As Vito’s three sons gather, the future of the Corleone dynasty hangs in the balance. The first brother the family turns to for advice is Tom Hagen, the German-Irish transplant who serves as ‘consigliere’ (chief legal adviser) to the clan. Though an adopted son, Tom is the most familiar of the three brothers with the inner workings of the New York crime world. As a family lawyer and diplomat, he is responsible for navigating the complex network of street alliances, backroom treaties, and political favours that surround and sustain the family empire.
His view of the Sollozzo threat and how the family should respond to it is an outgrowth of a legal-diplomatic worldview that shares a number of philosophical similarities with the Wilsonian liberal institutionalism dominating the foreign policy outlook of today’s Democratic Party.
Liberal institutionalism found its modern prophet in Woodrow Wilson, the vainglorious president who pledged to fight a war to end war itself. Along with this messianic disregard for history as it has been lived, its key features include a core conviction that rules can be used to trump power, and a corresponding predilection for using international institutions to tackle global problems. But liberal institutionalism goes beyond this, seeing such organisations as the United Nations as being endowed with a unique global legitimacy, as if the institutions themselves were the critical players on the chessboard, with states playing an important but secondary role. As such, nations must give up sovereignty in order to endow such clubs with power. In a similar way, Tom believes that by relinquishing their individual freedom of manoeuvre and seeking consensus at the meetings of the Five Families (a kind of UN Security Council), local Mafia clans can cast off their thuggish beginnings and replace the rough-and-tumble world of gangland geopolitics with a cooperative framework for jointly governing the streets of New York.
It is with this larger goal in mind that he assesses the Sollozzo threat. Like many modern Democrats, Tom believes that the family’s main objective should be to return as quickly as possible to the world as it existed before the attack. His overriding strategic aim is the one that Hillary Clinton had in mind when she wrote in a Foreign Affairs article of the need for America to ‘reclaim our proper place in the world.’ The ‘proper place’ Tom wants to reclaim is a mirror image of the one that American politicians remember from the 1990s and dream of restoring after 2008. Like pre-September 11th America, the empire that Vito built in the years leading up to the Sollozzo attack was a ‘benign hegemon’—a sole Mafia superpower that ruled not by conquest, but by institutions and strategic restraint.
This is the system that Tom, in his role as consigliere, was responsible for maintaining. By sharing access to the policemen, judges, and senators that (as Sollozzo puts it) the Don ‘carries in his pocket like so many nickels and dimes,’ the family managed to create a kind of Sicilian Bretton Woods—a system of political and economic public goods that benefited not only the Corleones, but the entire Mafia community. This willingness to let other crime syndicates ‘drink from the well’ of Corleone political influence rendered the Don’s disproportionate accumulation of power more palatable to the other families, who were less inclined to form a countervailing coalition against it. The result was a consensual, rules-based order that offered many of the same benefits—low transaction costs of rule, less likelihood of great power war, and the chance to make money under an institutional umbrella—that America enjoyed during the Cold War.
It is this ‘Pax Corleone’ that Sollozzo, in Tom’s eyes, must not be allowed to disrupt. In dealing with the new challenger, however, Tom believes that the brothers must be careful not to do anything that would damage the family business. The way to handle Sollozzo, he judges, is not through force but through negotiation—a second trait linking him to today’s Wilsonians. Like more than one of the recent Democratic contenders for the presidency, Tom thinks that even a rogue power like Sollozzo can be brought to terms, if only the family will take the time to hear his proposals and accommodate his needs.
Throughout the movie, Tom’s motto is ‘we oughta talk to ‘em’—a slogan that, in the period since the publication of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report on Iran, has begun to harden into orthodoxy among the lawmakers and presidential hopefuls in the Democratic Party, who now say that immediate, unconditional talks with America’s latest ‘Sollozzo’—Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—is the only option still open to Washington for coping with the Iranian nuclear crisis.
The party’s growing veneration of diplomacy as the sine qua non of American statecraft rests, as it did for Tom, on two assumptions: (a) that, despite their aggressive posturing, the Sollozzos of the world would rather be status quo than revolutionary powers, and (b) that the other big families have a vested interest in sustaining the Pax Corleone and will therefore not use the family’s distraction with Sollozzo as an opportunity to make their own power grabs. Working from these assumptions, today’s consiglieres have prescribed the same course of action regarding Iran that Tom prescribed for dealing with Sollozzo: a process of intensified, reward-laden negotiation (what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid calls a ‘diplomatic surge’) that they believe will pave the way for his admission as a normalised player into the family’s rules-based community.
This near-religious belief in the efficacy of diplomacy brings Tom into bitter conflict with those in the family, led by Sonny, who favour a military response to Sollozzo. To Tom, as to many Democrats, Sonny’s revelling in the family muscle runs counter to the logic of institutionalised restraint that Vito used to build the family empire. In the world that Tom knows, force is used judiciously and as a last resort: only on the rarest of occasions, and after repeated attempts at negotiation, would the Don dispatch Luca Brazi to cajole and threaten an opponent—’To make them an offer they can’t refuse’—and even then, it was usually with the foreknowledge and multilateral consent of the other families. By contrast, the street war that Sonny launches against Sollozzo is an act of reckless unilateralism—a Mafia equivalent of the Iraq War that, unless ended, threatens to upset Tom’s finely tuned institutional order and squander the hard-won gains of the Pax Corleone.
At first blush, Tom’s critique of Sonny’s militarist strategy sounds reasonable. Compared to the eldest child’s promiscuous expenditures of Corleone blood, treasure, and clout, Tom’s workmanlike emphasis on consensus building has much to recommend it; if successful, it would permit the Corleones to resume their peaceful hegemony to their own and the other families’ benefit.
But the hope Tom offers the family is a false one. For in order to be successful, the consigliere’s diplomacy must be conducted from a position of unparalleled strength, which the family no longer possesses. In this sense, he is more like Sonny than he realises; despite the seemingly vast philosophical differences between them, each wields an instrument of policy that was forged in a bygone age: for Sonny, the ability to field ‘a hundred button men’ at a moment’s notice; for Tom, the luxury of always being the man at the table with the most leverage. But the era of easy Corleone dominance is over. Though neither brother realises it, power on the streets has begin to shift into the hands of the Tattaglias and Barzinis—the Mafia equivalent of today’s BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). Like the current international system, the situation that confronts the Corleone family is one of increasing multipolarity—a reality that is lost on Tom, who thinks he is still the emissary of the only superpower (a delusion many Democrats apparently share).
But even if Tom doesn’t know the world is shifting, Sollozzo does. Like the two-bit petty tyrants who challenge Washington with mounting confidence in today’s world, Sollozzo senses that fundamental changes are under way in the global system, and knows that they give him greater latitude for defying the Corleones than he had in the past. As Sollozzo tells Tom, ‘The Don, rest in peace, was slippin’. Ten years ago could I have gotten to him?’ The consigliere is wrong about Sollozzo. He is not, like challengers in the past, out to join the Pax Corleone. He is an opportunist who will take things as they come—as either a revolutionary power or a status quo power, but certainly as one out to accelerate and profit from the transition to multipolarity. The other families have no more incentive to thwart his manoeuvres than Russia and China have to thwart those of Iran. And because Tom fails to see this, his strategy is the wrong one for the family, and the wrong one for America.