Realpolitik in a Fantasy World

How George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels explain our foreign policy.

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

When George R.R. Martin began his epic fantasy saga, A Song of Ice and Fire, back in 1996, he started with a domestic story about a king who was struggling to manage the country he’d seized in rebellion and the man he chose to help him rule. Fifteen years after the publication of the first book in that series, A Game of Thrones, Martin’s series is an Emmy-nominated HBO show of the same name, the fifth New York Times-bestselling book has just been released (A Dance With Dragons, out last week), and the story has evolved from a dark domestic fairy tale of wicked queens and kings to a sweeping geopolitical mega-saga with complex and shifting rules of engagement — and a surprisingly large number of lessons for the foreign-policy-inclined reader.

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. As combatants who range from Bush-era idealists to Muammar al-Qaddafi-style pragmatists battle for supremacy, it’s difficult to make final judgments about what approach will win out: The game of thrones is far from over (Martin plans two more books in the series). But the crucial point, at least up through these first five books, may actually be about soft power. If you want to keep a firm grip on the throne, don’t let supposedly tangential things like trade, diplomacy, and immigration issues fall by the wayside. Herewith, a look at the brutal, practical foreign policy of Martin’s rough-and-tumble world.

Warning: This discussion contains significant spoilers for the first four Song of Ice and Fire novels and mild spoilers for the fifth, A Dance With Dragons.

State Formation

The question of what counts as a sovereign state is central to A Song of Ice and Fire, as various rulers struggle to obtain official recognition. When Robert Baratheon, king of Westeros, is killed in the first book, A Game of Thrones, the authority that fused seven formerly separate kingdoms into a single state crumbles. His heir apparent, Joffrey, mounts the Iron Throne in his place, guided by Robert’s Lady Macbeth-esque widow Cersei Lannister, though there are sharp disputes over Joffrey’s legitimacy; both of Robert’s brothers, the lovable but impractical Renly and the brittle fanatic Stannis, carve out parts of Westeros to launch their claims for the throne; the Northern feudal lords declare allegiance to the son of Robert’s dead chief minister, Robb Stark, as he attempts to declare independence from Joffrey; and the Greyjoys, Viking-like marauders and rulers of a small chain of islands, make their own aggressive power play.

Much of the action in Westeros is driven by the successes and failures of these leaders to pull together enough allies to dominate the country or to win that dominance by force. Renly initially builds a large following by convincing feudal lords that the people will love him more than his brother, but he spends so much time wooing his allies that he can’t mobilize the forces under him quickly and effectively: the perfect stereotype of an overconnected, underprepared European leader. Stannis alienates potential coalition partners with his rigidity, but he’s a more decisive leader who wins support when he defends border communities from foreign attack: an even more belligerent Rick Perry, backed by a sorceress’s power. The Greyjoys attempt to subdue part of Westeros by brute violence, rather than seeking treaties or defending the realm, and fail to consolidate their gains, proving that governance is truly more difficult than warfare.

Thus far, none of these approaches has met with any definitive success, and it’s not clear what tactics will forge Westeros into a unified state again — or how that new state would be defined. But the novels clearly demonstrate the power of might over right and how idealism can be undermined on the cruel field of battle. The Lannisters (Joffrey and Cersei, as well as various other members of their clan) remain able to beat off challenges to the throne by combining the facade of a hereditary monarchy with an astonishingly Machiavellian approach to power-consolidation: torturing rivals, ignoring their creditors, and even hiring people to build zombies in the basement. Because the Lannisters are so well-ensconced, even challengers with hopes of establishing a more just regime are forced to employ brutal tactics in response, undermining their claim to offer a better alternative.

Border Issues

The internecine squabbling between the five "kings" within Westeros — Joffrey, Renly, Stannis, Robb Stark, and the Greyjoys — is a distraction from Westeros’s most truly treacherous border: an enormous wall in the North that marks where the king’s power stops and an unruly, magical land begins, inhabited by wild men, giants, mammoths, and the Others, mysterious supernatural beings who can turn humans into icy zombies. As the men who would rule Westeros fight among themselves, all except for Stannis neglect that critical border — and the wall is penetrated by a vast swarm of "wildlings," as they’re called, who, after a bloody battle and surrender, agree to live by Westeros’s laws for the first time. It’s as if Mexico’s drug war escalated to the point where the country became unlivable, when, after some border skirmishes, America decided to resettle a large group of Mexican refugees somewhere in Arizona.

This would be tricky policy in America, and it’s no less difficult in Westeros. But, as Martin shows, Stannis’s attention to the border is (at least so far) a point in his favor when it comes to proving his ability to defend the realm. Strong fences, in Westeros, make good neighbors — especially when you’re dealing with the undead.


Martin sets up a complicated network of diplomacy in A Song of Ice and Fire, and one of the rewards of reading the series is learning — often after the fact — how much of the action is determined through back channels and under deepest cover. The books suggest some potential drawbacks to more traditional track II diplomacy, some that could be pulled from the wilder annals of North Korean nuclear negotiations, others pure fantasy: After Robb Stark is declared king of the breakaway Northern region by the lords who support him, his mother, Cat Tully, seeks out Renly Baratheon, the late King Robert’s brother, to see if she can broker a peaceful independence. But he’s murdered by black magic before they can agree on anything. Cat also sets up an ill-fated treaty with the powerful Frey clan that allows Robb to win a crucial battle and, nearly, the entire war, until her son acts rashly and breaks its terms; a not unheard-of example of principals defeating the hard work of their emissaries.

Much of the diplomacy in the novels is highly secretive — hidden not just from the people of Westeros (who have no free press or citizen’s advocacy groups to root out such meddling), but from the rulers who tacitly permit their spymasters to work in the dark. Varys, a longtime spymaster for Robert and his successor, turns out to be one of the most powerful actors in the entire series, pulling the strings of a web of secret agreements across Westeros and far beyond. As our recent, WikiLeaks-enabled peep into the world of secret diplomacy has shown, such a sturdy community of back-channel leakers and embassy insiders exists in full force today and has no less power, though it may be somewhat less concerned with protecting the hereditary lines of kings, and certainly less encumbered by the nasty tendencies of some parties to execute hostages in the name of revenge.

Trade and Banking

Issues of international trade loom large in A Song of Ice and Fire, particularly as they intertwine with ethics. Dany, the dragon-hatching exiled heir of the ancient kings of Westeros, has an ethical campaign: She wants to end the slave trade in the countries she controls across the sea. But while it gains her followers, she’s unable to support them because the city she takes over has no viable trade goods other than slaves. Conquering land and holding it is one thing — but if you really want a society to change, you’ve got to set it up with a viable economic base that’s an alternative to destructive old options, whether it’s the trade in human flesh in Slaver’s Bay or poppies in Afghanistan.

Similarly, national debt becomes an issue for the Lannisters. Cersei Lannister forces the regime to stop making its payments to the Iron Bank of Braavos, a move that leads the Braavosi bankers to start colluding with her rivals. It’s as if China intervened on the debt-ceiling debate, but the risks of default included not just a lowered credit rating but magically aided assassination.

Technological Warfare

Wired‘s Spencer Ackerman is right to point out that Dany’s dragons are "gamechanging military tech," but they’re hardly the only example of how technological advantages help leaders in domestic and diplomatic affairs. The Others (i.e., the zombie-creating evil creatures of the North) have an initial leg up on their opponents because their swords are so cold they crack steel. Jon Snow, the bastard son of a Northern lord who rises to command the forces that protect the border, neutralizes that advantage when he and his comrades figure out that obsidian can kill the Others, as can specially forged swords held by many of the great families in Westeros.

Dany, meanwhile, has dragons, which, in this land of horse-drawn wagons and knights in armor, carry the force of nuclear weapons. When she’s the only one to possess them, she’s the equivalent of the United States at the end of World War II: a truly global power. Then, after one of her dragons gets loose, it’s loose fissile material — the technology’s out there, wreaking damage. Dany locks up the other two for fear of losing them, and in the process gives up her biggest deterrent. Technology’s an advantage, but only if people believe you’re not afraid to use it.

Religious Fanaticism

While most foreign policy in Westeros and beyond is driven by pragmatic considerations like trade or established traditions like hereditary monarchy, there are also leaders who are driven by fanatical religious beliefs. Stannis Baratheon falls into the thrall of a priestess named Melisandre who assures him that his claim to the throne is justified by divine prophecy. Turning his campaign into the Westeros equivalent of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Stannis begins making strategic decisions based on the tenets of Melisandre’s faith, sacrificing nonbelievers and pushing for his allies to convert. As with Iran, Stannis’s approach often loses him allies who are unwilling to enter the narrow confines of his fundamentalism. But it also lends his drive to power a coherence that threatens to overwhelm other, less-organized contesters.


For a price, Martin’s statesmen often hire highly skilled assassins to dispatch their opponents or sign contracts with the equivalents of Xe Services or Triple Canopy — except that these bands of so-called "sellswords" have traditions like gilding their leaders’ skulls after they die. These randomized forces are less a driver of foreign policy in Westeros than indicators of the command styles of the people who hire them. Robert Baratheon’s plan to hire an assassin to kill Dany before she can become a credible claimant to the throne reveals him as a blunt but clear-thinking pragmatist. Dany tries to get herself in a position to implement an idealistic vision of governance by signing up a band of mercenaries, only to lose sight of the fact that they’re not motivated by the ideological project that drives the rest of her army — a mistake that proves costly.

It’s not yet clear whether realism or idealism will win the Iron Throne. But as Martin makes clear, leaders ignore any part of a comprehensive foreign-policy agenda at their peril, particularly when it comes to maintaining soft power. As Dany learns, you can temporarily subdue a rebellious ruling class with some nasty public executions, but if you can’t permanently buy them off with a flourishing trade economy to replace the one you outlawed, they’ll look to replace you. Cersei Lannister can borrow all the money she wants to build a navy, but her restored military power doesn’t cow her bankers out of looking to collect. And as Stannis learns, while opening the borders might be the only way to forestall a humanitarian crisis, if you can’t find a way to integrate your new citizens into established communities, cultural differences can breed violence. There’s more to the game of thrones than simply winning thrones.

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