Column: ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘the real world’

Published on June 9, 2015.

THE hit HBO series is as real as fantasy gets. The world imagined by the novelist George R. R. Martin and translated into compelling television by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss is both celebrated and condemned for its controversial “realism”—conspiracies are hatched in brothels, money and beauty are traded as political capital, the well-meaning are put to death.

For a show that includes ice-treading zombies and fire-breathing dragons, “Game of Thrones” is widely seen as a brutally frank dramatization of life’s hard truths. The powerful and ambitious are Machiavellian in their scheming; the state is Orwellian in its dependence on spies and informers; life itself is Hobbesian: nasty, brutish, and (as in the story of the good, well-meaning Ned Stark) always at risk of being suddenly shortened.

Scholars of international politics have taken to the show. Leading journals such as Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy have mined the series (and sometimes the books on which the series is based) for lessons on international relations (IR) or political alliances or the nature of power itself.

Four years ago, after the first season aired, Alyssa Rosenberg wrote in Foreign Policy: “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 …”

She went on to argue that “the novels clearly demonstrate the power of might over right and how idealism can be undermined on the cruel field of battle.” Might is greater than right: That seems to be the equation many of us instinctively use, when we talk about “the real world.”

About a year and a half later, Alex Sanchez focused on one aspect of Martin’s fiction in an essay for E-International Relations. “For IR scholars and enthusiasts, ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ [the title of the novel series] provides plenty of material that can be compared to real world historical events and incidents, including … the complex system of alliances, served by national interests and decisions by autocratic leaders. Over the past century, the world has witnessed two World Wars, one Cold War, and a currently changing multipolar international order, which provide us with plenty of examples of shifting alliances and a plethora of scholarly analyses that explain the reasons behind them.”

We can easily find a Philippine analogue. Last week’s discussions with Japan over the possibility of a status of forces agreement were made necessary because of China’s increasingly provocative actions in parts of the West Philippine Sea; only two decades ago, Jiang Zemin was singing duets with President Fidel Ramos on the presidential yacht.

And in a polity where the Senate is routinely described as 24 independent republics, the series’ emphasis on alliance-building and alliance-shifting also makes intuitive sense. Much of the political noise we hear today is the sound of prospective candidates in search of allies or, as in the example of Sen. Chiz Escudero who controversially supported Jejomar Binay in the 2010 elections, of former allies expressing abiding unease.

But “Game of Thrones” rings true because it does not reduce everything to the political.

Charli Carpenter, writing in Foreign Affairs before the second season aired, argued that in fact “Game of Thrones” was not merely about realpolitik: “But the deeper message is that realism alone is unsatisfying and unsuccessful—that leaders disregard ethical norms, the needs of their small-folk, and the natural world at their own peril. Jockeying for power by self-interested actors produces not a stable balance but suboptimal chaos; gamesmanship and the pursuit of short-term objectives distracts players from the truly pressing issues of human survival and stability.”

And the reliably provocative Daniel Drezner (in Foreign Policy) wondered whether the series held any lessons for us at all: “On the other hand, I’m just not sure how much the world of Westeros translates into modern world politics.” He offered an explanation about “part of the problem with ‘Game of Thrones.’ World politics is about the pursuit of power, yes, but it’s not only about that. What do people want to do with the power they obtain? Social purpose matters in international affairs as well, and there’s precious little of that in ‘Game of Thrones.’”

Not anymore. The five seasons have offered increasing nuance, depth, and detail. (I have not read the books; I have only watched the shows, including yesterday’s showing of the second-to-the-last episode of the fifth season.) It continues to shock its viewers, as in the wedding-night rape of a beloved character, and it continues to frustrate some fans with its gratuitous treatment of female nudity, but it has also taken up the difficulty of governance (entirely different from winning a war or an election), the role of religious fanaticism in an era of transition (setting in motion the implacable law of unintended consequences), even (contrary to Rosenberg’s mistaken, very American view that the Others beyond the Wall represent an immigration problem) the imminence of a global catastrophe, which renders all maneuvering for power, the “Game of Thrones” itself, ultimately irrelevant.

The hard truth in a world of continuing climate change: Winter is coming.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Politics

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