Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
July 2008 Issue [Readings]

A Foreign Policy You Can’t Refuse


By John C. Hulsman and A. Wess Mitchell, from “Pax Corleone,” published in February on the website of The National Interest. Hulsman is a scholar in residence at the German Council on Foreign Relations, in Berlin. Mitchell is the director of research at the Center for European Policy Analysis, in Washington, D.C.

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, one of the greatest movies ever produced by American cinema, hinges on the fate of the aging Vito Corleone. Emblematic of Cold War American power, the don is struck down suddenly and violently by forces he did not expect and does not understand, much as America was on September 11, 2001. Two of his 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. Each of the don’s three “heirs” embraces a different vision of how the family should move forward. Given the present changes in the world’s power structure, the movie is a startlingly useful metaphor for the strategic problems of our times.

The Consigliere

Tom Hagen’s approach is the outgrowth 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. 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 recently in Foreign Affairs of the need for America to “reclaim our proper place in the world.” The “proper place” Tom wants to reclaim is a mirror image of what American politicians remember from the 1990s and dream of restoring after 2008—that of the world’s “benign hegemon.” By sharing access to the policemen, judges, and senators whom (as Sollozzo puts it) the don carries in his pocket “like so many nickels and dimes,” the family created a kind of Sicilian Bretton Woods. This willingness to let the other crime syndicates drink from the well of Corleone political influence rendered the don’s accumulation of power more palatable to the other families, who were less inclined to form a 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 a great- powers 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. Like the top Dem ocratic 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 that, especially since the publication of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, is the line promoted by the leaders 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 threat.

But the hope Tom offers the family is a false one. For to be successful, the consigliere’s diplomacy must be conducted from a position of unparalleled strength, which the family no longer possesses. Tom has lost 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 Tattaglias and Barzinis—the mafia equivalent of today’s BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). 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).


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. Although 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 acted with the knowledge 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.

One can imagine that Sonny’s shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later approach would meet with the firm approval of such arch-neoconservatives as Norman Podhoretz. By starting a gangland free-for-all after 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 force 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.


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 and Sonny, 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. Viewing the world through untinted lenses, he sees that the age of dominance the family enjoyed under his father is ending. Michael senses that a shift is under way toward a more diffuse power arrangement. To survive and succeed in this new environment, he knows the family will have to adapt. In today’s foreign-policy terminology, he is a realist.

First, Michael relinquishes the one-trick-pony policy approaches of his brothers in favor of a “toolbox” of tactics, whereby soft and hard power are used in flexible combinations and as circumstances dictate. 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 afterward diplomatically. Can any of the Iran policies currently 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 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 relies on 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. 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 baker and Bonasera the 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.

| View All Issues |

July 2008

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now