Pax Corleone

Pax Corleone

Mini Teaser: How to make our adversaries and allies offers they can’t refuse. As threats to U.S. dominance emerge, Washington is looking for a way to counter them. Neocons, liberals and realists all have their own ideas about that. Who will win out?

by Author(s): John C. HulsmanA. Wess Mitchell

IT IS ONE of the most well-known scenes in cinematic history. Don Vito Corleone, head of the most powerful of New York's organized-crime families, walks alone across the street from his office to buy some oranges from the fruit stand. He mumbles pleasantly to the Chinese owner, then turns his attention to the task at hand. However, his peaceful idyll is shattered by the sounds of running feet and multiple gunshots-and he is left bleeding to death in the street, as his son Fredo cradles his body.

By a miracle, he is not dead, only gravely wounded. His two other 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. This, of course, is the hinge of Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, one of the greatest movies ever produced by American cinema. However, given the present changes in the world's power structure, the movie also 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 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.


The Consigliere

AS VITO'S heirs gather, the future of the Corleone dynasty hangs in the balance. The first to offer a strategy is Tom, the German-Irish transplant who serves as consigliere (chief legal advisor) to the clan. Though an adopted son, Tom is the most familiar with the inner workings of the New York crime world. As family lawyer and diplomat, he is responsible for navigating the complex network of street alliances, backroom treaties and political favors that surround and sustain the family empire. His view of the Sollozzo threat and how the family should respond to it are outgrowths 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.

First, 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 its 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-that of the world's "benign hegemon."

This is the system that Tom, in his role as consigliere, 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. This willingness to let the other crime syndicates drink from the well of Corleone political influence rendered the don's disproportionate accumulation of power more palatable to the other families, who were less inclined to form a countervailing 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 great-power 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-a second trait linking him to today's liberal institutionalists. Like more than one of the leading Democratic 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 which, especially since the publication of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, is the line promoted by the lawmakers and presidential hopefuls 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 crisis.

The party's growing veneration of diplomacy as the sine qua non of American statecraft rests, as it did for Tom, on two assumptions: first, that despite their aggressive posturing, the Sollozzos of the world would rather be status quo than revolutionary powers; and, second, that the other big families have a vested interest in sustaining the Pax Corleone and will therefore not use the family's distraction with Sollozzo as an opportunity to make their own power grabs. Working from these assumptions, today's consiglieres have prescribed the same course of action regarding Iran that Tom prescribed for dealing with Sollozzo: a process of intensified, reward-laden negotiation that they believe will pave the way for his admission as a normalized player into the family's rules-based community.

This near-religious belief in the efficacy of diplomacy brings Tom into bitter conflict with those in the family, led by Sonny, who favor a military response to Sollozzo. To Tom, as to many Democrats, Sonny's reveling in the family muscle runs counter to the logic of institutionalized restraint that Vito used to build the family empire. In the world that Tom knows, force is used judiciously and as a last resort: only on the rarest of occasions, and after repeated attempts at negotiation, would the don dispatch Luca Brazi to cajole and threaten an opponent-"To make them an offer they can't refuse"-and even then, it was usually with the foreknowledge and multilateral consent of the other families. By contrast, the street war Sonny launches against Sollozzo is an act of reckless unilateralism, which, unless ended, threatens to upset Tom's finely tuned institutional order and squander the hard-won gains of the Pax Corleone.

At first blush, Tom's critique of Sonny's militarist strategy sounds reasonable. Compared with the eldest son's promiscuous expenditures of Corleone blood, treasure and clout, Tom's workmanlike emphasis on consensus building has much to recommend it; if successful, it would permit the Corleones to resume their peaceful hegemony to their own and the other families' benefit. 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. Tom no longer has 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 Tataglias and Barzinis-the mafia equivalent of today's BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China). Like the current international system, 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).

But even if Tom doesn't know the world is shifting, Sollozzo does. Like the two-bit petty tyrants that challenge Washington with mounting confidence in today's world, Sollozzo senses 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." The consigliere is wrong about Sollozzo. He is not, like challengers in the past, out to join the Pax Corleone. He is an opportunist who will take things as they come-either as a revolutionary power or a status quo power, but certainly as one out to accelerate and profit from the transition to multipolarity. The other families have no more incentive to thwart his maneuvers than Russia and China have to thwart those of Iran. And because Tom fails to see this, his strategy is the wrong one for the family, and the wrong one for America.


Shoot First and Ask Questions Later

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. Disdaining 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 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.

Essay Types: Essay