The strategy that ultimately saves the Corleone family from the Sollozzo threat and equips it for coping with multipolarity does not come from either of the brothers who dominate family war councils at the beginning of the movie, but from Michael, the youngest and least experienced of the Don’s sons. Unlike Tom, whose labours as family lawyer have produced an exaggerated devotion to negotiation, and Sonny, whose position as untested heir apparent has produced a zeal for utilising the family arsenal, Michael has no formulaic fixation on a particular policy instrument. Instead, his overriding goal is to protect the family’s interests and save it from impending ruin by any and all means necessary. In today’s foreign policy terminology, Michael is a realist.
Viewing the world through untinted lenses, he sees that the age of dominance the family enjoyed for so long is ending. Alone among the three brothers, Michael senses that a shift is under way on the streets toward a more diffuse power arrangement, in which multiple power centres will jockey for position and influence. To survive and succeed in this new environment, Michael knows the family will have to adapt; the policy instruments it relied on before will have to be recalibrated. Unlike Tom, whose grand strategic vision centres on the concept of restoration, and Sonny, whose strategy is about retribution, Michael sees the time has come for wholesale strategic retrenchment. Three characteristics of his strategy allow it to succeed where the others fail, and could provide a blueprint for reinventing US foreign policy today.
First, Michael relinquishes the mechanistic, one-trick-pony policy approaches of his brothers in favour of a ‘toolbox’ in which soft and hard power are used in flexible combinations and as circumstances dictate. Like realists today, he knows that the family must cut the coat of its foreign policy according to the cloth of its material power base. While at various times he sides with Tom (favouring negotiations) or Sonny (favouring force), Michael understands their positions to be about tactics, and not about ultimate strategy, which for him is solely to ensure the survival and prosperity of the family. Thus he is able to use Sonny’s ‘buttonmen’ to knock out those competitors he cannot co-opt, while negotiating with the rest as Tom would like. This blending of carrots and sticks ensures that Michael is ultimately a more effective diplomat than Tom and a more successful warrior than Sonny: When he enters negotiations, it is always in the wake of a fresh battlefield victory and therefore from a position of strength; when he embarks on a new military campaign, it is always in pursuit of a specific goal that can be consolidated afterwards diplomatically.
Applied to America’s current predicament with Iran, Michael’s strategy would call for a carefully timed mixture of both carrots and sticks to dissuade Iran’s leadership from producing nuclear weapons. Carrots would include foreign investment, American diplomatic recognition, fora to discuss and address outstanding US-Iranian issues, and a nonintervention pledge from the United States. Sticks would include an international investment freeze that would bring the Islamic Republic to its economic knees. Failing this, the military option is still there, on the table. While realists accept that, in the end, the leadership in Tehran will decide the strategic course it takes, such a flexible approach prepares America for whatever Iran ultimately decides to do, and changes the odds of Iran’s acquiring nukes, while leaving the United States at the head of a considerable coalition of other powers.
This is a policy approach that realists have been advocating for years and which has been largely ignored. The neoconservative/Sonny approach has already been chronicled. The Democrats, for their part, are equally scornful of realist prescriptions. For all their talk of ‘keeping all options on the table,’ in reality the strategies that Clinton and Obama have in mind involve mostly carrots—neither is prepared to use sticks to prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Dennis Kucinich, though strictly a fringe candidate, spoke for the majority of Democrats when he warned the two leading candidates that any ‘threatening statements and actions against Iran’ would be viewed as ‘naive and foolhardy’ by the party base. Nor are Democrats likely to bring serious nonmilitary inducements to bear; like most EU countries—notably Germany—they fear that an economic freeze on Tehran would backfire, allowing China to capture Persian markets and provoking continued Russian opposition in the United Nations. Until Washington abandons these inhibitions, it is unlikely to be taken any more seriously by Iran than Tom was by Sollozzo.
Second, Michael understands that, no matter how strong its military or how savvy its diplomats, the Corleone family will not succeed in the multipolar environment ahead unless it learns to take better care of its allies. Like America after the Iraq War, the Mafia empire that Michael inherits after the hit on Sonny is characterised by a system of alliances on the brink of collapse. Having flocked to the Corleone colours when the war against Sollozzo broke out, the family’s allies—like America’s in Europe—have little to show for the risks they have undertaken on the family’s behalf. Exhausted by war and estranged by Sonny’s Rumsfeld-like bullying, they have begun to question whether it is still in their interests to backstop a declining superpower that is apparently not interested in retaining their loyalty.
For all his talk about diplomacy, Tom believes in the family’s total dominance; like today’s Wilsonians, he assumes that allies will continue to pay fealty to the family as a matter of course, as they have in the past. Similarly, Sonny assumes that other powers will gravitate toward the family or risk irrelevance; like most neocons, he sees allies as essentially disposable. By contrast, Michael intuitively grasps the value of family friends and the role that reciprocity plays in retaining their support for future crises. Thus he is seen offering a cigarette to Enzo, the timid neighbourhood baker whose help he enlisted, like Poland in Iraq, to protect his father at the hospital. In this, he is imitating his father, Vito, who saw alliances as the true foundation of Corleone power and was mindful of the need to tend the family’s ‘base’ of support, not only with big players like Clemenza and Tessio (Britain and France) but with smaller players like the cakemaker and the undertaker (Bulgaria and Romania) whose loyalty he is seen cultivating in the opening scenes of the movie.
For as Michael knows, even small allies could potentially prove crucial in ‘tipping the sales’ to the family’s advantage, as they will for America, once multipolarity is in full swing. Relearning the lost Sicilian art of alliance management will be necessary if Washington is to regain the confidence of the growing list of allies whose loyalty was frittered away, with little or nothing to show in return, in the sands of Iraq.
In advocating his realist course for the family, Michael is drinking deeply from the well of American geopolitical experience. True to realist form, his concerns are not some esoteric apocalyptic goal, such as the rise of global institutions bringing about everlasting peace or striving to live in a tyranny-free world; rather the welfare and the continued prosperity of his very tangible family are the object of all his efforts. Likewise for realists, the welfare of actual Americans now inhabiting an actual America is the focal point of all their endeavours. Instead of believing in a utopian and blissful future that none of us will see, Michael’s realist vocation turns his efforts toward the protection and betterment of genuine people, rather than abstractions.