Sunday, March 1, 2009

Leave the Non-Paper ... Take the Canoli

Using The Godfather as a parable for thinking about foreign policy is not a new idea, but I'm just now catching up with The Godfather Doctrine by John C. Hulsman and A. Wess Mitchell.

It makes sense to me. Why not? People have been drawing an analogy between President Bush and the latest Batman movie for months (see this), and I'm sure The Godfather provides much more food for policy thought than Batman does.

Batman might have the edge in philosophical interest - see Batman and Philosophy: the Dark Knight of the Soul for more on that - but for lessons in wielding power, how could you go wrong with the greatest gangster film of all time? It's modern-day Machiavelli right down to the olive oil.

Hulsman and Mitchell stated their main idea last year in an article in the National Interest (Pax Corleone). The key moment comes right after the head of the Corelone family was ambushed by Virgil "the Turk" Sollozzo, a non-traditional threat who overturned the strategic alliance of the five New York families:

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.

In this cast of characters, Tom Hagen is the mob diplomat whose ultimate goal is to return the family to peaceful multilateral relations and the status quo ante, and who expects that Sollozzo can be accommodated just as the Corleones have always done with rival mobsters. Sonny is the hothead who responds with preemptive militarism and will let business suffer while he tries to destroy all his enemies even if it makes the other New York families line up against the Corleones. Michael is the realist who assesses a strategic change coming to the mob world and the family's corresponding need to change in order to survive and thrive. Michael responds to the new situation with plenty of violence, but carefully targeted and controlled violence that destroys only those enemies that cannot be dealt with otherwise. He keeps his eye on the geostrategic ball even as he settles all of the family's business.

It's no more far-fetched than any other movie analogy, and it does seem to line up with the major political circles or schools of thought.

If the idea of studying foreign policy via mob movies catches on, maybe FSI will put out a new line of courses on the tradecraft of mob diplomacy:

- PD Strategies for Keeping your Friends Close and Your Enemies Closer
- It's Foreign Commercial Business, not Personal
- Advanced Negotiation: Using Stark Fear to Reason With Recalcitrant Partners
- Intelligence & Foreign Policy: What Do Your Rats Tell You?
- Interfamily Cooperative Administrative Support Services (ICASS)
- Political-Military Affairs: When is it Time to Go to the Mattresses?
- Congressional Relations: Those Politicians and Judges You Carry Around in Your Pocket Like So Many Nickles and Dimes

In all seriousness, everybody I know can quote from The Godfather on all sorts of occasions. On 9/11, when my co-workers and I were watching the Twin Towers fall on a TV screen, and then looked out of our Arlington office to see a column of smoke rising from the direction of the Pentagon, one of us - a long-time veteran Regional Security Officer - said: "this is the business we've chosen." It didn't seem at all inappropriate, and it expressed what we were all thinking at that moment about how our professional lives would be changed by the day's events. The movie does seem to resonate with most people.

Long ago, when I was looking for academic works that would explain the convoluted military politics of Central America, a specialist in the region told me to read the Valachi Papers. He was serious, and that old mob memoir proved, in fact, to be a good source of insights into the very similar world of conspiratorial circles and internecine warfare that I was studying.

We could do worse than to use The Godfather as a lens for interpreting power politics.

1 comment:

Consul-At-Arms said...

I've quoted you and linked to you here: