The Godfather Doctrine: A Foreign Policy Parable, Part 8 (Epilogue: Critics)

We (A. Wess Mitchell and myself) have been gratified by the overwhelming reaction our essay has sparked, both from lovers of The Godfather and from fellow foreign policy experts. Since its initial publication in National Interest, versions of the article have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Harper’s Magazine, provoking discussion on the editors’ blogs at both the Weekly Standard (Sonny territory) and the New Republic (Tom territory). And in a demonstration of the universal appeal of Coppola’s film—and the universal applicability of realism—the article has been widely disseminated abroad, with translations in several languages. People seem to have competed with one another to stretch our analogy to its breaking point while displaying an almost encyclopedic knowledge of a film that we thought we knew back to front. For the intellectual stimulation and just plain good fun that this has brought to us, we would like to thank you.

The first criticism of our parable comes from some foreign policy specialists, uneasy with the lack of grounding our story has in contemporary academic studies of International Relations theory. We fear the above sentence will have our more general readers reaching to close this book. But our specialist colleagues have raised an important point, if not in the way they intended to.

For, as we stated in the introduction, the purpose of using a parable is to convey, in succinct form and to a primarily non-academic audience, the story of relative American geopolitical decline and the competing policy options that are now available for dealing with that reality. This book is about looking at the worldviews of decision-makers. It was never intended as an academic treatise or primer in International Relations theory.

Far from it. As we have spelled out, one of the primary reasons for writing this book was to get away from the inaccessible postulates of theory and connect with a mass audience around the very different idea of looking at the worldviews of those who directly guide the future course of the country. We both come from this more practical policy-driven world. It is what we do with our day, what we are constantly writing about, and what the general public is far more interested in.

However, this quibble is not what has disturbed most readers; instead they rightly worry about how the end of the movie jibes with what we have laid out in such detail. One main criticism has been tabled. If Michael is such a cautious and measured realist, readers ask, then why does he unleash a torrent of violence at the end of the movie, wiping out the family’s enemies? Isn’t this something Sonny would do?

Indeed, at first glance, this argument makes sense. We must stress again that our analogy, like all others, has limits. But in terms of the critical factors of timing and objectives, Michael’s seemingly explosive mowing-down of his rivals at the end of the Godfather films is undertaken for realist reasons, using realist tactics.

First, his objectives are more limited and therefore more achievable than Sonny’s. For Michael, in trying to preserve the family, represents a status quo and not a revolutionary power. He is not trying, as Sonny is, to return to the simpler, more intellectually satisfying time of family dominance. Rather, he is trying to manage, as America should, a very new world, with very different circumstances.

His rampage is not unrestrained. He is not trying to eradicate the other families as Sonny is; Michael would not approve of neoconservative efforts at regime change. On the contrary, he is trying to deal from a position of strength with his rising peer competitors in the new world in which he finds himself.

Using realist tools that have been around since the time of Athens, diplomatic carrots and sticks, Michael whacks several of the leaders of the other families to manoeuvre these rising powers into a more malleable position. By inducing them with the carrot of personal profit—the opportunity to share in the Corleone family’s heightened prosperity in Las Vegas gambling—Michael is following tactics of which Tom Hagen would surely approve. But a family policy, or a foreign policy, of merely using carrots suffices only in a world dominated by rabbits.

As Michael knows, along with Sonny, there is a far bigger jungle out there. Force has always been, and will always be, part of the diplomatic equation. It should come as no surprise that the Iliad, the West’s first great work of literature, is about the universality of war. Michale has ingested this tragic reality with his mother’s milk. The other families must be shown that as there is a financial reward that comes with siding with the Corleone family in this new world, so there is a painful penalty for trying to upend the new system by attempting to eradicate Michael’s family. It is a lesson not likely to be lost on the new leaders of the rising families, who through Michael’s skilful use of carrots and sticks are likely to prove far more amenable to co-existing in this new world, where Corleone power is still a major factor in Mafia life.

The other major difference between Michael’s use of force and Sonny’s is timing. Where his elder brother envisions an open-ended feud, during which he will vanquish any and all challengers emerging to contest the family’s old dominance, Michael’s preference is for a one time, comprehensive setting of accounts, after which the new system can settle into a stable—and peaceful—period of equilibrium.

Before his plan of strategic retrenchment (the shift to Las Vegas gambling) is set in motion, Michael knows that immediate challenges must first be effectively dealt with. Otherwise, no matter how brilliant his plans out West, the family will be hobbled by lingering wounds from the previous era, as the other families—as yet unconvinced of Michael’s ability to fill his father’s shoes—use perennial tests of strength to gauge the unfolding power structure.

By devoting all the resources he has inherited from the world that Vito built—all of the family’s remaining allies, its clout, and yes, its muscle—to removing the constraints of his immediate freedom of manoeuvre, he is able to pave the way for the Vegas plan to succeed, creating a springboard from which the family can sally forth into the new era from a position of unmistakable strength.

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