What would Michael do?

Dennis Phillips, The University of Sydney

John C. Hulsman and A. Wess Mitchell, The Godfather Doctrine: A Foreign Policy Parable, Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2009 (85 pp). ISBN 9-78069114-147-3 (hardcover) RRP $19.95.

It would be easy to dismiss this book as a gimmick or a novelty were it not for two considerations: the prestige of its two authors and its unambiguous assertion of American decline. According to Hulsman and Mitchell, America, the unrivalled hyperpower of yesterday, is now ‘economically palsied, diplomatically isolated, and military exhausted’. Forget about ‘renewal’. The United States is on ‘a grim and unforgiving trudge down the steep and rocky slope of decline’ (pp. 2–3).

Comprising 85 small pages, this booklet is about the size of a US passport and boasts the same Great Seal of the United States on its cover. More importantly, the entire book is about a movie. Beginning with the controversial assertion that Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 film, ‘The Godfather’, is ‘perhaps the greatest Hollywood movie ever made’ (Preface), Hulsman and Mitchell then interpret the movie as ‘a parable of American statecraft, offered at a moment of unexampled danger, in the hopes that our Republic will foresee the coming earthquake and prosper in spite of it’ (pp. 18–19). So, it would seem, American decline is not inevitable as long as US policymakers heed ‘the unlikely wisdom of Michael Corleone’, the wisest and most realistic of New York Mafia boss Don Vito Corleone’s sons in ‘The Godfather’ (p. 82).

As odd as the book seems in both its conception and its physical appearance, the prestige of its authors suggests more weight than fluff. John C. Hulsman is the Alfred von Oppenheim Scholar in Residence at the German Council of Foreign Relations in Berlin and A. Wess Mitchell is Co-Founder and Director of Research at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington DC. Both authors are frequent contributors to specialist and general publications on international relations. Their use of ‘The Godfather’ as a parable for American foreign policy in an age of transition originated with a 2008 article titled ‘Pax Corleone’ in the journal The National Interest (Hulsman & Mitchell 2008).

To understand the ‘foreign policy parable’, it is necessary to recall the essential features of Francis Ford Coppola’s film. When Don Vito Corleone is gravely wounded in a ‘hit’ arranged by a rival crime boss, three of his sons—Santino (Sonny), Tom and Michael—argue over how the Corleone dynasty should cope with the current crisis. For Hulsman and Mitchell, the ageing and severely wounded Don represents Cold War American power and the three sons ‘approximate the three American foreign policy schools of thought – liberal institutionalism, neoconservatism and realism’, each one ‘vying for control in today’s disarranged world order’ (pp. 23–24).

This booklet is about the size of a US passport.

Tom, the Don’s adopted son and family lawyer, emerges as Hulsman and Mitchell’s symbol of Woodrow Wilson-style idealism, or the ‘liberal institutionalism dominating the foreign policy outlook of today’s Democratic Party’ (p. 25). Tom naïvely believes that he can diplomatically engineer a consensus among the Mafia’s Five Families (‘a kind of UN Security Council’) and ‘replace the rough-and-tumble world of gangland geopolitics with a co-operative framework for jointly governing the streets of New York’ (pp. 26–27). For Hulsman and Mitchell, Tom’s motto (‘we oughta talk to ’em’) is reflected in the Obama Administration’s approach to Iran and the Democratic Party’s ‘growing veneration of diplomacy as the sine qua non of American statecraft’ (pp. 30–31).

If Tom symbolises a naïve dependence on diplomacy (liberal institutionalism), then brother Sonny symbolises modern neoconservative faith in family muscle. Sonny wants to hit his enemies hard, that is, to act with ‘reckless unilateralism’ (pp. 32–33). Interestingly, Hulsman and Mitchell’s key point here is that, despite their apparent differences, Tom and Sonny have much in common. In the crises facing modern America, both the liberals and the neoconservatives advocate policies that are appropriate to a bygone age. The ‘era of easy Corleone dominance is over’. Neither Tom’s diplomacy nor Sonny’s toughness are adequate to meet the new realities facing the family and, via parable, confronting America today (pp. 33–45).

This leaves us with Hulsman and Mitchell’s favourite son, Michael. Unlike diplomatic Tom and hardline Sonny, Michael is a ‘realist’:

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 …. 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 (pp. 46–47).

Using a clever combination of soft and hard power, Michael employs both carrots and sticks to combat his Mafia rivals and ‘ensure the survival and prosperity of the family’ (p. 48). Apply Michael’s sophisticated realism to the current crisis over Iran and nuclear weapons and—hey presto—‘such a flexible approach prepares America for whatever Iran ultimately decides to do’ (p. 50).

Michael employs
both carrots and sticks to combat
his Mafia rivals.

According to Hulsman and Mitchell, by asking ‘what would Michael do’, as well as paying more attention to its allies and abandoning utopian dreams of a peaceful, democratic world, the United States can best position itself as the world’s ‘primus inter pares – “first among equals”’ (pp. 47–60). The message here seems to be that, only by heeding symbolic lessons from a 37-year-old movie, the nation facing ‘grim and unforgiving’ decline on page two of this book, can, by the end of the book, ‘preserve its position in a dangerous world’ (p. 60).

To complicate matters even more, the authors conclude a 20-page epilogue with these words,

For America to regain and maintain its glorious lineage as a “City upon a Hill”, an inspiration to the rest of the world because of what it stands for as much as for what it does, realism must always remain a secondary virtue …. Franklin Roosevelt was right in saying that America had a rendezvous with destiny. With a little help from the unlikely wisdom of Michael Corleone, realism will see to it that we will continue to keep that essential appointment (pp. 80–82).

Are we to conclude, then, that ‘realism’ is the key to preserving American exceptionalism? To suggest, even by parable, that American strategic policy can be reduced to three convenient categories or approaches is dreadfully simplistic and misleading. Deep and wide-ranging debate on the parameters of American foreign policy has marked the nation’s dialogue since the foundations of the republic. Today the internal debate within the liberal institutionalist camp alone is lively and complex (Desch 2009).

The problem for the United States has always been, not which of three simple approaches to adopt, but rather the much more difficult and messy task of selecting from many possible alternatives that combination of policies most appropriate to specific and ever-changing challenges and opportunities.

In a review column written for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Kevin Horrigan describes this ‘cute little book’ as ‘a magazine article repackaged between four-by-six inch hard covers’ (Horrigan 2009). If you are curious, skip the book and read the authors’ article online (Hulsman & Mitchell 2008). Except for the book’s brief epilogue, the two are almost exactly the same.


Desch, M. 2009, ‘Woodrow Wilson’s War’, The National Interest online, 21 January [Online], Available: http://www.nationalinterest.org/Article.aspx?id=20494 [2009, 16 May].

Hulsman, J.C., Mitchell, A.W., ‘Pax Corleone’ 2008, The National Interest online, 29 February [Online], Available: http://www.nationalinterest.org/Article.aspx?id=17008 [2009, 10 May].

Horrigan, K. 2009, ‘What “The Godfather” tells us about foreign policy’, 26 February [Online], Available: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/news/tms/politics/2009/Feb/26/What__the_godfather.html [2009, 16 May].

Dennis Phillips teaches US Foreign Policy at the United States Studies Centre, The University of Sydney. Born in Colorado USA, he has lived in Australia for more than thirty years and is a dual US/Australia citizen.