MACHIAVELLI’S CHILDREN: Leaders and Their Legacies in Italy and Japan, by Richard J. Samuels. New York: Cornell University Press, 2003, 456 pp., $39.95 (cloth).

This is an intriguing comparison between Japan and Italy, two nations that seem so different, but in fact share a great deal. Both nations came late to the sweeping trends of the 19th century, but eagerly embraced the industrial revolution, nationalism and imperialism. Both also became allies of Nazi Germany and remain notorious for endemic corruption featuring close links between mobsters and politicians.

Richard J. Samuels asserts that “both countries also exhibit pathologies that contradict the more progressive requisites of ‘ideal’ democracy: frequent changes of government, a problematic balance between deference to authority and individualism, some stubbornly authoritarian social relations, extensive corruption, limits to effective participation in decision making, problems of accountability, and increasing cynicism toward politicians and bureaucrats.” However, it seems that most democracies share many of these attributes and thus it is not certain why he suggests that these are especially distinctive features.

The main problem for Samuels is that his central thesis — leaders make a difference — is neither new nor especially controversial. He argues that social scientists have erred by emphasizing impersonal social forces and overlooking how individuals can shape history. It is not clear, however, that leaders have been elbowed aside quite as much as he suggests. Many of the excellent studies he cites suggest that he is far from alone in thinking that strong leaders can overcome constraints and generate unanticipated opportunities.

Indeed, John Dower, his colleague at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, biographer of former Prime Minister of Japan Shigeru Yoshida and perhaps the foremost historian of Japan, would strongly concur. Leaders do leave their distinctive stamp on history, but not necessarily with the ink and paper of their own choosing. It is not necessarily “privileging constraints,” as he puts it, to point out that leaders operate in given contexts and that their ability to stretch the envelope does not mean that they can jettison the stationary altogether.

More fascinating are Samuels’ reminders about how Machiavelli’s contributions have been distorted and underestimated. Machiavelli has become synonymous with political intrigue and the art of manipulating others, and “Machiavellian” often means a ruthless and monomaniacal thirst for power. The qualities of leadership elucidated by him, however, involve much more; flexibility, creativity, opportunism and virtue are all critical to the effective use of power. Machiavelli’s concern for the higher good is generally unacknowledged as is his dictum, “it is the man that uses violence to spoil things, not the man who uses it to mend them, that is blameworthy.”

Finessing reform involves the art of bricolage — finding or constructing a usable past to ratify contemporary agendas. History is selectively and creatively invoked to support transformational reforms by crafting an illusion of reassuring continuity. Fierce battles are thus waged over the “lessons” of history because the past confers legitimacy on contemporary endeavors.

Samuels sensibly argues that, “Leaders may not be all that matters in politics, but they are surely more than mere vessels for irresistible and inevitable change.”

Of course in sketching how leaders are connected to intended outcomes, this study leaves to the side the often fascinating story of the unintended consequences set in motion by the partially unwitting agents of change. Once the floodgates of reform are opened, more often than not the ensuing cascade of change spills over the embankments and inundates the carefully charted sluices. It is thus a human conceit to imagine that creatively making opportunities also involves controlling the outcomes.

In his chapter on “How to Build a State,” Samuels examines the formative years of both nations in the late 19th century. Italy was based on liberal foundations while Ito Hirobumi and his fellow Meiji oligarchs had an abiding distrust of democracy and popular sovereignty. Samuels pithily concludes, “[Camillo Benso di] Cavour chose liberalism dressed in the regalia of the Savoy monarchy. Ito chose authoritarianism dressed in the morning coat of parliamentary procedure.” He adds, “If [Aritomi] Yamagata made the critical choices that protected the oligarchy from counterrevolution, Ito made the critical choices protecting it from the liberals.”

What were the paths to Fascism in Japan and Italy? Samuels argues that, “Italian fascism was built from the outside, without the support of a coherent bureaucracy and even in the absence of a strong military. Japanese authoritarianism was built from the inside out — by a strong military with powerful bureaucratic allies.”

He adds, “The Roman Catholic Church acted as a check on the Italian state, while organized religion in Japan was used to consolidate state power.”

Yoshida is singled out as a Japanese leader who left a significant legacy by not playing as if he was dealt an exceedingly weak hand. According to Samuels, “Although he operated under the close supervision of an occupying army with its own strong ideas about democracy and national security, Yoshida struck a strategic bargain so that Japan could avoid a remilitarization that might derail its economic recovery. . . . He used U.S. bases to buy Japanese independence, at a price far lower than the full cost of large-scale rearmament.”

It may have appeared to his critics that he was toadying to the Americans, but Yoshida managed to preserve the Imperial household, restore the prewar leadership to prominent positions, neutralize the left and close the door on military revanchists while taking a cheap ride on Uncle Sam’s security.

The less salutary consequences of leadership are sketched in a section on Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi and his successors in the Liberal Democrat Party. Rather than stretching envelopes, he and his minions are credited with creating and institutionalizing a system based on stuffing envelopes with wads of yen. The shady links of organized crime with Japan’s postwar political leadership are well documented and have left an indelible mark on Japan’s cash-and-carry political system.

The best sections in this provocative book detail the story of how Italy has reformed itself, economically, and politically, while Japan dragged its feet. In Japan’s case, it is a story of how leadership has faltered and blinked. Lamentably, its political class continues to act more like bagmen than skilled shapers of circumstance. In this sense, they seem to be more inspired by the ruthless and duplicitous side of Machiavelli rather than his views on “moral maturity.” Their sad legacy is one of staggering fiscal woes, a banking system on life support, a stunted civil society and a crisis in public confidence in the powers that be.

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