Lessons for today? Richard's radically unstable England does not look much like a 21st-century democracy. It lacked the clear principles of succession and state monopolies on violence that characterize the United States and its Western European allies. But with its armed factions marauding over the country, 15th-century England does resemble some of the countries with which the American president has to deal. Shakespeare's hunchbacked monarch would not be the last world leader to muscle himself into power through murder and intimidation. Nor would he be the last to swashbuckle on the international front in a desperate effort to solidify support at home.
Although writing at a moment when dynastic ambition still dictated policy, Shakespeare intuited the intimate relationship between foreign and domestic affairs that later characterized the Westphalian state. What was true of the feudal past remains true of failed states that trouble the modern world. Countries without reliable successions and whose rulers fail to achieve a governing consensus pose a constant threat to their neighbors. From Mali to Eritrea to Syria, strongmen and would-be dictators are the first to disregard international agreements and rake up old quarrels in the vain hope of legitimizing their regimes.
Fortunately for England, Henry Tudor learned from his predecessors' mistakes. Although Henry VII's claim to the throne was even shakier than Richard's, he learned quickly that making peace with his neighbors was a better route to legitimacy than belligerence. The treaties he negotiated with France, Spain, and Scotland brought his realm a stability and prosperity that it had not known for two centuries.
Obama and his advisors should take note of how England's neighbors, France in particular, availed themselves of Richard's fall to settle years of border disputes and to integrate England into a more cooperative set of interstate relations. France even provided Henry a generous annual subsidy that helped him stabilize his realm. At least until the accession of Henry's foolhardy son Henry VIII two decades later, England and all its neighbors profited from his wise domestic governance. There is hope for failed states. They can be reclaimed and integrated within the community of nations. But world governments must recognize and support a potential leader, like Henry Tudor, who work with them to forge lasting, stabilizing agreements.
And what lessons does Richard III hold for the world's petty tyrants? Nothing is more tempting when you have trouble at home than shaking fists at your traditional enemy. That strategy rarely works and often even backfires. Damaging your credibility on the international front will only exacerbate your problems at home. It might even get you buried under a parking lot.