The Godfather Doctrine: A Foreign Policy Parable (Part 3)

The Godfather and American Foreign Policy

The Don, alone, walks across the street to pick some fruit from the stand. He mumbles pleasantly to the Chinese owner, then turns his skilled attention to the task. However, his peaceful idyll is shattered by the sounds of running feet and multiple gunshots. Vito Corleone, head of the most powerful of New York’s organised crime families, lies slumped over his car, with five bullet holes in his body.

Virgil ‘the Turk’ Sollozzo arranged the hit on Vito, as the Don refused to ally with him in expanding into the very lucrative narcotics trade. By a miracle, he is not dead, only gravely wounded. His three sons, Santino (Sonny), Tom Hagen, and Michael, gather in an atmosphere of shock and panic to try to decide what to do next, with the towering figure of the Don looming over them all. For the Godfather was more than just the most powerful mafioso of his era; he has come to epitomise a power structure that has stood the test of time. All that has been imperiled, along with the Don’s dwindling life.

This, of course, is the hinge of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, one of the greatest movies ever produced by American cinema. The Godfather has always been a joy to watch; however, given the present changes in the world’s power structure, the move becomes a startlingly useful metaphor for the strategic problems of our times. The raging Vito Corleone, emblematic of Cold War American power, is struck down suddenly and violently by forces he did not expect and does not understand, much as America was on September 11th.

Even more intriguingly, each of his three sons embraces a very different vision of how the family should move forward following this wrenching moment. The sons approximate the three American foreign policy schools of thought—liberal institutionalism, neoconservatism, and realism—vying for control in today’s disarranged world order. While we certainly accept that analogies have their limits, taking a fresh look at The Godfather, and the positions of the three quarrelling sons, casts an illuminating spotlight on the American foreign policy debates that rage today.