The Ethics of State Monopolization of Force

By Nicolai Due-Gundersen  Published 30 June, 2014


The dominant political philosophy of Realism is often regarded as prioritizing state survival. To that end, seminal thinkers of political philosophy such as Niccolo Machiavelli, Max Weber and John Hobbes have argued for the state monopoly of force and territorial expansion as significant elements of ensuring state survival.

State survival within the Realist doctrine can of course be linked closely to self-interest. The self-interest of states and their leaders are often advocated as strict codes of conduct that must not be sacrificed for the sake of moral ideals. Furthermore, given the belligerent context that saw the emergence of and eventual cementing of Realism through two World Wars and the Cold War, many argue that Realism can be viewed as a most pessimistic doctrine.

The aforementioned features of Realism have left many arguing that it is an amoral or even an immoral doctrine, encouraging self-interest to the point of ignoring moral values. Given the seminal importance of Hobbes, Machiavelli and Weber, it is interesting to focus on their own interpretations of state survival through analyzing their interpretations of the importance of state monopolization of force, linking force to territorial expansion, which has been cited as another significant feature of Realist thought.

Using Hitler’s expansionist Lebensraum policy as a 20th Century case study, this essay will filter Hitler’s ambitions through the doctrines of Hobbes, Machiavelli and Weber to identify to what extent state monopolization of force can be ethical, and also how the three philosophers address limitations to the use of force.

Hitler’s Lebensraum

Hitler’s proposed policy held the ultimate goal of eastward territorial expansion in order to provide more living space (lebensraum) for the German people. There were of course imperial connotations associated with Lebensraum that were exploited by expansionist thinkers before Hitler. The focus of such imperialists, however, was on German colonies abroad being populated by German settlers, thereby increasing Germany’s strength and ability to protect such colonies from the inside. Hitler’s idea of expansion held a more geopolitical focus that was intended to address Germany’s weaknesses through conquering proximate territory. Ownership of parts of Russia and Eastern Europe would not only provide more territory for German settlers, but give Germany access to resources, raw materials and food, which was limited within Germany itself. Finally, Hitler’s racist ideology and the wish to grant conquered land to the Germans would see native inhabitants deported, used as slave labor or executed.

Weber and Machiavelli: The Territorial Aspect of Monopolizing Force

German political thinker Max Weber outlined his definition of a state in his 1919 lecture Politics as A Vocation. In this lecture, Weber defined the state as a social community distinguished by the boundaries of a specific territory and the successful ability of the state to monopolize force, thereby ensuring its legitimate use. In addition, Weber stresses the importance of territory as “[…] an essential defining feature” of his definition of a state. If Hitler’s Lebensraum is thus assessed within the context of Weber’s definition, one can focus on the territorial aspect of Weber’s ‘state’. The monopolization of force allows not only a degree of legitimacy in state use of force, but evokes security concerns, which can be placed within the context of geopolitics. Supporters of Lebensraum may argue that the monopolization of force must be accomplished alongside territorial expansion in order to ensure that both internal and external threats are mitigated. This circular argument of expanding the monopoly of force as an inherent aspect of territorial expansion for the security of the German people may be further bolstered by turning to Machiavelli’s own considerations of territorial security.

In his book, Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli addresses territorial expansion as an imperative instrument of preserving the freedom of a state’s people and their security. Machiavelli outlines what he calls ‘the defects of non-expansionist republics’, arguing that small states will be regarded as weak and thus vulnerable to attack by outside forces. Furthermore, Machiavelli argues that without a focus on eliminating external threats, a “great city” will lack the psychological satisfaction of conquest, encouraging internal dissent. Hence, expansionism bolsters a state’s security by mitigating external threats through conquest. In addition, the effort required for expansion will result in the efficient use of resources and administration, fostering long-term self-reliance that can contribute to the security of the state.

At first glance, it appears possible to justify Lebensraum by (re)interpreting Weber’s framework of territorial monopolization of force by arguing for the constant expansion of territory through Machiavellian thinking. Within a Machiavellian framework, one can then place the monopolization of force within an expansionist context that could justify the use of force by the state to acquire more living space for the German people. However, such an interpretation does not take into account limits to violence that can be found in both Weber’s lecture and Machiavelli’s own work.

Weber’s Politics as A Vocation may be viewed by some as foreshadowing the Second World War and Hitler’s rise to power. Indeed, its historical context reveals a Germany refusing culpability for the start of World War One, desiring a certain future and a justification of (coveted) victory.

Such elements can be seen as providing the basis for territorial expansion, driven out of a need for glory, a refusal to accept the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty and the geopolitical weaknesses of Germany’s resources. However, the same historical context illustrates the uncertainty of Weber’s proposed doctrine. Weber himself was most reluctant to give his lecture on Politics. Although yielding to the request of his audience, Weber begins his lecture by stressing that his audience will be “[…] necessarily frustrate[d]” by the lecture’s lack of direction vis-à-vis “[…] the kind of politics that should be pursued, that is to say, the specific policies that should be adopted in the course of our political activities.” In other words, Weber’s lecture will not give Germany the certain future it craves, and thus Weber’s outlined proposals of territorial force monopolized by the state should not be considered definitive or authoritative.

Furthermore, Weber’s promotion of monopolized force was balanced in the same lecture by Weber’s doctrine of Ethics of Responsibility and Ethics of Conviction , both of which must be applied in unison when pursuing politics. Weber’s inclusion of ethical considerations of accountability cast serious doubt on a state’s right to use force however it wishes. The legitimacy of state force is paramount to Weber’s definition of the state, further curbing a state’s right to exert e.g. brutal force upon its own or other citizens.

Weber’s lecture, once properly analyzed, is revealed as not condoning gross use of force or territorial expansion (combined with correlative force) unless misinterpreted. Machiavelli’s own advocacy of territorial expansion for state security also has its ethical limitations. Although territorial expansion is linked to state security, Machiavelli balances territorial acquisition with the requirement of equal partnership. This form of expansion holds several advantages over the alternatives of the dominance of one power or an unequal partnership. The acquisition of further territories sees said territories’ rulers become equal partners in an expanding empire. Equal partners share authority, and thus submit willingly to acquisition because of their equal status. Furthermore, this form of expansion means that all absorbed territories willingly pool their resources together for collective defense, ensuring that the security of the people is increased in relation to expansion.

Presumably, under this form of expansion, force would not be monopolized by the original expanding state, but shared as part of common authority among equal partners to contribute to collective defense. As with Weber, a closer examination of Machiavelli’s expansion reveals limits to its methods. Given the fact that Hitler’s Lebensraum program would have seen the deportation of ‘territorial natives’ along with the execution of other non-German peoples, Hitler’s acquisition of territory would not have been through equal partners but the total dominion of the Third Reich.

Machiavelli criticizes subjugation as a mode of rule, examining how e.g. a single state can expand its territorial power through the use of direct force. As with Weber, Machiavelli is concerned with state legitimacy, arguing that brute force with the aim of subjugation of territorial subjects can never gain a state legitimacy in its use of force. On the contrary, such a method of expansion will cause resentment by subjects and thus risk the internal and external destabilization of state security. To illustrate this weakness of using ‘subjugational force’ Machiavelli cites the ruin of Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian War as a direct result of both cities’ attempts to subjugate others.

Hence, both Weber and Machiavelli are revealed to have ethical standards that curb state monopoly of force and territorial expansion (including attempts to combine the two). While Machiavelli transparently advocates territorial expansion for the security of the state, expansion must be done with consenting partners, not through exertion of force over subjects. Further, authority, and thus force, cannot be monopolized but must be shared. When examining Lebensraum, it is clear that Hitler’s conquest of territories would not see a sharing of power. According to Machiavelli, such an approach could only destabilize the state, foreshadowing the collapse of Nazi Germany by 1945.

Hobbes: The Power of Sovereignty versus the Rights of Subjects

John Hobbes’ Leviathan also addresses the right of a state to monopolize force. This privilege is addressed within the context of making war and peace, with the state alone judge of the expedience of war. Further, only the state has the right to assemble armies, levy taxes for such a purpose and command such armies. The militaristic context of such rights can be interpreted as granting the state a monopoly over the use of force. However, this privilege is also balanced by the rights of state subjects.

Most conspicuous are the rights of subjects to defend themselves against attack (even lawful invasion) and, of most significance, the nullification of a subject’s obligations to the state, should the state fail to protect them. Within the context of Lebensraum, one could argue that a successful invasion of any territory would transfer the authority of the state from the defeated territorial regime to Hitler, thus making all inhabitants of said territory his subjects.

According to Hobbes, Hitler is thus expected to protect his new subjects, and again, the policies of Lebensraum opposed such an obligation strongly. Although the state may be regarded as possessing exclusive privileges over, inter alia, the use of force, it must also adhere to obligations to its subjects, including their protection, and subjects themselves possess rights that prioritize their personal safety over the rule of the state.


Violent expansionist policies can be linked to seminal works of Realist thought. Both Hobbes and Weber advocate the monopolization of force by the state, with Weber’s territorial aspect a feature that can be deepened by the use of Machiavellian advocacy of constant expansionism for the security of the state. However, only by misinterpreting or ignoring the full frameworks presented by Weber, Hobbes and Machiavelli is violent expansionism such as Lebensraum justifiable.

A thorough inspection of all three philosophies reveals that expansionism or definitions of force are balanced by ethical considerations that prioritize accountability, equality and the rights of subjects. The case study of Lebensraum can illustrate how failure to acknowledge the ethical limits of both expansionism and state use of force can only serve to destabilize state security, leading to a state’s eventual downfall.

About the Author

Nicolai Due-Gundersen

Nicolai Due-Gundersen is a Jordan-based researcher with the Amman-Sydney Oval Office for Research and Studies, specialising in higher education in the MENA region with their Jordan branch. His research also focuses on the rise of Islamaphobia post 9/11 and the potential compatibility of Muslim values with traditionally Western secular (legal) frameworks.

His work on the MENA region has been published by, the Oil, Gas and Energy Law Journal (OGEL), the Small Wars Journal, Open Democracy and the Journal of Energy Security

He is a former Adviser, to the Arab Institute for Security Studies (ACSIS) in Amman and a former researcher of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center.

Article picture: The frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, depicting the Sovereign as a massive body wielding a sword and crozier and composed of many individual people. The frontispiece of the book Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes

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