The Godfather Doctrine: A Foreign Policy Parable (Part 7: Creating a New Order)

While addressing the family’s immediate need for a more versatile policy tool kit and shoring up teetering alliances, Michael also takes steps to adjust the institutional playing field to the Corleones’ advantage on a more fundamental, long-term basis. Where Tom sees institutions as essentially static edifices that act as a source of power in their own right, and Sonny sees them as needless hindrances to be bypassed, Michael sees institutions for what they truly are: Conduits of influence that ‘reflect and ratify’ but do not supplant deeper power realities. When the distribution of power shifts, institutions are sure to follow. As the Tattaglias and the Barzinis gain strength, Michael knows they will eventually overturn the existing order and replace it with an institutional rule book that better reflects their own needs and interests.

Evidence that this process is already under way can be seen in the ease with which Sollozzo is able to enlist the support of a local precinct captain—the Mafia equivalent of a UN mandate—when police loyalties formerly belonged to the Corleones. Similarly, Washington increasingly finds the very institutions it created after World War II being used against it by today’s rising powers, even as new structures are being built (like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) that exclude the United States as a participant altogether.

Rather than ignoring this phenomenon, as Tom does, or, like Sonny, launching a frontal assault against it, Michael sees it as a hidden opportunity. For Michael knows that if the family will act decisively, before the Tattaglias and the Barzinis have acquired a commanding margin of power, it can re-arrange the existing institutional setup in ways that satisfy the new power centres but still serve vital Corleone interests. This he does through a combination of accommodation (dropping the family’s resistance to narcotics and granting the other families access to the Corleones’ coveted New York political machinery) and institutional retrenchment (shifting the family business to Nevada and giving the other families a stake in the Corleones’ new moneymaker, Las Vegas gambling). In this way, he is able to give would-be rivals renewed incentives to bandwagon with, rather than balance against, the Corleone empire, while forcing them to deal with Michael on his own terms.

A similar technique could prove very useful for America in anticipating and preparing the way for the emergence of its Tattaglias and Barzinis, the BRICS. In the years ahead, Washington should pursue, as a matter of overriding strategic priority, the renovation and expansion of the Bretton Woods system as a first step toward incorporating the BRICS into a rules-based American world. Such an effort at pre-emptive institutional regrouping, with decision-making predicated on new global power realities, is vital if the new great power competitors are to eschew the temptation to position themselves as revolutionary powers in the new system. Doing so now, while the transition from the old system to multipolarity is still underway and before the wet cement of the new order has hardened, could help to ensure that, while it no longer enjoys the privileged status of hegemon, America is still able to position itself, like the Corleones, as the next best thing: Primus inter pares—’first among equals.’

Such an approach will require Washington to emulate Michael’s cool, dispassionate courage in the face of epochal change and to avoid living in the comforting embrace of the past, as both Tom and Sonny ultimately did. For in the end, Michael’s strategic goal is that of America—to preserve its position in a dangerous world.

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