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.

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.

The Godfather Doctrine: A Foreign Policy Parable (Part 6); The Realist

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.

The Godfather; A Foreign Policy Parable (Part 5)

Shoot First and Ask Questions Later

Sonny, the Don’s undisputed heir, is the most shaken by the attempted hit on his father, whom he venerates. His simplistic response to the crisis is to advocate ‘toughness’ through military action, a one-note policy prescription for waging righteous war against the rest of the ungrateful Mafia world.

Disdaining Tom’s pleas that business will suffer, Sonny’s damn-the-torpedoes approach belies a deep-seated fear that the only way to re-establish the family’s dominance is to eradicate all possible future threats to it, however remote. While such a strategy makes emotional sense following the attempted hit on his father, it runs counter to the long-term interests of the family. Vito himself knew that threats against his position were a fact of life; while his policy revolved around minimising them, he well knew that, in a world governed by power, they could never be entirely eliminated. As the Don put it to Michael, ‘Men cannot afford to be careless.’

By contrast, Sonny’s Neo-conservative approach is built around the strategically utopian notion that risk itself can be eliminated from life altogether though the relentless—and if necessary, preemptive—use of violence.

In Sonny, Tom is confronted with the cinematic archetype of the modern-day Neo-conservative hardliner. Their resulting feud resembles nothing so much as the pitched political warfare between Wilsonians and Neo-conservatives that has come to dominate the American political landscape:

NEOCON: ‘Hey, get this, Sollozzo wants to talk—can you imagine the nerve on that son of a bitch? Last night he makes a hit on pop, and today he wants to talk…’

WILSONIAN: ‘We oughta hear what they have to say.’

NEOCON: ‘No, no more. Not this time, Consigliere; no more meetings, no more discussions, no more Sollozzo tricks.’

WILSONIAN: ‘Sonny, this is business, not personal.’

NEOCON: ‘Well then business will have to suffer, alright? And do me a favour: no more advice on how to patch things up—just help me win alright?’

Where Tom sees Sollozzo as a reasonable if aggressive businessman whose concerns, like those of previous challengers, can be accommodated through compromise and conciliation, Sonny sees an existential threat—a clear and present danger that, like Iran in the view of many Republicans, must be swiftly cauterised.

One can imagine Sonny’s shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later approach would meet with the approval of such neoconservatives such as Norman Podhoretz and Michael Ledeen. Confronted with the Iran crisis, Sonny would urge an immediate military strike, primarily as a way to cut through ambiguities and arrive at some sort of moral and strategic clarity, however illusory. As with the Neo-conservatives, so desperate to remove a possible emerging nuclear threat from Iran, it is unlikely that Sonny would make a cost-benefit analysis of such a military strike.

What, Ahmadinejad is not even in control of Tehran’s nuclear program? Don’t waste time, says Sonny. A US air strike would fail to accomplish anything of lasting military value and would only succeed in uniting Iran and the region against America? Stop being weak, says Sonny. A failed trike would imperil American allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Gulf States, Morocco, and Egypt, directly benefitting al-Qaeda and Isis? I knew you didn’t have the guts to do this, says Sonny. As is true for neoconservatives, Sonny would be unlikely to let facts get in the way of his desire for military action, however wrongheaded.

Instead, by starting a gangland free-for-all in the wake of the hit on his father, Sonny unwittingly severs long-standing family alliances and unites much of the rest of the Mafia world against the Corleones. The resulting war, like America’s Iraq debacle, is one of choice rather than strategic necessity. As has been true with empires since the beginning of time, Sonny’s rash instinct to use military power to solve his structural problems merely hastens the family’s decline.

As the past few years have shown, military intervention for its own sake, without a corresponding political plan, leads only to disaster. Yearning for the moral clarity that the Corleones’ past dominance had given them—a dominance not dissimilar to that enjoyed by America during the Cold War—Sonny cannot begin to comprehend that the era that made his military strategy possible has come to an end. Blinded by a militant moralism bereft of strategic insight, he proves an easy target for his foes.

The Neo-conservatism that Sonny espouses grew out of a movement that has been far less prominent in American history than either Tom’s Wilsonianism or Michael’s realism. Emanating from disillusioned Trotskyites, such as Irving Kristol, who had belatedly seen the error of their ways in Stalin’s excesses, these fierce Cold Warriors have remained true to a core principle of their earlier allegiance—permanent revolution, this time for a democratic world.

As Trotsky said of socialism, only when the whole world hewed firmly to a single ideological line could the planet be genuinely safe for sustained peace and prosperity. Modern-day neocons, substituting democracy for socialism, evidenced by President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address declaring that America cannot really be secure while tyranny exists in the world. The problem with this view is that such an end of history does not correspond with any period in the global record. It is a formula for perennial warfare, living beyond the country’s means, and a quick decline for America, still the greatest hope of the world.

Sonny’s fate is emblematic of Neo-conservatism’s follies. Unwisely, and against the advice of his mother, Sonny attempts to arbitrate the escalating domestic disputes between his sister, Connie, and her abusive husband, Carlo Ricci, failing to see that the beatings his sister endured from Carlo came at the behest of Don Barzini, the Corleones’ closest peer competitor. For Sonny’s reaction to all the evils of the world, whether beyond his ability to solve or not, is entirely predictable: ‘Attack.’ Unilaterally rushing to avenge his sister by pummelling Carlo, Sonny is struck down by his legion of foes, his body riddled with bullets. As has proven true for neoconservatives over Iraq, there is a depressing logic to his hit. In place of understanding the world, Sonny based his strategy on accosting it; the world’s striking back, as happened in Iraq, is an obvious conclusion.

Written with A. Wess Mitchell