who should be banned from international affairs. In the 1960s individual mercenaries such as Thomas Michael ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare and Bob Denard were indeed a destabilising factor, as they were involved in numerous coups and conflicts in the former colonies. The UN responded in 1989 with the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries.

But the UN measure was immediately outdated by a new phenomenon. From the early 1990s mercenaries no longer acted as mere individuals, but grouped themselves into business collectives with names such as Blackwater (currently Academi), Sandline International or Executive Outcomes. These private military companies (PMCs) presented themselves as cost-effective and efficient military partners, ready to serve clients in a professional and even ethical way. But despite the assertion that ‘great power always comes with great responsibility’, their main motive remained monetary gain. Harry E. Soyster of MPRI was clear about this when he admitted that ‘we do it for the money. I’m not ashamed to say’.

Due to this development the world of military affairs diverged significantly from what is believed to be the correct situation. In 2003, The Economist famously declared the war in Iraq to be ‘the first privatized war’, a situation considered problematic because people have gotten accustomed to the notion of a ‘monopoly of violence’ which should be hold by the representatives of the collective, i.e. the state. The shift in the 1990s however created a concentration of force in the hands of corporate groups. PMCs not only deal in small arms security but also execute complex and expensive operations. AEGIS for example can be hired for maritime missions, DynCorp for air operations, and Northbridge for intelligence services. And in order to complete these missions, they have access to a global arms market flooded with cheap Soviet war material, including tanks and airplanes.

This diffusion of force is therefore at odds with Machiavelli’s statement that ‘Weapons need to be in the hands of a king or a republic’. Of course it is true that states still control the majority of military assets in this world. But people nevertheless feel uncomfortable and would readily agree with Machiavelli’s position. Legitimate (and preferably democratic) authority still is deemed a prerequisite for wielding force.

The only difficulty is that Machiavelli’s argument was a moral one, and not grounded in an assessment of facts. Military practice through the ages demonstrates exactly the opposite tendency, and for good reason. Historical research increasingly reveals that the outsourcing of military force generally was a lot more efficient than direct state management.

One interesting case is that of the Thirty Years’ War. In his The Business of War. Military Enterprise and Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe, David Parrott notes that the outsourcing of virtually every aspect of war was the prevalent method of assembling an army during this period. Contrary to what is often believed, the result was a complex but efficient system, one that allowed rulers to successfully fight their dynastic and religious wars.

Despite many variants, most armies followed a similar logic. The core of the army was formed by independent regiments of professional soldiers such as the German Landsknechte. Usually these were people whose only talent was to fight, but this also allowed them to specialise in certain forms of combat and to gain serious expertise. These groups rented their skills to a particular nobleman, often a young person who needed to demonstrate his ability to command. These noblemen in turn sold their services and regiments to the high commander (someone who had often bought this post as well).

The most interesting aspect of the system described by Parrott is that it was cheap for the ruler. Depending on the model that was used, the high commander or the intermediary noblemen paid for the wages of the regiments, and sometimes for their outfitting as well. In return the state provided some form of wages for the noblemen, which might or might not cover the expenses made. Usually real profit was however only made through looting, although the opportunities for social mobility created by providing and commanding troops were equally important. The responsibility for supplying the troops was also most often contracted out, usually to mighty commercial families who benefitted from the fact that the crown promised a fixed sum.

This is of course not to say that Early Modern armies were first class examples of fiscal efficiency. In the case of Spain, non-payment of wages and contracts was legio, and even without these expenses King Philip II managed to go bankrupt four times during his rule. But Parrott’s argument is not that the system was flawless, but that it could work, often did work, and therefore benefitted both the private contractors and the ever growing state. ‘Shorn of an ideology of state-building, these mechanisms were simply better, more flexible and more capable of maximizing the military capacity of the state than any attempt to build up comprehensive direct control of military force would have been’.

This historical situation has therefore some interesting parallels compared to the contemporary use of PMCs. This does not imply that we can draw direct lessons from the past, but looking back can place our own beliefs and attitudes regarding mercenary forces into perspective.

A first conclusion is that states in a weak position have always resorted to private military actors. The states that fought the Thirty Year’s war where embryonic compared to their counterparts fighting in both World Wars. But after the Cold War numerous ex-colonies lost their foreign military support and became the ‘weak states’ that are nowadays often connected to the use of PMCs. Exactly because of their cost-effectiveness, PMCs could replace foreign support and allowed these states to guarantee their own security, both internally and externally. So they could equally become a source of stability as well as of chaos.

A second comparison is that both the landsknechte and the PMCs also offer(ed) the best quality/price ratio to large states such as the Habsburg Empire and the United States. It is not only for weak states rational to use their services, but also for powerful states who want to pursue a proactive foreign policy. The PMCs involved in Iraq are not necessarily a sign that the United States are becoming a weak state, but simply clarify that direct state management is the more expensive option. The use of private force might be seen as a symptom of decline, but given the speed at which the war in Iraq was concluded and the fact that it allowed the US to fight two wars simultaneously it seems better to take such statements with a pinch of salt.

The third parallel is even more crucial. In the seventeenth century the use of independent companies and eager noblemen allowed Early Modern states to achieve the goals they set for themselves. At this point Charles Tilly’s famous adagio ‘war made the state and the state made war’ applies. The increased demand for fighting capacity and its availability in the form of mercenary forces resulted in the continuous growth of the fiscal-military state. Clearly, the state did not reach its modern heights in spite of its reliance on private military force, but was on the contrary only capable of reaching this level thanks to the services of mercenaries.

Although this is speculation, a similar process might apply to the contemporary state. PMCs are still used to project state power. The goals they fight for are generally those of the states dominating world politics, an attitude reflected in their precarious public profiling. So instead of seeing the private companies as a sign of state decline the opposite might be true. Adaptation to new situations is usually not a sign of weakness but of strength, and we currently witness states adapting on all fronts, including the military. So PMCs might not be representative of the old ‘Westphalian’ type of state, but they might be connected to the rise of a new, global statehood.

Nevertheless there remains a risk involved. For now, the democratic states that use private military services still represent their respective collective populations. This is reflected in the marketing strategies of the PMCs. Many of their slogans convey an image of moral and even humanitarian behaviour, dedicated to human rights. This demonstrates how important it is for these groups to embody the collective values of the world’s most powerful states. As long as countries such as the US, the UK, or France represent the best employer, PMCs will uphold democracy and human rights.

But what if the US, the UK, or France no longer do so? The crucial fact remains that private military companies are hired by the collectives we are part of, and will fight according to their standards. Our current Machiavelism is therefore largely misplaced. States can do perfectly well with private soldiers, as they are highly efficient and can also be used to defend the values we hold dear. It is not because they serve their own individual interests that they cannot help achieve the collective goals we set for them.

This implies that the ultimate responsibility lies with us, the populations represented by the states that use them. PMCs only live to serve their masters. So as long as we defend democracy at home, our mercenaries abroad will do the same.


  • N. MACHIAVELLI, Arte della Guerra, I.129. Translated from P. VAN HECK ed., Il Principe en andere politieke geschriften, Amsterdam, 2006.<
  • R.S. LAPPIN, Peace at what price? The uncertain costs of privatised peace support operations, Leuven, 2007.
  • ‘Military industrial complexities’ The Economist, 27/03/2003.
  • D. PARROTT, The Business of War. Military Enterprise and Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge, 2012.
Bram De Ridder