Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Godfather Doctrine Applied in Today's World

IT IS ONE of the most well-known scenes in cinematic history. Don Vito Corleone, head of the most powerful of New York’s organized-crime families, walks alone across the street from his office to buy some oranges from the fruit stand. He mumbles pleasantly to the Chinese owner, then turns his attention to the task at hand. However, his peaceful idyll is shattered by the sounds of running feet and multiple gunshots—and he is left bleeding to death in the street, as his son Fredo cradles his body.

By a miracle, he is not dead, only gravely wounded. His two other sons, Santino (Sonny) and Michael, as well as his consigliere, Tom Hagen, an adopted son himself, gather in an atmosphere of shock and panic to try to decide what to do next—and how to respond to the attempted assassination of the don by Virgil “the Turk” Sollozzo. This, of course, is the hinge of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, one of the greatest movies ever produced by American cinema. However, given the present changes in the world’s power structure, the movie also becomes a startlingly useful metaphor for the strategic problems of our times.

The aging 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 11. Even more intriguingly, each of his three “heirs” embraces a very different vision of how the family should move forward following this wrenching moment. Tom Hagen, Sonny and Michael approximate the three American foreign-policy schools of thought—liberal institutionalism, neoconservatism and realism—vying for control in today’s disarranged world order.

The Consigliere

AS VITO’S heirs gather, the future of the Corleone dynasty hangs in the balance. The first to offer a strategy is Tom, the German-Irish transplant who serves as consigliere (chief legal advisor) to the clan. Though an adopted son, Tom is the most familiar with the inner workings of the New York crime world. As family lawyer and diplomat, he is responsible for navigating the complex network of street alliances, backroom treaties and political favors that surround and sustain the family empire. His view of the Sollozzo threat and how the family should respond to it are outgrowths of a legal-diplomatic worldview that shares a number of philosophical similarities with the liberal institutionalism that dominates the foreign-policy outlook of today’s Democratic Party.

First, like many modern Democrats, Tom believes that the family’s main objective should be to return as quickly as possible to the world as it existed before the attack. His overriding strategic aim is the one that Hillary Clinton had in mind when she wrote in a recent Foreign Affairs article of the need for America to “reclaim its proper place in the world.” The “proper place” Tom wants to reclaim is a mirror image of the one that American politicians remember from the 1990s and dream of restoring after 2008—that of the world’s “benign hegemon.”

This is the system that Tom, in his role as consigliere, was responsible for maintaining. By sharing access to the policemen, judges and senators that (as Sollozzo puts it) the don “carries in his pocket like so many nickels and dimes,” the family managed to create a kind of Sicilian Bretton Woods—a system of political and economic public goods that benefited not only the Corleones, but the entire mafia community. This willingness to let the other crime syndicates drink from the well of Corleone political influence rendered the don’s disproportionate accumulation of power more palatable to the other families, who were less inclined to form a countervailing coalition against it. The result was a consensual, rules-based order that offered many of the same benefits—low transaction costs of rule, less likelihood of great-power war and the chance to make money under an institutional umbrella—that America enjoyed during the cold war.

It is this “Pax Corleone” that Sollozzo, in Tom’s eyes, must not be allowed to disrupt. In dealing with the new challenger, however, Tom believes that the brothers must be careful not to do anything that would damage the family business. The way to handle Sollozzo, he judges, is not through force but through negotiation—a second trait linking him to today’s liberal institutionalists. Like more than one of the leading Democratic contenders for the presidency, Tom thinks that even a rogue power like Sollozzo can be brought to terms, if only the family will take the time to hear his proposals and accommodate his needs.

Throughout the movie, Tom’s motto is “we oughta talk to ‘em”—a slogan which, especially since the publication of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, is the line promoted by the lawmakers and presidential hopefuls of the Democratic Party, who now say that immediate, unconditional talks with America’s latest “Sollozzo” (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) are the only option still open to Washington for coping with the Iranian nuclear crisis.

The party’s growing veneration of diplomacy as the sine qua non of American statecraft rests, as it did for Tom, on two assumptions: first, that despite their aggressive posturing, the Sollozzos of the world would rather be status quo than revolutionary powers; and, second, that the other big families have a vested interest in sustaining the Pax Corleone and will therefore not use the family’s distraction with Sollozzo as an opportunity to make their own power grabs. Working from these assumptions, today’s consiglieres have prescribed the same course of action regarding Iran that Tom prescribed for dealing with Sollozzo: a process of intensified, reward-laden negotiation that they believe will pave the way for his admission as a normalized player into the family’s rules-based community.

This near-religious belief in the efficacy of diplomacy brings Tom into bitter conflict with those in the family, led by Sonny, who favor a military response to Sollozzo. To Tom, as to many Democrats, Sonny’s reveling in the family muscle runs counter to the logic of institutionalized restraint that Vito used to build the family empire. In the world that Tom knows, force is used judiciously and as a last resort: only on the rarest of occasions, and after repeated attempts at negotiation, would the don dispatch Luca Brazi to cajole and threaten an opponent—“To make them an offer they can’t refuse”—and even then, it was usually with the foreknowledge and multilateral consent of the other families. By contrast, the street war Sonny launches against Sollozzo is an act of reckless unilateralism, which, unless ended, threatens to upset Tom’s finely tuned institutional order and squander the hard-won gains of the Pax Corleone.

At first blush, Tom’s critique of Sonny’s militarist strategy sounds reasonable. Compared with the eldest son’s promiscuous expenditures of Corleone blood, treasure and clout, Tom’s workmanlike emphasis on consensus building has much to recommend it; if successful, it would permit the Corleones to resume their peaceful hegemony to their own and the other families’ benefit. But the hope Tom offers the family is a false one.

For in order to be successful, the consigliere’s diplomacy must be conducted from a position of unparalleled strength, which the family no longer possesses. Tom no longer has the luxury of always being the man at the table with the most leverage. The era of easy Corleone dominance is over. Power on the streets has already begun to shift into the hands of the Tataglias and Barzinis—the mafia equivalent of today’s BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China). Like the current international system, the situation that confronts the Corleone family is one of increasing multipolarity—a reality that is lost on Tom, who thinks he is still the emissary of the dominant superpower (a delusion that many Democrats apparently share).

But even if Tom doesn’t know the world is shifting, Sollozzo does. Like the two-bit petty tyrants that challenge Washington with mounting confidence in today’s world, Sollozzo senses that fundamental changes are underway in the global system and knows that they give him greater latitude for defying the Corleones than he had in the past. As Sollozzo tells Tom, “The old man is slipping; ten years ago I couldn’t have gotten to him.” The consigliere is wrong about Sollozzo. He is not, like challengers in the past, out to join the Pax Corleone. He is an opportunist who will take things as they come—either as a revolutionary power or a status quo power, but certainly as one out to accelerate and profit from the transition to multipolarity. The other families have no more incentive to thwart his maneuvers than Russia and China have to thwart those of Iran. And because Tom fails to see this, his strategy is the wrong one for the family, and the wrong one for America.

Shoot First and Ask Questions Later

SONNY’S 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 reestablish the family’s dominance is to eradicate all possible future threats to it. 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.

The don himself knew that threats against his position were a fact of life; while his policy revolved around minimizing them, he knew well that in a world governed by power, they could never be entirely eliminated. As he put it to Michael, “Men cannot afford to be careless.” By contrast, Sonny’s neoconservative approach is built around the strategically reckless notion that risk can be eliminated from life altogether through the relentless—and if necessary, preemptive—use of violence.

In Sonny, Tom is confronted with the cinematic archetype of the modern-day neoconservative hard-liner. Their resulting feud resembles the pitched political warfare between Democrats and neoconservatives that has come to dominate the American political landscape:

Tom Hagen, the liberal institutionalist: “We oughta hear what they have to say.”

Sonny, the neocon: “No, no more. Not this time, consigliere; no more meetings, no more discussions, no more Sollozzo tricks. . . . And do me a favor: 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 must be swiftly cauterized, no matter what the cost. Sonny wants to “stop being weak” and doesn’t want to “waste time”; showing any opposition to using force confirms for him that “I knew you didn’t have the guts to do this.” (One can imagine that Sonny’s shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later approach would meet with the firm approval of arch-neoconservatives such as Norman Podhoretz and Michael Ledeen, given their stance on how to deal with Iran.)

So, 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 is one of choice rather than strategic necessity. Sonny’s rash instinct to use military power to solve his structural problems merely hastens the family’s decline.

For 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. 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 Corleone’s 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 pummeling Carlo, Sonny is struck down by his legion of foes, his body riddled with bullets. As has proven true for the 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 striking back, as happened in Iraq, is an obvious conclusion.

Michael’s Realism

THE STRATEGY that ultimately saves the Corleone family from the Sollozzo threat and equips it for coping with multipolarity comes from Michael, the youngest and least experienced of the don’s sons. Unlike Tom, whose labors as family lawyer have produced an exaggerated devotion to negotiation, and Sonny, whose position as untested heir apparent has produced a zeal for utilizing 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 under his father is ending. Alone among the three brothers, Michael senses that a shift is underway toward a more diffuse power arrangement, in which multiple power centers will jockey for position and influence. To survive and succeed in this new environment, Michael knows the family will have to adapt.

First, Michael relinquishes the mechanistic, one-trick-pony policy approaches of his brothers in favor of a “toolbox,” in which soft and hard power are used in flexible combinations and as circumstances dictate. While at various times he sides with Tom (favoring negotiation) or Sonny (favoring force), Michael sees their positions as 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 “button men” to knock out those competitors he cannot co-opt, while negotiating with the rest as Tom would like. This blending of sticks and carrots 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. Can any of the Iran policies currently being advocated by the leading candidates of both parties be said to proceed from these assumptions?

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 possesses a system of alliances on the brink of collapse. Having flocked to the Corleone colors when the war against Sollozzo broke out, the family’s allies—like America’s in the “New” 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 dominance; like today’s liberal institutionalists, 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 encouragement and a cigarette to Enzo, the timid neighborhood baker, whose help he enlisted 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 small players like the cake maker and undertaker (Poland and Romania), whose loyalty he is seen cultivating in the opening scenes of the movie. As Michael knows, even small allies could potentially prove crucial in “tipping the scales” 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 blood and treasure were frittered away, with little or nothing to show in return, in the sands of Iraq.

Finally, while addressing the family’s immediate need for a more versatile policy tool kit and shoring up its 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 sources 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 Tataglias and 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 underway 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 Organization) that exclude the United States as a participant altogether.

Rather than ignoring this phenomenon like Tom or launching a frontal assault against it like Sonny, Michael sees it as a hidden opportunity. For Michael knows that if the family acts decisively, before the Tataglias and Barzinis have acquired a commanding margin of power, it can rearrange the existing institutional setup in ways that satisfy the new power centers 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 Coreleones’ 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, Michael 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 him on his own terms.

A similar technique could prove very useful for America in anticipating and preparing the way for the emergence of its Tataglias and Barzinis, the rising and resurgent powers. Such an effort at preemptive institutional regrouping, with decision making predicated on new global power realities, is vital if America’s new peer 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 able to position itself, like the Corleones, as the next best thing: primus inter pares—“first among equals.”

CAN ANY of the candidates vying to become the next president of the United States match Michael’s cool, dispassionate courage in the face of epochal change? Will they avoid living in the comforting embrace of the past, from which both Tom and Sonny ultimately could not escape? Or will they emulate Michael’s flexibility—to preserve America’s position in a dangerous world?


Thanks to John C. Hulsman and A. Wess Mitchell

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