The Godfather: How the machinations in Francis Ford Coppola's films are reflected in world politics

MK Raghavendra

Feb,05 2018 12:45:52 IST

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather I & II (1972, 74) are films which have much to say about advancement in a hostile environment, and hence reflect upon the strategy initiatives of major powers, especially the US. It is not that the film has been ‘influential’ in foreign policy, but that it contains hard strategic sense, which if one were to disregard the moral rhetoric in which national self-interest is clothed, is evident in the international conduct of the major powers in relation to their deemed ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’. Since India is now a regional power with global ambitions, these two films could provide some insights into what the country is doing right and where its policy may need rethinking.

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Nothing is what it seems in The Godfather, and international relations. Image from Facebook/@thegodfather

The Godfather I and II deal with a family engaged in an enterprise of an illegal nature, and the ‘illegality’ lies in simply acting in one’s own material interests without being fettered by a law that restricts one’s actions. An illegal enterprise cannot appeal to the law against an adversary, and the only rule is that strength will ultimately prevail. This finds correspondence in the global arena where a country’s actions are determined largely by what it can get away with; a world power does not have to account for its acts. The UN is nominally a body empowered to act as legal and moral arbiter, but all countries with a veto to bank on in the Security Council are virtually beyond the ‘law’. Between India and Pakistan, the latter is better placed since it has a dependable ally in China. India has distanced itself from Russia which once stood by it, and its own admission into the Security Council is doubtful for now.

Returning to The Godfather, there is a need for illegal enterprises like that of the Corleones to eventually ‘go legit’, which implies an effort to join the mainstream, till which time they are under surveillance and harassed by the police or state functionaries. In international relations, this would correspond to so-called ‘rogue states’ which resist the US (like Cuba and Iran) having to be ‘pacified’, till which time they have to suffer sanctions which might lead to severe economic problems. In this proposition, there is admittedly a sense of the US as corresponding to an overseeing ‘law’ in the global politics. While this would hardly be its position vis-à-vis China, the capacity of the US to cause economic damage through sanctions to smaller powers resisting its dictates is immense. In recent times, India’s own conduct with regard to the US suggests that it has recognised the latter’s position as global arbiter. India befriending Israel and distancing itself from Iran confirms this. In The Godfather II, Michael Corleone justifies to his own people (Frank Pentangeli) why he is making new alliances. When India moves from its non-aligned position, the government has to similarly account for it to its public; if it has not done so, it is because the most vocal sections of the public are already in agreement with it with regards to the move.

The strength of a criminal enterprise is partly determined by its capacity to ‘bluff’, its strength in the absence of knowledge to the contrary in the hands of its adversaries. Virgil Solozzo’s ‘deemed strength’ in The Godfather I is that he has a New York police captain as personal bodyguard, and no one can get away with killing a high-ranking policeman – until Michael Corleone demonstrates that one might, if it could be shown that the policeman was ‘dirty’. North Korea’s ‘bluff’ against the US lies in the possibility that Kim Jong-un may be willing to press the nuclear button against the US and its allies. The difference between Kim and Saddam Hussein lies in Saddam’s bluff over WMDs having been called.

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When it comes to India's position in South Asia, the line, "Keep your friends close but your enemies closer," gains a new significance

‘Hegemony’ is a key notion in international relations, and this is how Immanuel Wallerstein defines the term in relation to the world 'system':

“What allows us to call (powers) hegemonic is that for a certain period they were able to establish the rules of the game in the interstate system, to dominate the world-economy (in production, commerce, and finance), to get their way politically with a minimal use of military force (which however they had in goodly strength), and to formulate the cultural language with which one discussed the world.”

The US has been a hegemonic power but that power has been in decline as (arguably) proved by its increasing use of military force when it cannot have its way. A hegemonic power comes into being after a period of great instability, and the US became a hegemonic power in the aftermath of World War II. In the period of its hegemony a power ensures stability until another power strives to usurp its position, leading to instability again. But if the term ‘hegemony’ can be loosely applied to local situations, in The Godfather, Barzini and the Tattaglias enjoy a period of ‘hegemony’ after Sonny Corleone’s killing, when Vito Corleone proposes a truce. Their hegemony ends when Michael uses ‘military means’ to once again rise to a position of dominance.

In South Asia, India is naturally in dominance because of its size and economic strength, but foreign policy was in shambles under the UPA government (when the Ministry of External Affairs was only preoccupied with issuing statements when Indian citizens were attacked abroad). The prime minister did not even think it necessary to visit India’s neighbours to extend friendship or assistance until Narendra Modi became PM. Political idealists may question the need for India to exercise hegemony within South Asia, but unless India takes care, China will exert undue influence in the region to India’s discomfiture. But it would seem that India’s position in South Asia has gradually become stronger since 2014. Hegemony is unimaginable without a power also having military might, and India has been rearming itself.

It is a sign of pragmatism that despite his anti-Pakistan rhetoric when in opposition, Modi has tried to establish relations with Pakistan – although not with much success. In any case, there is new recognition that private players in that country (including elements in the military) should not be confused with the Pakistani state in cases of provocations from across the border. This is an area where even the media goes wrong and bays for punitive measures – like trade embargoes – which will only be counterproductive. One of the key lines in The Godfather II gains particular importance in the context of South Asia and India’s position as a regional power: "Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.”

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In The Godfather and in international politics, hegemony is followed by instability

Indian policy has been labouring under the misconception that since Pakistan and parts of the Islamic world threaten the West, India will be favoured, but it is India’s unthreatening nature which is its greatest handicap. Isolating Pakistan in the world is impossible because the more isolated it becomes, the greater the danger it poses to the Western world. It is essential for the West that ties be maintained with the threats confronting it, and also the reason why Pakistan and its home-grown terrorists with India on their radar (rather than the US) continue to remain untouched. More importantly, the US shunning Pakistan will drive it closer to China, and China is not a less dependable or valuable ally. There is evidence that key Saudi interests had a hand in 9/11, but Saudi Arabia is one of the closest allies of the US. Israel should, by all political logic, be a primary enemy of ISIS but it is never targeted. Nothing is what it seems in international relations and ‘transparency’ is not favoured; India should learn from it.

It is strangely ironic that India, in which little is transparent, should adopt such a transparent foreign policy — like ties with Israel finding official favour alongside so much fanfare. China is India’s neighbour and rival, and certainly a threat, but does it make sense to designate it so? India’s border tussle with China is a constant irritant but there is no reason for it to not be resolved, given the strong leadership in India which can sell any resolution to the public. China’s OBOR project has been openly shunned by India and the stance could be justifiable, but for now India does seem to be transparently following the US line. The US sees China as a military threat and, correctly reading India’s attitude towards China as inherently hostile, is drawing India into a military alliance. The US has never fought wars on its own territory after the Civil War and this is evidently to ensure that its wars are fought elsewhere and by non-Americans. The irony here is that if India befriends China at least through non-military ties, the US may find India more threatening and may strive to ‘draw it closer’! Narendra Modi is a strong leader with a will of iron but that also makes him more predictable than Xi Jinping.

To conclude, India is increasingly acting as though the US is its natural ally, and most middle and upper-class Indians seem to think so too. The affluent in India send their children to the US to study and/or work and this may have caused the delusion. India may believe that with militant Islam increasingly threatening the world, it will be favoured by the world’s self-appointed policeman; perhaps it even believes that its position with the US can even be made analogous to that of Israel. Where India is going wrong is in equating the affluent Indian community in the US with the Jewish one. Israel owes its unassailable ‘favoured’ status in US foreign policy to the powerful Jewish lobby, but there is no indication that there is a corresponding powerful ‘Indian lobby’ in the US. Just as Michael Corleone has Senator Pat Geary speak on his behalf when he is investigated, India needs insiders who will lobby on its behalf in the corridors of American power. There are people of Indian origin in American politics – like Nikki Haley, Kamala Harris and Bobby Jindal – but they have not associated themselves with India; even their visits to India (if any) are not publicised. This is conjectural, but unlike Judaism and Islam, Hinduism and its land do not evoke fierce loyalty among those who leave it. Indians (whatever their religion) do what is most appropriate in the places they settle in. Indians in the US (for example, academics) have a stronger say in Indian affairs than in the affairs of the US. The US is a democracy but its domestic policies suggest that it has the characteristics of a plutocracy controlled by the super-rich. If Indians in the US are affluent and many have become CEOs of top companies, a CEO of a very valuable company is still an employee, not to be confused with the promoter who holds the wealth. Perhaps India needs to take these factors into account while formulating its foreign policy.

MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016)

Updated Date: Feb 06, 2018 09:09 AM