Yet despite the increasingly obvious inadequacies of its competitors, realism has not taken the American foreign policy community by storm. With their hopeful outlook, refusal to retreat from even the largest of world problems, and principled stand on the merits of democracy, the Democratic and Republican iterations of the ‘Wilsonian’ approach to foreign policy—be it through liberal institutionalism or through neoconservatism—are widely thought to be quintessentially American, and have prospered. It is as if people would rather be demonstrably wrong, but well-meaning, than adopt a point of view that might be right but seems cold, bloodless and plodding. By contrast, realism—with its laser-like focus on assessing power relationships and the often discomforting insights that it brings—conjures up images of Old World European cynicism. It is gloomy, unsexy—in a word, un-American. America, so the thinking goes, is not suited to playing power politics: Realpolitik is simply not in our political DNA. As a result, Wilsonian foreign policy strategies have gained a near-monopoly among the nation’s decision-makers—a monopoly that is likely to dominate the next four years (Obama’s first term) just as it did the previous eight (George W. Bush’s two terms).
This is more than unfortunate. It is dangerous. For we believe that realism has something unique to say about America’s growing predicament in world affairs—something that the other schools, for all their boundless optimism, are not equipped to provide us. Far from being an antiquated, foreign transplant, realism as a concept is in fact deeply rooted in the American national consciousness—not only at the top, but in the collective popular imagination. To specifically protect America and its people above all other considerations so they can get on with enjoying the personal benefits of liberty that come from living in a strong, prosperous, powerful country; to believe that too much power in the hands of any one group (or country) has the potential to corrupt and should therefore be balanced; to deny that any government, including our own, has all the answers for what ails the world—all are uniquely American insights that inform modern realism as well.
Instead of being foreign, realism has been a large part of the American discourse since the administration of George Washington and the signing of the Jay Treaty with our then enemy Great Britain. Washington and Alexander Hamilton made it clear that securing peace for the American people should supersede distaste for doing a deal with the formerly hated George III. This hard-headed approach set the fledgling American Republican on its way to its eventual rendezvous with destiny, as the essential modern great power confronting the horrors of both Hitler and Stalin. Contrary to the argument of realism’s foes, Americans have in many ways been realists from the founding. That has been one of the secrets of our success.
That is precisely why it is such a pity, from our point of view, that the pragmatism so inherent in both realism and in American foreign policymaking since the founding has been submerged (but not eliminated) by the recent dominance of the liberal institutionalist and neoconservative schools of thought, which start from utopian premises, not being based upon a practical assessment of the world we actually find ourselves in. The founders would know better.
But if realism’s critics are wrong in saying that it is un-American, they are right that it is unsexy. In recent years, realists have shown little interest in making their insights understandable to the American public. Too often they have glorified in their craft as if the world were merely a mathematical formula that needed working out, one that should be explained only to an inner-circle priesthood of true believers who had enough intellect and guts to see the world as it truly was. To put it mildly, such elitist nonsense is not likely to lead to political success in any democratic country. Realism has come to resemble the worst kind of Shakespearean production, glorifying in the bard’s obscurity, forgetting that the secret to his universal appeal is that he wrote the plays using themes and language that everyone of his day could entirely understand. Realism, like Shakespeare, must be for everyone.
We strongly believe that realism, beyond the usual academic cloisters, needs to reconnect with the people of the country, if it is to remain relevant. To make this point, and to convey what we believe is a message of grave importance for the future of the American Republic, we have chosen an unconventional format for this book. Precisely because the stakes for the United States are now so high and our current policymaking habits so predictably tragic, we—both of whom are prolific foreign policy analysts—believe we cannot afford to simply add another book to the growing list of foreign policy analyses that are being written to advise the next president (Obama).
Instead, we have chosen to present an allegory of American power drawn from that most American of mediums—film—and that most American of film dramas: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.
The idea of using this iconic 1972 movie to explain US foreign policy was born in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, a most un-Mediterranean setting, on a November night in 2007. While we had independently realised the film’s parallels to the world of geopolitics, it was not until Wess joined John for a Hefeweizen (German wheat beer) one night at his Berlin apartment that we realised the movie’s full potential to convey the seriousness of America’s current predicament and the strategic alternatives that are available for handling it. For in his chronicling of the rise, fall, and rebirth of the Corleone Mafia empire, Coppola presents two hauntingly prophetic messages that speak directly to America today: That the fall of the powerful is inevitable; and that we have options for how we respond to this tragic truth, make the most of the hidden opportunities it presents, and chart a course to renewed strength.
The travails of the Corleone family in the anarchic and fluid world of organised crime are not unlike those America will face in the anarchic and fluid world of geopolitics. Like Coppola’s characters, America today can rest assured that adjustment will come; it is simply a question of on whose terms. And while Americans may not be a cynical people, we are—like the Corleone family—a practical people, a people who value their birthright enough to make hard decisions in hard times, outwitting intelligent foes to prosper in a world cut loose from the moorings of everything we thought—and hoped—it would be.
And so we present a parable of American statecraft, offered at a moment of unexampled danger, in the hopes that our Republic will foresee the coming earthquake, and prosper in spite of it. We present The Godfather Doctrine.
John Hulsman and A. Wess Mitchell, June 15, 2008.