It is one of the best-known scenes in cinematic history. Vito Corleone,
head of one of the most powerful organized-crime families in New York,
crosses the street to buy some oranges from a fruit stand. Seconds
later, his peaceful idyll is shattered as multiple gunshots leave him
bleeding in the street – victim of a hit by Mafia rival Virgil "the
By a miracle, he is only badly wounded. Two of his sons, Santino (Sonny) and Michael, and his adopted son and consigliere, Tom Hagen, gather in an atmosphere of shock to try to decide how to save the family.
This, of course, is the hinge of Francis Ford Coppola's movie, "The Godfather." It is also a startlingly useful metaphor for the strategic problems and global power structure of our time. The don, emblematic of Cold War American power, is struck by forces he did not expect and does not understand, as was America on 9/11. Intriguingly, his heirs embrace very different visions of family strategy that approximate the three schools of thought – liberal institutionalism, neoconservatism and realism – vying for control of U.S. foreign policy today.
As consigliere, Tom's view of the Sollozzo threat is rooted in a legal-diplomatic worldview similar to the liberal institutionalism of today's Democratic Party. The way to handle Sollozzo, Tom judges, is not through force but through negotiation. Tom thinks even a rogue power can be brought to terms, if the family accommodates his needs and accepts him as a normalized player in the Corleones' rules-based community. In this, he echoes the Democrats' belief that Washington's only option for coping with the Iranian nuclear crisis is immediate, unconditional talks with our latest "Sollozzo," Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But to succeed, Tom's diplomacy must be conducted from a position of unparalleled strength, which the family no longer possesses. Gone are the days when Tom was invariably the man at the table with the most leverage. Like the petty tyrants who challenge Washington with increasing confidence, Sollozzo is an opportunist who will take things as they come – as either a revolutionary or a status quo power, but certainly as one out to profit from the transition to multi-polarity. Power on the streets has already begun to shift to the Tattaglias and Barzinis – the Mafia equivalent of today's BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China). The reality confronting the Corleones is one of increasing multipolarity – something lost on Tom, who, like many Democrats, thinks he is still the emissary of the dominant superpower.
By contrast, Sonny's response is to advocate "toughness" through military action, a one-note policy prescription for waging war against the rest of the Mafia world. By starting a gangland free-for-all against all possible enemies at once, Sonny severs long-standing alliances and unites the other families against the Corleones.
One can imagine that Sonny's shoot-first, ask-questions-later approach would meet with the firm approval of arch-neoconservatives such as Norman Podhoretz and Michael Ledeen. Confronted with the current Iranian nuclear crisis, Sonny would urge an immediate airstrike, and it is unlikely he would make a cost-benefit analysis of the military option: What? A U.S. airstrike would imperil American allies in the region, directly benefiting Al Qaeda? I knew you didn't have the guts to do this, says Sonny, who doesn't let facts get in the way of his desire for action.
This rash instinct to use military power as a tactic to solve structural problems merely hastens the family's decline. Blinded by a militant moralism bereft of strategic insight, Sonny proves an easy target for his foes. In place of understanding the world, he accosts it, and the world, in Iraq as on the causeway, is able to strike back.
The strategy that ultimately saves the Corleone family from the Sollozzo threat and equips it to cope with the new world comes from Michael, the youngest and least experienced of the don's sons. Unlike Tom or Sonny, Michael has no formulaic fixation on a particular policy instrument; his overriding goal is to protect the family's interests by any and all means necessary. In today's foreign policy terminology, Michael is a realist.
Relinquishing the mechanistic, one-trick-pony approaches of his brothers, Michael uses soft and hard power in flexible combinations to influence others. Can the Iran policies advocated by candidates in either party be said to proceed from these assumptions?
Thinking long term, Michael also adjusts the institutional playing field to the family's advantage through a combination of accommodation (granting the other families access to the Corleones' New York political machinery) and retrenchment (shifting the family business to Las Vegas and giving the other families a stake in the new moneymaker, gambling). A similar effort at preemptive institutional reform is vital if America wants to persuade its competitors to resist the temptation to position themselves as revolutionary powers. Doing so now, before the wet concrete of the new multipolar order has hardened, could ensure that, though no longer hegemonic, 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 Tom and Sonny could not escape? Or will they emulate Michael's flexibility – to preserve America's position in a dangerous world?
John C. Hulsman is the Alfred von Oppenheim scholar in residence at the German Council on Foreign Relations and president of John C. Hulsman Enterprises.
A. Wess Mitchell is the director of research at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington and a member of the Board of Directors at Atlantic Initiative.
This article was originally published in the Los Angeles Times, and appears on Atlantic Community by kind permission of the authors.