IR Theory and ‘Game of Thrones’ Are Both Fantasies

They draw on the same narrow slice of European history—and get it wrong anyway.

A battle scene in HBO's Game of Thrones.
A battle scene in HBO's Game of Thrones. Helen Sloan/HBO

Since the start of the series, Game of Thrones has been catnip for scholars of world politics and foreign policy.

They eagerly applied their talents and theories to ranking each character’s chances of winning the throne—repeatedly. There are scholarly journal articles about how to use a simulation based on the show to teach international relations theory. Rand Corp. has compared the show’s dragons to nuclear weapons. A Foreign Affairs article argued that, despite its use of violence, the show was no realist text but a critique of the myopic focus on national security over the needs of individuals and the collective good.” (The author cited as evidence Daenerys Targaryen’s concern for civilians, a point that didn’t fare so well.)

There’s a good reason for this. It would be hard to imagine a fantasy world better concocted to appeal to international relations scholars than that of Westeros, the setting of Game of Thrones. After all, in many ways, international relations theory and Westeros are cousins since they descend from the same source material: bad European history.

That, perhaps, explains how seriously and earnestly many scholars, and journalists on the academic beat, have approached the show. It’s ironic that many international relations scholars see the show as realistic. Although medievalists welcome the surge of interest the show has produced in their work (and courses), they also worry about the distorting effects the show has had on how people perceive the medieval world.

Medieval historians argue that its depiction of medieval life is anything but realistic (and that’s before the dragons or ice zombies). Bluntly, life was slower, more religious, more racially diverse, and probably more concerned with taxation than the show was. Indeed, one scholar points out that, if anything, Game of Thrones is more a romance of the early modern European age (think the Thirty Years’ War or the conquest of the Americas) than of the medieval period.

This offers a hint about why international relations scholars find the show so compelling. If I can speak against my tribe, on the whole we are pretty bad at doing history for the same reasons that we are better at doing theory than are historians. When a political scientist approaches a case, he or she is usually more interested in seeing how the unfolding of events reflected some underlying theoretical trend than in getting the facts right.

That’s why most international relations scholars engage with history at the 30,000-foot level, except for those few who have developed a particular specialization. That’s one reason why mythical turning points like 1648 and 1919 loom so large in international relations teaching and scholarship: It’s easier to pin major changes on a single calendar year than to appreciate the complexity of historical change.

That gap in historical knowledge helps explain why Game of Thrones seems more realistic to international relations scholars. When audiences engage with fiction, the narrative must succeed in transporting the audience from their real-world sensations into a consistent story world within which the narrative unfolds. Audiences can expect dragons in Game of Thrones but not starships. Violating those story rules (like having a Starbucks cup in Westeros) kicks audiences out of their necessary suspension of disbelief.

What generates narrative transportation, however, isn’t the accuracy of a narrative but its plausibility to the specific audience. A lawyer watching a courtroom drama—unless it’s the famously, if incongruously, accurate My Cousin Vinny—will be jarred into disbelief by errors that most people will accept. Audiences are predisposed to believe what they’re told, and if they lack the background knowledge to verify claims within the story, they will accept plausible presentations as true.

And here’s where Westeros comes in. George R.R. Martin has said he used a “mix-and-match” approach to drawing on British and European history to motivate A Song of Ice and Fire. Since at least the publication of Hans Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations in 1948—which defined international politics as a “struggle for power”—U.S. international relations theory has done the same, plundering disparate parts of European history to construct plausible arguments about the underlying processes of politics.

Martin ransacked history books to build a series of novels about power. For decades, theorists did much the same under the trappings of constructing a science of power that often turned out to look more like stories than science. As Cynthia Weber writes, “IR theory — a collection of stories about international politics — relies on IR myths in order to appear to be true.” And since both Martin and Morgenthau were looking backward to an imagined European past, they took as natural concepts such as sovereignty and interstate war that loom large in those stories.

That move naturally introduced a Eurocentric bias to both the fiction and the “science” fiction about the past. For decades, classrooms were filled with lectures about how the incentives of states seeking survival inclined them to maintain a balance of power against rivals that could extinguish them; it wasn’t until 2007 that scholars began systematically looking at cases of balancing in non-European contexts and found that there was no such propensity toward balancing. These days, if anything, the more anarchical parts of European history look like an exception rather than the rule.

When international relations theorists encountered Game of Thrones, then, they were excited to discover a text that grappled with questions of power, violence, authority, and the importance of individuals versus structure. Yet they were simply discovering a mirror image of the fantasia that foundational works in international relations theory had been drawn from. Where medievalists saw only inaccuracies, international relations theorists saw the same sorts of errors they were reared on and welcomed them as old truths.

That also explains the even deeper puzzle of why international relations scholars were so unwilling to rebut inaccuracies in the show. It’s telling that medievalists sought to explain how Game of Thrones got it wrong as often as the show got things right, much as science communicators seek to explain not only what popular culture gets right about science but also what it wrongly shows as true. But comparatively few international relations scholars wanted to go into detail about how the show was inaccurate.

There are many reasons for that reticence. Partly, it’s because having a popular show that really can be used to illustrate important concepts on a scene-by-scene basis is like a gift horse for scholars who teach undergraduates who don’t always immediately grasp concepts like the security dilemma. Partly, it’s because many scholars who engage with popular culture do so on their own time, so they write not just as scholars but as “scholar-fans” who aren’t inclined to probe too deeply into their beloved’s flaws. (If international relations scholars wrote about popular culture just on the basis of how large an audience a show attracts, there’d be way more think pieces and hot takes about the NCIS universe and how it shapes mass perceptions of international relations.)

Possibly even larger than those reasons, though, is that the study of world politics and popular culture is still in its infancy. There’s a quiet revolution going on now, as scholars turn from broadly theorizing about how (for instance) the original Star Trek explained 1960s U.S. foreign policy toward more rigorous studies. There are experiments showing that greater knowledge of science-fictional presentations of killer robots leads to greater resistance to real-world autonomous weapons and that reading dystopian fiction produces more ready justification for radical, violent political action. And there are good theoretical and empirical reasons to believe that even policymakers can be affected by fictional portrayals of foreign policy, as with U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s receptivity to Tom Clancy’s novels.

These studies point to one way that scholars can continue to take popular culture seriously: seeking not to catalogue instances in which Game of Thrones reflects the world (or even listing its mistakes) but rather how its reception shows that audiences understand politics—and even how the show might have changed their perceptions of how power works. Similar approaches could also help scholars understand whether a piece of popular culture like the patriotic Chinese film Wolf Warrior 2 is just a piece of entertainment or a meaningful intervention in changing how Chinese audiences see the world.

Exploring those questions holds a lot of promise for explaining how people make sense out of something as complex as international relations. Investigating them would also help international relations scholars stop playing at being critics and instead start producing the sort of deep knowledge that the real world needs.

Paul Musgrave is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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