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American Foreign Policy, Godfather Style

by @ 9:19 am on May 12, 2008. Filed under 2008 Election, Foreign Affairs, Godfather Saga, Politics

John C. Hulsman and A. Wess Mitchell have a fun, imaginative, and in it’s own way brilliant article up at The National Interest in which the compare the choices facing American foreign policy leaders to the choices facing the Corleone family in The Godather.

There is, for example, the diplomatic strategy epitomized by family consigliere Tom Hagen:

[L]ike 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.

The “shoot first and ask questions later” violence of Sonny Corleone:

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.

The result, of course, is a mob war that takes Sonny’s life not to mention countless others, and virtually destroys the family’s power base.

Until, that is, Michael Corleone comes along:

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.

And there is, the authors claim, a lesson for America from this 36 year old movie:

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.”

It’s an interesting analogy and, if you’re a foreign policy geek and a Godfather fan, a fun article but, like Alex Knapp, I’ve got to wonder if they didn’t take the analogy just a bit too far:

I love The Godfather as much as anybody, but let’s not forget how Michael ends up–alone and friendless, with no more power in the world, an ocean of blood on his hands, and only a little dog who cares that he’s gone.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want the future of America to go something like this:

H/T: Andrew Sullivan

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