In making treaties, as in everything else, the good prince will pursue only the public interest. Otherwise, if they are arranged to benefit the princes at the expense of the people, they should be called conspiracies, not treaties. Anyone who acts like this makes one people into two, nobility and commons, and one of them profits only from the other’s loss; but where this happens, there is no state.
There is a most binding and holy contract between all Christian princes, simply from the fact that they are Christians. What, then, is the point of negotiating treaties day after day, as if everyone were the enemy of everyone else, as if human contracts could achieve what Christ cannot? When business is done by means of a lot of bits of paper, it suggests that there is little trust present, and we often see that a great deal of litigation arises from the very things that were supposed to preclude litigation. Where mutual trust exists and business is being done between honest men, there is no need for a lot of these niggling bits of paper, but when business is being done between dishonest and untrustworthy men the bits of paper actually provide raw material for the courts. Similarly, friendship will exist between good and wise princes even if there is no treaty between them, but war will arise between bad and foolish princes out of the very treaties designed to prevent war, when one of them complains that one or other of the innumerable clauses has not been observed. Treaties are supposed to be made to put an end to war, but nowadays an agreement to start war is called a treaty. Alliances of this kind are no more than stratagems of war, and as the situation develops, the treaties fall into line with it.
The good faith of princes in fulfilling their agreements must be such that a simple promise from them will be more sacred than any oath sworn by other men. How shameful it is, then, to fail to fulfil the conditions of a solemn treaty, one sworn by those things which Christians hold most sacred! Yet every day we can see this becoming the custom; I will not say who is at fault, but it certainly could not happen unless someone is at fault.
If some clause of a treaty has apparently not been observed, this must not be taken at once as evidence that the treaty as a whole is null and void, because this will suggest that a pretext has been found for breaking off friendly relations. On the contrary, great efforts should be made to repair the breach with as little damage as possible; indeed the best course sometimes is to connive at something like this, since even an understanding between private citizens will not hold together for long if they take everything, as it were, too literally. Do not immediately follow the course dictated by anger, but rather that suggested by the public interest.
The good and wise prince will try to be at peace with all nations but particularly with his neighbours, who can do much harm if they are hostile and much good if they are friendly; no state can survive for long without good relations with them. In addition, it is easy for friendship to be made and kept between those who are linked by a common language, by the proximity of their lands, and by similarities of temperament and character. Certain nations are so different from one another in every way that it would be advisable to refrain from any contact with them rather than be linked to them even by the most binding of treaties. Others are so distant that even if they are well disposed they can be of no help. There are others, finally, who are so capricious, so insolent, such habitual breakers of treaties, that even if they are neighbours they are useless as friends. With this sort the best plan is neither to break with them by open war nor to be linked to them by any very binding treaties or marriage alliances, because war is always disastrous, and certain people’s friendship is not much better than war.
One element of wise government will therefore be a knowledge of the character and temperament of all races, gathered partly from books and partly from the accounts of wise and well-travelled men; do not imagine that, with Ulysses, you must travel across all lands and seas. Beyond this, it may not be easy to lay down hard and fast rules. One may state as a general rule that it is not advisable to be too closely allied with those, such as the heathen, who are divided from us by a difference of religion, and we should neither encourage nor reject those whom natural obstacles, such as mountain barriers or seas, separate from us, or those who are totally cut off from us by vast distances. There are many examples of this, but one will suffice for all, since it is closest at hand: the kingdom of France is by far and in every way the most prosperous of all; but she would have been still more prosperous had she refrained from invading Italy.