Unity and Division; Practical Purpose and Moral Duty

President Elect Joe Biden, in his appearances since various news channels, journalists, world leaders and observers in general pronounced him the winner of the US elections, has had, amongst his various observations, one abiding and constant theme. Unity. An end to division and divisiveness. His focus is upon the internal, American, fractures that have been stoked and encouraged over the last few years – but his instinct for common purpose seems to go rather deeper than that. If it is indeed him with whom we shall be working over the coming years, we in Britain would do well to understand how we can best serve his desire for harmony and cooperation.

Author: Doctor Andrew R D Sharpe

Niccolò Machiavelli wrote much, in his great work on strategy The Prince, about the moral duties of strategic leadership. I suspect, however, that he would have struggled with what we in the west now consider to be some of the self-evident and morally-evident basics of what we call ‘democracy’. The right of every citizen to have a say in their governance is now widely accepted as the desired base coinage of the notion. Even countries that transparently do not allow their polity to have a say on who their politicians are go to great lengths to, at the very least, portray themselves as following this norm and say that the new leader (or, more often, the same old leader) has been elected by a huge and sweeping majority of the people. For Machiavelli the appointment to a position of authority over one’s fellow citizens was not one that he saw as being conferred by popular consent (although he does see this as a possibility), but rather, more likely, as being conferred by the hand of God. In both cases however, whether appointed to power by one’s fellow citizens or by divine intervention, most agree that with great power comes great responsibility.


As we have heard from Dr Louise Tumchewics, in the 17th Century Locke saw the purpose of government (be it by divine or popular appointment) as being to protect the lives, liberties and property of the people. There was no divine right to self-service. The Enlightenment scholars and philosophers that she references, from Descartes to the Founding Fathers of the American Constitution would all have understood the Machiavellian reference to the responsibility of the leadership to act for the common good of the led.


In his article ‘E Pluribus Unum’ Prof Matthias Strohn explored the contrast between the effects of acting with unity and common purpose against those of fracture and division. There is little doubt (and there are plenty of cliches to support the notion) that we are more likely to succeed if we are united and to fail if we are not. And this is as true for families, or sports teams as it is for nations or for alliances of nations. It follows, therefore, that, surely, beyond the moral duty alluded to above, a practical duty of leadership is to seek to forge unity wherever it can be found. To achieve strength and security through commonality of purpose, interest and action.


So, perhaps enlightened national leadership holds, among many other things, two core responsibilities – to get those for whom you are responsible working towards a common goal, or with common purpose; and to look after everyone for whom you are responsible as best you can and, if possible, with equal favour to all.


The last decade, however, has seen an increasing tendency away from common purpose, away from unity, away from common interest. The millennial generation has learned that the right of the individual is paramount (an interesting notion to explore, perhaps, at this time of reflection and the remembrance of individual sacrifice for common good). National identities have weakened as a new generation are as likely to see themselves as ‘citizens of the world’ as they are citizens of any given state or nation. And, against that backdrop, in many countries, domestic politics have seen a rise in nationalism, a rise in isolationism and a rise in divisive short-termism (particularly in political campaigning). Whether one studies the Brexit debate, or the fractured polity of Republican and Democrat in the US, or the rise of the right wing in European politics, or the exclusion and divisiveness of religious extremism, or the rhetoric of President Putin, the politics of aggressive division have held a growing power.


So what for British interests? Well, I return to President-elect Biden. A string of thoughts strike me as a result of what we have seen and heard from him over the last weeks:


  • At a time that sees, for Britain at least, an unprecedent need to re-set our strategic position (not least because of the coincidence of Brexit, COVID and their subsequent combined effects on our economy and security) we would be wise to take a positive, less divisive, long view of our own internal and external politics and policies.
  • In a fractured world of constant competition, we could do with help and support from friends.
  • Biden seems to be, by instinct, a collaborationist – so we would be wise to work hard with him on common ground. (But we would be equally wise not to take the ‘Special Relationship’ for granted – his instincts would seem to be pro-European, pro-EU, bemused by Brexit and, certainly, Irish rather than British in his leanings.)
  • In our membership of NATO we are likely to find a more constant ally – and our commitment to our membership of NATO may thus take on renewed importance, especially as our ties to Europe loosen.
  • And, finally, in these difficult times, we would be wise to remember that in serving those twin goals of achieving a unity of purpose while looking after the best interests of all, we may be about to be presented with an opportunity to re-think the implications (individually, nationally and internationally) of the old maxim “United we stand, divided we fall”.

This work is strictly the view of the author, not the British Army and Ministry of Defence.