These highlights are from the Kindle version of The Godfather Doctrine: A Foreign Policy Parable by John Hulsman.
Chastened and confused, America must find the courage, resources, and, above all, creativity to navigate a world unlike anything that U.S. statesmen in living memory have had to confront. For we live in a world none of us studied in school. It will neither be wholly dominated by one great empire nor be the chessboard on which many countries with roughly equal power vie to establish their dominance.
In a time of unprecedented crisis, the United States must employ the least ideological and most thoroughly tested approach to foreign policy at its disposal—a school of thought known as “realism.” At its root, realism can be reduced to a simple proposition: that, in order to anticipate and adapt to change in international politics, you must first understand the nature, uses, and limitations of power, tailoring strategies to the actual capabilities a country possesses.
In the new multipolar era, it should be comical to think the United States need merely dictate, and others will follow. But such a view is still all too popular in both parties. This is because both neoconservatism and liberal institutionalism—much as their adherents often personally dislike one another—share an understandable vice, that of nostalgia for a world that has passed them by. It is entirely human to want to continue to live in the simple Cold War world, where America was dominant, its choices clear, its strategy set. As a result, America increasingly finds itself with a unipolar mind-set and a bipolar toolbox in a multipolar world.
It is as if people would rather be demonstrably wrong, but well-meaning, than adopt a point of view that may be right but seems cold, bloodless, and plodding.
We have chosen to present an allegory of American power drawn from that most American of mediums—film—and that most American of film dramas: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.
For in his chronicling of the rise, fall, and rebirth of the Corleone Mafia empire, Coppola presents two hauntingly prophetic messages that speak directly to America today: that the fall of the powerful is inevitable; and that we have options for how we respond to this tragic truth, make the most of the hidden opportunities it presents, and chart a course to renewed strength.
The Godfather has always been a joy to watch; however, given the present changes in the world’s power structure, the movie becomes a startlingly useful metaphor for the strategic problems of our times. 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 11th. Even more intriguingly, each of his three sons embraces a very different vision of how the family should move forward following this wrenching moment. The sons approximate the three American foreign policy schools of thought—liberal institutionalism, neoconservatism, and realism—vying for control in today’s disarranged world order.
Liberal institutionalism found its modern prophet in Woodrow Wilson, the vainglorious president who pledged fighting a war to end war itself. Along with this messianic disregard for history as it has been lived, its key features include a core conviction that rules can be used to trump power, and a corresponding predilection for using international institutions to tackle global problems.
Like 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 our 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.
But the hope Tom offers the family is a false one. For in order to be successful, the consigliere’s diplomacy must be conducted from a position of unparalleled strength, which the family no longer possesses.
Like the current international system, the situation that confronts the Corleone family is one of increasing multi-polarity—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).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 under way on the streets 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; the policy instruments it relied on before will have to be recalibrated. Unlike Tom, whose grand strategic vision centers on the concept of restoration, and Sonny, whose strategy is about retribution, Michael sees the time has come for wholesale strategic retrenchment. Three characteristics of his strategy allow it to succeed where the others fail, and could provide a blueprint for reinventing U.S. foreign policy today.
First, Michael relinquishes the mechanistic, one-trick-pony policy approaches of his brothers in favor of a “toolbox” in which soft and hard power are used in flexible combinations and as circumstances dictate. Like realists today, he knows that the family must cut the coat of its foreign policy according to the cloth of its material power base. While at various times he sides with Tom (favoring negotiation) or Sonny (favoring force), Michael understands their positions to be about tactics, and not about ultimate strategy, which for him is solely to ensure the survival and prosperity of the family. Thus he is able to use Sonny’s “buttonmen” to knock out those competitors he cannot co-opt, while negotiating with the rest as Tom would like. 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 afterwards diplomatically.
Merely using carrots suffices only in a world dominated by rabbits.
Force has always been, and will always be, part of the diplomatic equation. It should come as no surprise that the Iliad, the West’s first great work of literature, is about the universality of war.
The recent Georgia crisis illuminates the depressing sameness characterizing both political parties. Georgia’s government, despite repeated American warnings, attempted to wrest back control of the Russian-dominated separatist enclave of South Ossetia by force. Russia, overjoyed at this strategic blunder by its enemy, counterattacked Georgia proper, crushing the American-trained army and threatening the capital city of Tblisi.
Barack Obama, echoing Tom’s liberal institutionalist view, argues that, all geopolitical facts to the contrary, Georgia should be admitted into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the preeminent Western military organization, thus rewarding Tblisi for its rashness. This is due to the liberal institutionalist desire to “fill in” the missing pieces of Europe, to achieve the institutional dream, through universal NATO membership, of a “Europe whole and free,” underwritten by this most successful military alliance. Such a view disregards the fact that Georgia is utterly indefensible: short of using nuclear weapons, America cannot come to its aid militarily, saving it from the onslaught of a Russian advance.