Realpolitik and Dragons

Alyssa Rosenberg claims that the themes of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire map well onto modern-day international relations.

It turns out that, apart from the dragons and giant magical wolves, the Westeros of Martin’s novels is a familiar place: The challenges of international relations are pretty much the same whether you’re an American president or a feudal king; whether your national debt is due to the Chinese government or to a mystically powerful foreign bank that employs professional assassins; whether your unsavory trading partners are oil cartels or slavers; and whether your enemies are motivated by a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam or by a priestess who sees the future in sacrificial fires. The novels are framed by a very sophisticated and complex IR philosophy, which questions the efficacy of moral statecraft in a world scorched by dragons and stalked by zombies—and, worse, by truly evil men and women. George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice and Fire maps well onto current international relations.

I bow to no-one in my enthusiasm for ASOIAF (the first two volumes in the series delayed the production of my final dissertation by a couple of weeks back in the halcyon days of 2000). But one of the good things for me about the series (apart from the fact that they’re good, addictive reading), is precisely how good they are at capturing the differences of medieval international society from our own. An international system based on dynastic politics works in very different ways from one based on modern sovereign states – most obviously, family dynamics play a much more important role. And Martin never forgets that – family relations – both internal, and external shape the trajectory of the book.

Marriages are the most potent instrument for creating alliances, even if they don’t always work as they should (the most recent book mentions a feud between two families that has gone on for centuries, despite numerous intermarriages which have mingled their blood. Numerous suitors believe that the way to control Daenerys’ dragons is through winning her hand.

But more subtly, intra-familial relationships have profound international consequences. Jealousies between brothers lead to the sundering of realms. Theon Greyjoy – one of the more unpleasant characters in the earlier books – becomes more sympathetic as we realize that his erratic nastiness is in part the result of his having been stranded between two families. Fostered and adopted as a hostage by the Starks after his father’s failed rebellion, he finds himself unable to find a place in his old family, but unable fully to become a member of his new family either. And none of this begins to touch on the political consequences of bastardry, of adultery (which, when committed by the queen, becomes high treason) &c&c. Martin doesn’t force this down our throats – it emerges only as necessary to the plot. But it really does speak to the differences between the mediaeval world and our own (he’s less successful by far at portraying non-Western societies – but that’s a whole different set of questions).

15 Responses to Realpolitik and Dragons

  1. Dan Nexon July 20, 2011 at 10:24 am #

    “is precisely how good they are at capturing the differences of medieval international society from our own. An international system based on dynastic politics works in very different ways from one based on modern sovereign states”

    Yes. Someone should write a political-science book about this…. 🙂

  2. Daragh McDowell July 20, 2011 at 11:34 am #

    Nice post Henry (and I’ll have to borrow books off you sometime soon as I’m still technically a graduate student and therefore very, very poor.)

    At the risk of sounding flippant, I think the analogy more or less breaks down when you look at the first principles. Realism and its descendants are generally about the interaction of unitary ‘Westphalian’ states (territorially well defined, monopoly on legitimate violence, unitary authority etc.) Therefore applying them to historical periods prior to the peace of Westphalia (when competing sources of political authority where more or less the norm throughout Europe) is unlikely to yield any useful insights.

    An OT aside (and feel free to delete this part out of comment) have you read Myers latest in the independence? Manages to bring out the old ‘oppossing Israeli policy is anti-Semitism’ line, while objecting to a Jewish minister for justice making laws for a Catholic nation just a few paragraphs later. I thought it might be interesting given your recent smackdown of Goldberg for citing Myers on CT a while ago.

  3. AlonK July 20, 2011 at 12:22 pm #

    The murders, plots, greed of the knaves fighting for power- straight out of the pages of our contemporary empires. Bush, Chaney, their lawyers and “justice” department goons who justify turture, the Obama team continuing wars for oil and rewarding the thieves who looted and brought the economy to its current state- only the clothes and weapons are different. The noble too exist, the young Ayra can be seen in the thousands fighting for justice in the Arab world, Greece, Chiapas, and here too.

  4. LFC July 20, 2011 at 1:05 pm #

    Apropos the first comment: I’ve been thinking of writing something on my blog about Dan Nexon’s book (<i<The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe) but I haven’t. So a couple of thoughts: On the one hand Dan argues, as his comment above suggests, that an international system made up of dynastic composite states works differently than one made up of ‘modern’ sovereign states. On the other hand, however, he can’t argue that it works too differently, because that would mean that the dynamics he sees operating in late-medieval and early-modern Europe have no contemporary application, and if they have no contemporary application then the book presumably would not have passed muster as a political-science dissertation. Indeed one of the main themes in Dan’s book is that similar ‘structures’ and their ‘formal properties’ give rise to similar ‘dynamics’ (not outcomes, but ‘dynamics’), whether you find those structures in 16th-century Europe or the 21st-century Middle East or wherever. Thus if, as he suggests toward the end of the book, one finds aspects of ‘composite-ness’ in the polities of the contemporary world, one should find behavioral features (e.g., divide-and-rule strategies, heterogeneous contracting, polyvalent signaling) in the contemporary world that are like those found in early-modern Europe. But since most of the book is devoted to laying out his theoretical approach and applying it to the impact of the Reformation(s) on European dynastic states, the part where he argues for the contemporary applications is left somewhat sketchy. (I can sympathize with that sketchiness as someone who also wrote a historically-oriented IR diss. — albeit one considerably shorter — in sort of the same general time frame.)

    I think I may have just written my mini-review of the book and now I don’t have to do it on my blog after all.

  5. Dan Nexon July 20, 2011 at 1:24 pm #

    LFC: I think the point is somewhat along the lines Henry suggests: dynastic power politics are different than realpolitik among states, but they aren’t so different as to obviate any application of realism (contra Daragh). Indeed, the architecture and substance of what we would later call realism emerged, at least in Europe, in dynastic Europe.

  6. Henry Farrell July 20, 2011 at 1:35 pm #

    bq. Yes. Someone should write a political-science book about this…. 🙂

    The reason I didn’t post on this for 24 hours was because I was expecting you to …

  7. Dan Nexon July 20, 2011 at 1:44 pm #

    I haven’t read the books, so I barely skimmed the piece. Besides, I didn’t even think of that angle–an indication of how intellectually distracted I am.

  8. Henry Farrell July 20, 2011 at 2:17 pm #

    Probably not best to start to read them unless you have a few weeks to kill. Darragh – thanks for the tip – a remarkable performance which I have duly blogged at CT.

  9. Daragh McDowell July 20, 2011 at 4:11 pm #

    Henry – not a problem! I just saw it there myself and am about to throw myself into the snark (when I should be finishing my thesis.)

  10. Dan Nexon July 20, 2011 at 4:12 pm #

    Big trip coming up, so they’re on my e-reader(s).

  11. frankcross July 20, 2011 at 10:10 pm #

    In the game of thrones, you win or you die.

    It’s very realpolitik. The kin effects make a difference (per Fukuyama) but it seems similar to pre WWI Europe, with delicate multipolarism once the King dies. Is Eddard Stark a bit of a Prince Ferdinand?

  12. Peter T July 21, 2011 at 6:20 am #

    Yes the dynamics of a society where kinship plays a large political role are different. Not to be confused with the basic strategies of power (alliances, divide and rule, signalling etc, which are much the same in chimpanzees as in people). I am reading a biography of the 17th century French conspirator, churchman and rake Cardinal de Gonti, and was struck by how much factions and plots rose and fell on a combination of kinship ties, amatory affairs and responses to criticism of one’s literary efforts (well, it IS France).

    Also interesting that much modern scholarship would see these factors persisting well into the 19th century in Europe.

  13. John July 21, 2011 at 7:05 pm #

    Is it worth mentioning that the Peace of Westphalia didn’t really create a “Westphalian” system in Europe? Even after Westphalia the Holy Roman Empire did not have “Westphalian” states that were “territorially well defined,” and had a “monopoly on legitimate violence” or “unitary authority”. You don’t find that in Germany until after the Napoleonic Wars. In the rest of Europe, depending on how much weight you want to give to “unitary authority” and “monopoly on legitimate violence,” there were either “Westphalian” states well before Westphalia, or else there was a slow progression towards such states that had no clear relationship with the Peace of Westphalia.

    The Holy Roman Empire continued to exist for over 150 years after Westphalia, and it was a real thing. Who exactly was the “territorially well-defined state” with a “monopoly on the legitimate use of force” and “unitary authority” in Frankfurt or Bonn or Essen in 1750? The Habsburgs and the major secular electorates like Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, Bavaria, and Hanover were arguably de facto “Westphalian” after 1648. But they were also arguably de facto westphalian before 1648. The rest of the old Reich was neither de facto nor de jure Westphalian.

    Anyway, this bugs me.

  14. Daragh McDowell July 22, 2011 at 6:26 am #

    John – your knowledge of European renaissance history is clearly superior to mine. I was using ‘Westphalian’ states as kind of a shorthand, and appear to have overreached. Apologies.

  15. LFC July 23, 2011 at 1:47 pm #

    @John – I agree w yr comment.
    Re ‘territorially well defined’:
    If one gives this phrase a fairly strict meaning, not even France was territorially well defined until the latter part of the 19th cent.