by John Hulsman and A. Wess Mitchell
Princeton University Press, 2009 96 pp $9.95
NEARLY FORTY years after Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and Francis Ford Coppola’s film trilogy, Michael Corleone is almost as ubiquitous today as he was then. The movies run on cable television on a loop, a video game inspired by them has just been released, and the inheritors of the Corleone tradition—Tony Soprano springs to mind—abound in our popular culture.
John Hulsman and A. Wess Mitchell have now taken this obsession to an extreme extension. The Godfather Doctrine (Princeton University Press), an expanded version of an article they published in National Interest in February of 2008, holds the film as a compelling vision for America’s place in the world in the twenty-first century. Michael Corleone is not merely a movie gangster; he has become an argument for the realist school of foreign policy thought.
The Godfather is a story rich in possibility for interpretation and allegory. Michael’s father is Vito Corleone, founder of the Corleone criminal organization. When Vito is shot on a Brooklyn street, his sons vie to rebuild the family empire. Michael’s brother Sonny advocates a campaign of brutal violence. Tom, another brother, insists that the Corleones improve their lot by working within the institutional rules—such as they are—of the underworld. Michael, meanwhile, uses all the tools at his disposal—including brutal violence and bending the rules—to suit his family’s interests and triumphs. He, not his brothers, redeems the Corleones and becomes Vito’s successor as Godfather.
In the hands of Hulsman and Mitchell, the fallen Vito is “emblematic of Cold War American power,” and each brother stands in for a different foreign policy response to America’s decline. Tom is the liberal internationalist of the bunch. “Throughout the movie, Tom’s motto is ‘we oughta talk to ‘em’,” an approach that betrays an acute similarity to the diplomacy-first tactics of the Obama administration. The temperamental Sonny, aching to attack all possible enemies, is the neoconservative. Michael is the realist. He “has no formulaic fixation on a particular policy instrument. Instead, his overarching goal is to protect the family’s interests and save it from impending ruin by any and all means necessary.” It is Michael to whom Hulsman and Mitchell attach themselves. His approach is their doctrine.
The book’s initial premise rings true enough, and it is no minor claim: the American moment, as we previously understood it, has passed. “America in 2009 is economically palsied, diplomatically isolated, and military exhausted,” is one of the book’s first contentions, and it seems accurate. Our power has indeed waned. September 11 was, as the book says, a watershed moment, akin to the assassination attempt on Vito Corleone.
But is this decline a permanent state of affairs? The intelligentsia seems to be infected with worries of declinism every few years, perhaps once a decade; Carter’s presidency and the early post-cold war years were awash with the same fear. In addition, Hulsman and Mitchell’s declinism also suffers from a kind of illusory nostalgia about the power America once possessed. We were never the only Godfather; if America after the Second World War was Vito, then Russia must have been Vito’s twin brother, never shown on screen.
Yet even if they get the big picture diagnosis correct, for two authors well known for nuanced thought, The Godfather Doctrine offers a strikingly absolutist solution. Hulsman, in particular, seems out of place; before and during the Iraq War, he placed himself on the side of the conservative realist opposition. With Brent Scowcroft as his guiding light, and Dwight Eisenhower as his lodestar, he published a series of piercing critiques of Bush foreign policy, most notably a book called Ethical Realism. Written with the liberal realist Anatol Lieven, Ethical Realism was a foreign policy prescription filled with enough qualifiers and conditional statements to please the traditionally competing ideologies of both authors. Mitchell is not as visible—this is his first book—but he, too, has worked to carve out a similar reputation for subtlety—taking to the pages, for instance, of the sometimes too subtle American Interest.
Teasing out the allegorical elements in an old movie may be fun, but is never particularly subtle and is always an imperfect act of comparison. Hulsman and Mitchell are wise to concede the essential difficulty of their own project. Yet the failures of The Godfather Doctrine extend beyond the kind of translation errors—for instance, the various ideological views that are examined were developed long ago, and are thus not really “responses” to America’s present peril—that are unavoidable in such an effort. For this little book lays bare the errors of realism.
FIRST, THE sin of omission. The Godfather film that Hulsman and Mitchell turn to for their doctrine is the first of the trilogy. One can debate the relative merits of the second and third pictures, but the story is, as a simple matter of fact, incomplete without all three. The decision to limit analysis to the first film is telling. As the first film concludes, Michael Corleone’s power is on the ascent. He has eradicated his enemies—both internal and external—and seems sure to rule over the entire criminal underworld. Arguing that your philosophy corresponds with Corleone’s at this high point is more than a little self-flattering.
In the second and third films, the true character of his power is revealed. And it is hollow. While his father drew on his family and friends to strengthen the Corleone position, Michael shuns and sometimes destroys those potential allies. To Vito, family was a first principle; Michael speaks of family being of great importance to him, too, but the evidence indicates otherwise. By the end of the second film, having killed his brother and abandoned his wife, Michael is completely alone—an empire of one, haunted by memories of the past. The critically maligned third film goes to great lengths to underscore the damage Michael’s power has brought onto his own family and himself; in the penultimate scene, he is cradling his daughter, killed by an assassin’s bullet meant for him.
Hulsman and Mitchell would probably respond that they acknowledge the limits of their allegory throughout the book, and that their decision to focus on the first film ought to require their critics to do the same. But this line of argument easily falls apart. The first film by itself dramatizes the problem of Michael’s hypocrisy. During the climactic scene, Michael is participating in the baptism of his godson as five brutal murders that he has ordered are carried out. The film shifts back and forth, alternating between the sacred and the profane. Michael then kills the father of the newly baptized child, causing his sister—the child’s mother—to fly into uncontrollable rage. Michael’s absence of principle is thrown into stark relief, and a would-be ally is more or less lost forever.
Hulsman and Mitchell admire Michael’s strategic flexibility, which is to say they admire a foreign policy approach that prizes power above all else. They see in his approach a smart pragmatism that skillfully deploys carrots and sticks. But to what end? The long-term consequences of this strategic flexibility are devastating. The principles that Michael claims to hold dear are, to him, empty shells. His power becomes an end in itself, and he suffers greatly for it. Yes, the book concludes with an acknowledgment that the “parable breaks down” over the sharp contrast between the utter immorality of a mafia don and the moral convictions of the United States. But a final, belated, not to mention obvious, concession is not enough.
The book is staked to its advocacy for a posture of strategic flexibility. This is akin to advocating inconsistency—which, given the realities of the modern world, quickly becomes incoherence. The travesties of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, as well as the Iraq War itself, are not limited to the horrors they inflicted upon ordinary human beings. They remain an enduring problem for America because of the sharp contrast between rhetoric and reality that they exposed. As President Bush gave his full-throated endorsement to the rule of law and democracy promotion, his programs—the aforementioned examples abroad, the NSA’s surveillance program at home—actively undermined both positions. The soaring words of his second inaugural address, in which he branded democracy’s march as all but inevitable, surely fell flat to those who had suffered severely under his watch because of his fundamentally undemocratic policies.
Today, due in large part to the proliferation of the Internet and the easy availability of infinite information, these kinds of hypocrisies cannot be hidden for long. Hubris and greed tell Michael Corleone that he can do whatever he wants, as long as he works to further his “interests.” Yet without principles to guide him, his most basic interests finally come undone. This, surely, is one among many lessons offered by The Godfather. What a pity that Hulsman and Mitchell did not stick around for the end of the story.
Ethan Porter is the associate editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.