“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die…” In that line, delivered in the first season of HBO’s hit series, Game of Thrones, Cersei Lannister chillingly reminds Ned Stark of one of the most fundamental, survivalist truth of politics.
And yet, for a show that has come to define nearly a decade of prestige TV, and which dominated last night’s television viewing, Game of Thrones has somehow never invited serious political analysis other than a few blogposts, and one semi-serious essay. Nonetheless, George R.R. Martin’s creation married epic high fantasy with one of the predominant schools of politics and international relations– realpolitik.
Every author is influenced by his time. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth explored the existential battle of good versus evil, but it also described conservative communities led by the men of the West battling the creeping shadow of the mechanized industries of the East. J.K. Rowling successfully merged quintessentially English school stories with a more politically simplistic good-versus-evil narrative, an ideal she continues to promote in her regular twitter crusades alongside her followers against the many perceived Voldemorts of our times. And George R.R. Martin now holds forth as the philosopher of our gullible, puerile and hysterically idealistic times. If Tolkien is the John Locke of high fantasy, GRRM is Thomas Hobbes.
The timeless themes of Realism and the philosophy of realpolitik, considered out of fashion and “too nineteenth-century” by our liberal cosmopolitan elites on both sides of the Atlantic, is present throughout the world of Westeros. A Realist world, from Thucydides to Machiavelli, Hobbes to Kissinger, is essentially anarchical. Actors, whether they are Kings or statesmen, nation-states and empires, are guided by interests. Darwinian Animus Dominandi dictates the lust for power, and survival is the key. That does not mean that every actor in the system is rational. Humans are hubristic. Empires and nation states expand and overstretch, miscalculate, rise and fall. In such a lack of hierarchy, norms and values are mostly meaningless and often only rhetorical—a means to achieve power and hegemony. Ultimately, individual agency is subservient to structural forces, and hegemons are rare; as empires and states balance each other against threats, the overall system achieves a kind of equilibrium. Such themes explain and guide Martin’s opus, whether deliberate or not.
Consider, for example, the case of Ned Stark. Stark was an honorable man who played by the rules and ended up with his head mounted on a spike. Strategic ambiguity would have perhaps saved Lord Stark’s head, and he was schooled in it by others. In one pivotal scene, Stark was reprimanded by the drunk, promiscuous King Robert. “Do you think it’s honor that’s keeping the peace? It’s fear!”
Daenerys Targaryen’s journey which turned her from humanitarian interventionist to overstretched hegemon who ultimately failed to keep peace is similarly instructive. You can invade a region and try to establish a rule of law, but you cannot win wars, establish long lasting peace, and transform an alien society in a matter of days with only kindness and norms. If any established order is overthrown, there will inevitably be insurgency, and counterinsurgency is rarely achieved by winning hearts and minds (or merely breaking chains). Modern Realist research on Counterinsurgency corroborates what ancient Romans understood, and what Dany, as well as our current policy makers refuse to believe: Carthago Delenda est.
This is a Machiavellian paradox. Fear didn’t help Robert keep the throne, but honor didn’t help Ned (or his son Robb) survive either; benevolent rule of law didn’t help Dany to secure order. A sovereign cannot rule only through norms; he or she needs to balance it with fear—or at least the threat of severe repercussions. A society that is too liberal and free turns degenerate, just as a society that is too repressed eventually rebels. In the first scenario, it is invaded and destroyed by external, disciplined, cohesive, martial forces; in the latter case a Leviathan rises to bring back order amidst chaos.
But who should exercise that power? Is it the men with the money or the information? Littlefinger’s attempts to use both didn’t end well for him on Game of Thrones, suggesting economic might alone isn’t enough to serve as a deterrent (memo to policy makers who try to change the behavior of rogue states through sanctions).
Realist alliance literature suggests that states (or empires) only balance each other out and form stable alliances when they are all mutually under threat. Martin presumably never read Stephen Walt’s Origins of Alliance, but kingdoms in Westeros behave remarkably similarly to those outlined in Walt’s book. The Tarlys and the Greyjoys joined the Lannisters because they all feared the invasion of barbarian hordes on their shores. The motivation may be xenophobia, or territorial ambition, but they joined against the bigger threat nonetheless.
Game of Thrones highlights other Realist themes as well. The heroines of the story—the ones who survived—all imitated men, or at least embraced male stereotypes for their behavior when in power. Dany, Cersei, Sansa, Arya, and Brienne are feminist heroines, and rightly so. Nonetheless, there is a remarkable similarity of behavior among them. None of them needed a fainting couch or a safe space to rule; and all of them embrace violent (patriarchal!) means to achieve their ends.
The logical contradictions of modern intersectional feminism are laid open in Game of Thrones, as real-life iron ladies, from Boudica, to Catherine the Great to Maggie Thatcher, would have recognized. Similarly, victors shape the narrative of history. It’s only treason if you lose, says Littlefinger.
Game of Thrones is, of course, epic fantasy, not geopolitics, but although audiences thrill to its White Walkers and dragons, it will likely be appreciated in the long run for its portrayals of intrigue, scheming, and the more extreme expressions of human nature. As the wisdom of thousands of years suggests, and as we repeatedly ignore at our own peril in the real world, naïve idealism tends to get trampled when your warship is rammed, your navy bombarded, or your army and fortresses and innocent civilians burned to a crisp.