Sunday, 15 March 2009

“The Godfather Doctrine”, by John C. Hulsman & A. Wess Mitchell (Princeton)


An unusual, original take on American Foreign Policy

John Hulsman and Wess Mitchell have taken perhaps the most unique approach to American foreign policy analysis I’ve ever come across. In this brilliant little book, they’ve taken Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather series as a parable or analogy for the three main foreign policy paradigms evident in America’s approach to international relations, and persuasively argue that America is in need of a change. Using each of Vito Corleone’s sons, they have identified the trends and use events from the movies to perfectly highlight the strengths and weaknesses of each son/ideology.

America in 2009 is “economically palsied, diplomatically isolated, and militarily exhausted,” while at the same time it is seeing a resurgent Russia, a strengthening China, and other upstarts flexing their muscles on the international stage. The movie, therefore, “given the present changes in the world’s power structure… becomes a startlingly useful metaphor for the strategic problems of our times.”

We first have Tom Harper, Vito’s adopted son and consigliere, whose approach to the world is nothing if not liberal institutionalist. He focuses on moderation and multilateralism, assuming every situation can be talked through. Sonny, on the other hand, is a dyed-in-the-wool neocon – seeing the world as something that needs to be re-shaped into how he believes it should be, resorting to violence at the drop of a hat. Hulsman and Mitchell argue that these two approaches to the world are limited and have naturally run their course, in part due to a “dangerous affection for the past” inherent in foreign policy elites. Tom’s multilateral approach (“We oughta talk to ‘em.”) is flawed because “a family policy, or a foreign policy, of merely using carrots suffices only in a world dominated by rabbits”; while Sonny’s brutish approach only helps harden resentments and opposition to the Family, deepening chasms and pushing allies and friends further away (neoconservatism has been “disastrous and must must be discarded”).

What America needs to do, they argue, is follow the example of Michael – the undoubted realist of the Corleone family. Taking an approach that deals with the world as it is, rather than how we wish it was, Michael uses a blend of sticks and carrots – applying force only when necessary, when diplomacy won’t bring the outcomes that best serve the interests of the Family. The authors argue this is the approach that is needed today. While easily pointing out the weaknesses of liberal institutionalism and neoconservatism, they do not ignore Realism’s shortcomings. However, while the first two paradigms (according to the authors) suffer from problems inherent within the theories themselves, realism suffers more from problems inherent with the theorists and practitioners of realism. They consider themselves aloof and apart from others, creating a club- or clique-like atmosphere. Instead, Hulsman and Mitchell argue, “Realism, like Shakespeare, must be for everyone.”

In the final chapter, the authors defend their approach, and answer some of the criticism that they’ve received (the book started as an article in the National Interest journal). In response to those who argue they’ve not produced an academic piece, they rightly come back with the defense that it was “never intended as an academic treatise or primer on International Relations theory,” and that one aim of the book was “to get away from the inaccessible postulates of theory”, and instead to “connect with a mass audience around the very different idea of looking at worldviews of those who directly guide the future course of the country.” In this regard, the authors have succeeded entirely.

The Godfather Doctrine is a brilliant piece of work. It is an entertaining, informative, different and accessible look at the paradigmatic debate surrounding American foreign policy. In some ways, this is exactly what was needed at this time in this field, and I recommend it to everyone. Its compact length (a mere 82 pages) makes it a quick read if you want something different and less academic in tone, but still intelligently written; and the use of The Godfather analogy is inspired and ensures a higher level of interest and entertainment than almost all other books on foreign policy would provide a casual reader.

In a word: Superb.

Also try: G. John Ikenberry et al., The Crisis of American Foreign Policy (2009); Matthew Yglesias, Heads In The Sand (2007); Zbigniew Brzezinski, Second Chance (2007); David E. Sanger, The Inheritance (2009)

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