Robert Greene expresses his thirteenth Law of Power as follows: If you need an ally, do not remind him of the help you have given him or the services you have given him, you would have him run away. It is better to assert in your alliance application an element that will be profitable to him; insist on this point. The more he wins, the more eager he will be.
What Greene reminds us of here is that humans, even those who declare themselves your friends or allies, are not naturally inclined to take risks or make efforts for your beautiful eyes. Generosity, loyalty and sincere recognition exist, of course. But it is better not to count on them: if they happen, so much the better. This informs you of the moral quality of your interlocutor and encourages you, in return, to respond to his requests if one day he is in difficulty. But truly loyal and truly committed to their principles and promises are rare, and as a precautionary measure, it is better to assume that the person to whom you are addressing does not fall into this category. Thus, you will be less likely to deceive you, to be deceived or to be disappointed.
Most of the time, a declared friend or ally is nothing more than a privileged channel of communication: many people believe that it does not create any particular obligation. On the other hand, it allows entering into conversation to try to convince the other to act.
Your ability to seek (and obtain) help from another person will often depend on your ability to understand the needs of that person. We all have needs, be they financial, emotional, strategic, spiritual or otherwise. Understand the needs of the person you are talking to and give them something they need in return for their help, and you can get them into action. It is self-interest that motivates most human beings, far more than the great moral principles they claim. In a very large majority of cases, the displayed morality is nothing other than “virtual signaling”, that is to say, the very opposite of true virtue.
Your needs and his
Not to confuse one’s own needs with those of one’s interlocutor is absolutely essential. If you assume that the person to whom you are addressing must act in accordance with your wishes in the name of any obligation and that it has no benefit to draw from the association, you are already losing. There is not always an official negotiation. But there is always a relationship of exchange and power.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to reach Japan. They brought to the archipelago a flood of goods and considerable trade opportunities, as well as technologies then unknown on the Japanese islands. But they also brought missionaries, which was not to the taste of the Japanese authorities. The Portuguese were, however, at first tolerated: they could not do without their services, which is an application of the Eleventh Law of Power. It was not in the interest of the Japanese to do without them since the benefits of their presence outweighed the disadvantages.
But a few decades later, the Dutch also reached Japan. And they did not care to convert anyone: they only wanted to trade. They offered neither better nor anything else than the Portuguese. But they promised not to mix religion and business. It was not long before the Emperor of Japan packed all the Portuguese commercial delegations, and installed the Dutch merchants in their place. The Dutch had understood what the Japanese wanted (in this case: economic exchange, but without the threat to their traditional culture) and offered it to them. The Portuguese recalled the long periods of peaceful coexistence but were excluded from the Japanese market. No doubt they had fallen asleep on their laurels: they had taken for granted a monopoly situation which was, in any case, not destined to last. If it had not been the Dutch, it would have been other Europeans: English, French or Spanish would have arrived sooner or later to Japan, and it would have been necessary to do with their presence. By not changing their habits with the arrival of a new competitor, who could offer a more advantageous deal, the Portuguese had trusted their historic agreement, without taking into account the real interests of their interlocutor. And it was their mistake.
Another historical example
During the period 1943–1945, the Allied Powers made no effort to stop the Third Reich’s machine of extermination against Jews, gays, Gypsies and a large part of the Slavs. Contrary to what some have said afterward, they were well aware of all its atrocities: the Allied forces had benefited from reports by Jan Karski, or from information provided by Erwin Respondek. Yet they did nothing. And they even held some information secret until the end of the war, protecting ipso facto the Reich, in part.
Why? Not by cruelty, nor by the desire to see these exterminations carried out. But by pure pragmatism. If air operations had been carried out to destroy, for example, the railroads carrying prisoners, this would have distracted some of the available forces from the most strategic theaters of operations. Moreover, even if they were kept in miserable and inhuman conditions, the prisoners had to be fed, heated and dressed at least, if only to be able to serve as labor and not to die immediately. As much food, coal, clothes, which were not sent to the front, which was already beginning to fail.
At the same time (and will be seen in particular in 1944–1945) Hitler’s obsession with the extermination of those whom he considered being racial enemies drove him to devote valuable resources (trains, materials, vehicles, men …) that he did not devote, thus, to the war. Many of the victims of the death camps in the last period of the Second World War were thus knowingly abandoned to their fate because there was simply no favorable deal from the Allies’ point of view. No favorable “deal” to make in an operation to destroy the concentration machine. Too expensive, not enough returns.
It may even be considered that Hitler’s stubbornness to preserve his system of extermination, thus to forget pragmatism in favor of ideology, was one of the causes of his defeat.
At the same time, the Allies also gave up their support for the Yugoslav loyalist resistance, preferring the communist resistance, so as not to be at odds with the Soviet Union. The Polish government in exile in London was also left to fend for itself, as well as the Polish resistance to the Warsaw uprising, again for the same reasons: it was better to get along with Stalin than to take risks for people who, apart from their moral support, they had little to offer, and no armored division available.
Remembering the past rather than the interest: a diplomatic mistake
It can be tempting, when one is in the position of plaintiff, to recall benefits or past services. And it’s usually a mistake. Here again: there are loyal beings and good accountants of their debts. But most people prefer to forget them. The correctness or the nobility of a cause has only rarely to do with realpolitik and the interest of the moment is, more often, what will guide the decisions.
The beginnings of the Peloponnesian War illustrate this principle. Everything starts in the small city of Epidamnos. Epidamnos was once founded by settlers from Corcyra. And Corcyra itself, formerly by settlers from Corinth. A revolution occurs in Epidamnos, which drives out of the city its oligarchs and installs a democratic regime. The oligarchs, however, are gathering troops and ravaging the area. The Democrats then appeal to their “mother-city” Corcyra, in the hope that they help them. They base their request on the feeling of community between the two cities. But Corcyra, who herself has an oligarchic government, refuses. Epidamnos then turns to Corinth, who chooses to intervene to bring the young city into its area of influence. Corcyre considers that this is an interference in his own business, and besieges Epidamnos while opening with Corinth tense discussions. After a first naval battle, won by Corcyra and the taking of Epidamnos, the two cities seek allies.
Ambassadors from both Corcyra and Corinth present themselves to the Athenian assembly, seeking to convince the powerful city to take sides in the conflict. Corcyra and Corinth were both convinced that the support of Athens would mean a definite victory.
The Corinthian ambassador spoke at length about the bonds of friendship and commerce between Athens and Corinth. He recalled the many services formerly rendered by Corinth in Athens, gloated over the importance of showing gratitude to his friends, and concluded that it was the moral duty of the Athenians to intervene on behalf of his side. The ambassador of Corcyra, on the other hand, contented himself with keeping the accounts: he admitted that Athens owed nothing to Corcyra and that his city had, in the past, engaged in alliances against Athens; but he was not there to talk about the past. He presented the forces involved, including the naval forces, and concluded that an alliance between Athens and Corcyra would form the most formidable fleet in Greece. A fleet capable of imposing respect on all rivals in Athens, including Sparta.
In short: the Corinthian had nothing to offer, except a blackmail to moral guilt. The Corcyrian was talking about concrete things and plans for the future. It is, of course, The Corcyrian who carried off the Athenian decision (thus precipitating, indirectly, the outbreak of a major war, but this is another story).
From Athens to Toulouse
When, in 1209, the Pope declared a crusade against the Occitan lands, in order to eradicate the Cathar heresy, a formidable army gathered. Considering the forces he was facing, Count Raymond VI of Toulouse first gathered his vassals (Viscounts of Carcassonne, Foix, etc.) but he concluded that it was impossible to fight against the Crusaders on equal terms.
So he took a radical decision: himself remained a Catholic, he choose the cross, he chooses to become a crusader. He, therefore, joined with his troops the army which was destined to ravage his own lands. But a lord taking the cross saw his own protected areas: attacking the lands of a crusader while he was fighting for God was considered a terrible sin.
Raymond VI of Toulouse hoped that his vassals would do the same. This would have had the effect of making the crusade only a military promenade, without a city to besiege or village to shave. Although some heretics would have been burned, certainly some peasants had been swept by the edge of the sword, but most of Occitania would have been spared.
But Raymond-Roger Trencavel, Viscount of Carcassonne and Beziers, did not hear him that way. He refused to abandon the Cathars present on his lands to the Crusaders’ arms, and also refused to cross for a cause which he considered unfair. He remained faithful to his principles. And died. Beziers was struck off the map, Carcassonne was taken, and the Trencavel house disappeared from history. Brilliantly, in a chivalrous brilliance, with panache. But he disappeared nevertheless. Raymond of Toulouse, accepting the implicit deal of the crusade, preserved the territories of his house for a few more decades. Trencavel had made the fatal error of considering that the Crusaders, who were like him knights, would refuse to compromise in a fratricidal war between Christians; he presumed their virtue and their principles. Raymond of Toulouse took it pragmatically and contented himself with using the rules of the game to his advantage, without assuming that his opponents were really honorable and chivalrous.
Some manipulators try to create false interests to convince their audience. This is the typical case of the scammer, who starts by generating anguish, then proposes the means to remedy it. Which, finally, is nothing different from the advertising that sets up a teaser: it raises questions, which you want to know the answer. And to know it, you have to pay (a movie ticket or the price of a book).
This system of teasing, which is based on the creation of an artificial need to better meet it, is also practiced by a large number of manipulators, perverts and master-singers (Even when they have nothing to wear At hand: “I know things about you … do what I want, and I make sure that you are not worried about anything” is a strategy that can work on some people … if they do not ask too much which “things” it is about).
Moral Motivations and Vanity
There are indeed people who are not motivated by immediate gains and who hold their moral principles in high esteem. But even these people have needs. Many who find themselves in such a posture are sensitive to some form of vanity.
Calling on their advice or wisdom publicly, or seeking arbitration, reinforces their own vanity and narcissism and can encourage them to intervene. Their own sense of moral superiority and the resulting vanity can then be regarded as their need. Your request itself tends to strengthen their position and self-satisfaction.
This is typically the case of charitable NGOs: the benefits they bring are not without compensation. In addition to the political and cultural influence they can obtain, they “sell” to their donors the feeling of doing something good, a narcissistic satisfaction.
The major lesson of this Law of Power lies in this simple principle: most people will only help you if they have something to gain from it, whether it is material or symbolic. And this principle applies to both political relations and relationships, as it is so close to the corollary of the Law of Briffault. A vast majority of humans are not concerned with the past and are only interested in the immediate or future benefits they can acquire.
However, throughout one’s life, both personal and professional, one is regularly confronted with the need to ask the help or the intervention of others: collaboration, favor, etc. Knowing how to ask for it while taking into account the needs and interest of the person in question without jeopardizing one’s own learning is an art. And art in which few are the people who excel. Many, indeed, confuse their own needs with those of others, considering, with certain intellectual laziness, that their interlocutor must necessarily share the same views or the same interests. This belief, by allowing them not to really care about others, allows them to stay comfortably locked in their own little ivory tower. Which is the safest way to fail. Before asking for a favor, it is advisable, on the contrary, to convince oneself that, a priori, our interlocutor has nothing to do with our needs or our desires. And if we have nothing to offer him in exchange for his help, there is little chance that we will actually get it. In addition, no one likes to be reminded of their debts, and more often than not, people who owe you something will do everything to not pay. Unless you are able to convince them that paying off this debt will bring them benefits.
Better yet: if you are faced with the possibility of free and selfless help, distrust is necessary. It is not absolutely impossible. But it is more likely that a price exists, and that escapes you for the moment. Think twice before accepting an opportunity that looks too good: it may well be nothing more than a bait.