The Mafia Paradigm in International Relations

One of the most powerful models of international relations is that of the mob syndicate. Powerful nations behave much as mobsters. Putin’s Russia is a regional power outside the Washington crime family. Therefore the don must sometimes inform the smaller criminal organization of his displeasure. A recent NY Times headline is an example of the considerable vitality of this analogy.

Obama Team Debates How to Punish Russia

We would hardly expect Macedonia or Paraguay to debate how to punish countries on the opposite side of the globe. Such is the province of amoral superpowers. The ability of a single paradigm to explain both criminal enterprises and powerful nation-states makes a kind of sense. Both domains are largely lawless (or rather, the laws can often be safely ignored) contests for power. There are some norms and conventions the actors may agree among themselves to generally abide. Both types of institution are largely driven by the goal of protecting and increasing their wealth and influence.

Just as the Obama team ponders economic sanctions against Russia, a mafia don might punish an independent syndicate by taking away some of their turf.


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