Friday, May 29, 2009
The Godfather's Vito Corleone: A Metaphor for Uncle Sam Today?
"The Godfather Doctrine", a foreign policy parable by John Hulsman and Wes Mitchell, uses the Godfather movie metaphor to describe the current situation the United States is confronted with. As a superpower in relative decline like the Godfather in the movie, Uncle Sam faces a situation similar to the one Vito Corleone's sons Michael and Sonny and adopted son Tom Hagen, the consiglieri, faced right after the unexpected attack on the feared but aging Vito Corleone at the peak of his power. It compares the fruit stand attack on Vito by upstarts (Sollozzo) to the 911 attacks by Al Qaeda on the United States.
The metaphor in the book classifies Tom as a "liberal institutionalist" who wants to use the elaborate institutional network Vito Corleone created by making alliances with other crime families and buying out policemen, judges and politicians. This is the system that Tom, in his role as consiglieri, 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 who joined hands with the Corleones.
Sonny's visceral response to the crisis is to advocate “toughness” through military action, a single-minded policy prescription for waging righteous war against the rest of the ungrateful mafia world. Dismissing 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 preemptive action 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. So Sonny represents "the necon" who goes on a rampage, much like the Bush administration did after 911, in response to the attack on his father and fails miserably and gets killed. 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.
Michael is the "realist" (Obama?) who survives to use a combination of hard power and soft power to maintain and enrich his crime family by co-opting other emerging crime families, which the book compares with the US attempts to co-opt the BRIC countries, representing Brazil, Russia, India and China among others. It is the strategy that ultimately saves the Corleone family from the Sollozzo threat and equips it for coping with multipolarity. 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.
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.
Authors Hulsman and Mitchell compare Iran and North Korea, who defy US and the US-backed institutions such as the UN Security Council consistently, with Sollozzo, who challenges Vito Corleone. And the US doesn't quite know how to deal with them. Sollozzo realizes 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.”
I think the elaborate international alliances and institutions that US has built over 60 years ago, such as UN Security Council, NATO, World Bank, OECD, WTO, IMF, IAEA etc, through which America exercises tremendous power and control, are being weakened partly due to America's own missteps, and my guess is that these alliances and institutions will not survive as they are today. There will be a huge realignment of nations, as the powerful new players, including China, Russia, Germany, Japan, Brazil, India, South Africa want greater say in the affairs of the world. So do the Iranians, the Koreans and the Arabs.
So the only way the US can retain significant power and influence is by co-opting some of these emerging nations. The ones that seems ready to play ball are India and established economic powers like Germany and Japan, who have economically benefited from globalization under the US leadership. Others, such as Russia, China and Brazil, who have also benefited from globalization, are not willing to be co-opted by the US.
In my opinion, India appears to be well on its way to join the US as a close ally in this emerging new multipolar world. There is a burgeoning US-India relationship in almost all spheres. Indian Prime Minister Mr. Manmohan Singh summed it up well when he said to former President Bush on his visit to the White House last year, "The people of India deeply love you."
The Prime Minister continued with the theme of affection and gratitude by adding, “In the last four and half years that I have been Prime Minister, I have been the recipient of your generosity, your affection, your friendship. It means a lot to me and to the people of India.”
Later, India's Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon explained: “I think, if you look at the public opinion polls, the ratings for President Bush are higher in India than in any other country. That is the factual basis.”
As the US-China rivalry grows and US and India continue to build ever closer ties, it is very likely that Pakistan will be forced to make a choice and grow away from the US and closer to China in the years ahead. This decision will be driven partly by the powerful anti-US currents in Pakistan's public opinion.
The book "The Godfather Doctrine" paints the United States as a power in relative decline, and it forecasts the emergence of a new, multi-polar world, with US being one of many power centers. In all likelihood, America will still be quite strong and powerful for a while, but its writ will no longer be unchallenged. It will have to rely on support from other powers to deal with the Solozzos (Iran, North Korea, al Qaeda etc.) of the world.
As you can see, the drama in real life is not quite over yet. Let's see if the metaphor makes sense as it plays itself out.
Here's a video clip from the movie:
The Godfather movie
Manmohan Singh Professes Love of America