skip to Main Content

Game of Thrones and Theories of International Relations

Game Of Thrones And Theories Of International Relations

Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 7 closes with a horrifying scene of White Walkers crossing into the North from the now crumbled wall that once stood as a fortress to protect Westeros from the Wildlings. Meanwhile, consumed with her quest for power, Cersei Lannister sits alone upon her throne as her brother Jaime rides off to join Daenerys and Jon Snow in their growing alliance to fight the inevitable war that is to come with the White Walkers. The alliance is a surprising the one since Jon Snow holds the title of King of the North to which Daenerys claims as rightfully hers. Despite these differences, though, the two have banded together. Jaime’s allegiance is even more surprising considering his devotion to Cersei and prior behavior would suggest the alliance with Jon Snow and/or Daenerys would not be possible under any circumstance since both challenge Cersei’s right to the Iron Throne.

All the events culminate in Season 8 with new alliance defeating the White Walkers in an epic battle. Once the foe upon which the alliance is formed is defeated, Daenerys sets her sights back to her original goal of ruler of the Iron Throne. Cersei, certain of her victory especially considering the losses suffered by her enemies, stands ready to face Daenerys. Before it is all over, Kings Landing will be completely devastated, Cersei will be dead, as, too, will Daenerys (and a whole lot of others), and Jon Snow will see himself banished to the Wall as punishment for his deeds.

How did it come to this? When the HBO series Game of Thrones started, the Seven Kingdoms was ruled by King Robert Baratheon. Though the rise of Daenerys to power within the Dothraki Kingdom posed some threat to King Robert, before this, for the most part, Westeros was peaceful. Over the course of the series, though, King Robert would be assassinated, as would his successor. The Seven Kingdoms would begin to break away with regions, like the North, proclaiming their sovereignty and appointing their own King. Dorne, the Vayle, and High Garden would all withdraw their allegiance, as would King Robert’s brother Stannis who sought to claim the Iron Throne as his own.

Throughout the series, the Seven Kingdoms continues to fall into chaos as wars break out among the different regions. Challengers from the continent of Essos and other areas like the Iron Islands begin to seek power so they, too, can stake a claim to their own kingdom. It is only because of the growing threat of the White Walkers that Jon Snow can consolidate power over the North. It is this same threat that convinces Daenerys to align herself with Jon Snow. Unfortunately, once the threat is gone, so, too, are the allegiances that were once pledged.

The series is not unlike the events that have unfolded throughout history in international relations. Wars, the quest for power, the clash of cultures, forged alliances, and broken ones, too, are all a theme that the series has in common with the real world. George R. R. Martin is said to have drawn from historical events, like the War of the Roses (1455-1485), when writing his books. In fact, Martin is quoted as saying his model for the book “was the four-volume history of the Plantagenets that Thomas B Costain wrote in the 50s” (Flood 2018). So, it is no wonder events in the series so closely mirror those that occurred in the real world at one time. This makes Game of Thrones the perfect backdrop for explaining international relations.

What is the study of International Relations?

To define international relations as the study of state behavior in the international system is an overly simple way of thinking about the definition. The actual field of international relations is much more complex than the definition implies. As the world becomes more interconnected, so, too, does the study of international relations. In fact, international relations is very interdisciplinary in nature and seeks to explain a broad range of issues in international society and affairs. Political psychologists, for example, attempt to understand individual political behavior and decision-making to better explain state behavior. Political economists, on the other hand, are more concerned with the relationship between production, trade, and the distribution of wealth and how these variables impact international policy, politics, and society. Others focus on human rights, economic development, the environment, globalization, global ethics, and security issues like terrorism, resource scarcity, and ethnic conflict, though none of these issues are mutually exclusive and, rather, overlap in many ways.

A primary focus of international relations is understanding the origins of war and the ability of states to cooperate. As far back as the Greek historian Thucydides (c. 460-395 B.C.), scholars have concerned themselves with the exercise of power by states within the global system and how these power arrangements facilitate or hinder cooperation. Power, in fact, is a prime focus of the field. Theorists devote significant time to defining power, understanding the nature of power, determining how one goes about getting power, and figuring out how much power is enough power. Scholars also examine the affect power has on state behavior and the international system and hypothesize how states can overcome their need for power to promote a more cooperate global environment.

International relations is not just focused on power, though. The field is also concerned with the changing nature of state and non-state actors and the impact these new actors have on state behavior. Increased nongovernmental organization (NGO) activity in a state, for example, helps promote more democratic norms and respect for the rule of law and, thus, facilitates a more cooperative environment. Terror groups, on the other hand, pose a new threat to state sovereignty and the security of states, domestically and internationally. As a result, these new groups can prompt an increase in international conflict. Understanding these new actors and the role they play in the international system gives scholars a clearer picture of the conditions states face, and why some are better able to avoid conflict compared to others.

Because the world is so complex, and many different factors can impact the behavior of states, it is necessary to find ways to simplify the world in which we live. Therefore, international relations relies on a set of theories and different levels of analysis to help understand and make predictions about state behavior. These theories act as roadmaps which allow one to view the world through a more simplified lens; without them, our explanatory power would be limited. For example, if you want to explain why the different conflicts took place in Game of Thrones, you could spend hours retelling the various events, weaving in and out of a myriad of details. Or, you could examine it from a few assumptions, like the need for power, or the lack of the rule of law and international institutions, or a disregard for basic human rights, or even by examining the individual characteristics of each leader. Using this approach makes it easier to understand why the events occurred.

International relations is an increasingly relevant field of study. As the world continues to grow and become more interconnected, the need to understand state behavior and the interactions that take place among states becomes even more important. International relations provides an interdisciplinary approach with a range of foci all of which aim to do just that. The theories it presents can help even the novice understand the complex world in which we all live.

Game of Thrones and Theories of International Relations

When watching the series Game of Thrones, it is hard not to see similarities between events in the show and things that occur in the real world. Unlikely alliances defined both WWI (1914-1918) and WWII (1939-1945) (e.g. Russia and China joined forces with the United States and Great Britain to fight Germany; Italy switched sides from one war to the next, etc.). The struggle for power has defined international relations since at least the time of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE), and we see it happen time and time again culminating in several major wars throughout history. The struggle for power also defines the relationships in the series Game of Thrones. From Robert to Stannis, Cersei to Daenerys, Marjorie to Lord Baelish, and The Greyjoys to The Boltons, just to name a few, all seek power. As a result, wars are a common theme in the series just as they have been throughout history. Thus, power is essential because it is needed to help states survive in the self-help system the anarchical international order creates.

We see this struggle for power in the series as well as in the real world. In the show, for example, each region in the Seven Kingdoms seeks to increase its military strength in order to protect itself from those who would challenge it and/or overtake others for their own gains. Even when power is consolidated under Robert Baratheon, it is only temporary; just as soon as a region gains enough strength to challenge the Baratheons’ (and later Lannister’s) claim over their territory (e.g. The North) the opportunity is seized to regain power. The same occurred when the Soviet Union saw its power diminish in 1989. The first region that retook control over its territory from the Russian government was East Germany. This act of independence was followed by states all-over Eastern Europe leaving the Russian government a shell of the mammoth powerhouse it once was. States in the real world also seek power for survival – each seeking better technology, weapons, or alliances to protect itself and its interests. The United States and Russia, for example, have long been embroiled in an arms race to outpace the other’s military capabilities. Iran, Israel, and North Korea also have sought nuclear technology to protect their state from outside attack and interference. In the series, The North seeks alliances with its neighbors to compete militarily, while Cersei, on the other hand, develops Wild Fire, and Daenerys, of course, has the power of her dragons.

The show demonstrates other elements that can be juxtaposed with the real world beyond just the parallels with war and the quest for power. For example, the White Walkers, as a threat to all mankind, could be a symbol of climate change. The various kingdoms are too busy negotiating agreements with each other or sometimes fighting for resources or the Iron Throne that they forget the inevitable doom of the White Walkers cleansing the lands of the living. Many kingdoms far south of the wall (where the White Walkers tend to reside) believe their threat to be too far away both geographically and chronologically. This compares to states not reacting to threats of severe/irreversible climate change disasters because of their loose perception of science or preoccupation with what they perceive as more pressing or dangerous threats.

The show also demonstrates the struggles female heads of state face when gaining power. Most of the female characters who hold diplomatic or military power struggle with likability among other leaders and are forced to act more masculine and traditional to gain trust and respect. We see these same developments in the real world (e.g. Hillary Clinton). Identity politics is also apparent when examining the perception those south of the wall have of the Wildlings. The Wildlings are viewed as barbaric, thieves, and murderers. It is only after we are introduced to them in the series that we learn the Wildlings view people south of the wall in much the same way. As it turns out, the threat of the White Walkers helps the two groups realize they have much more in common than previously thought.

The series mirrors the struggle between groups in society and the lack of respect for the human rights of some individuals, too; particularly, those not part of the elite groups in society. For instance, The Unsullied are slave-soldiers who are forcefully castrated, bred as eunuchs, and trained for battle in Slaver’s Bay. In addition, parallel to the developed and developing world, in the series the wealthier kingdoms are drastically more advanced than the least developed kingdoms. They consume more resources and have much larger armies. They also mostly interact with other wealthy kingdoms, often seeing weaker states as valuable only for their resources.

Importantly, the series displays key concepts which include the major theories of international relations – realism, liberalism, and constructivism. The show also shows how heads of state frame global concerns to their citizens, the different level of concern states have for human rights and the underrepresented populations in society, and, especially, how difficult it is to achieve harmony in the international system. In the series, characters survive at any cost, sometimes killing their own family members to gain power. Survival, more so than the well-being of all society, is the key interest.

The lack of a higher-power in the international system, in addition, leads kingdoms to be motivated by distrust and fear, much like what happens to states in the real world. As the Kingdom of Daenerys grew, King’s Landing sought to eliminate the threat – first by attempting to assassinate its leader, then through outright war. North Korea, in our contemporary political world, is not known for upholding the agreements into which it enters, if it even enters into them at all. It is also known for blatant shows of force meant to signal its strength to its foes. Unable to trust the intentions of North Korea, states like Japan, South Korea, and The United States are motivated to protect themselves against it.

In sum, Game of Thrones effectively demonstrates the power of alliances and how easily the threat of force manipulates groups of people. It also offers an opportunity to explore other theories of interest to international relations, making it the perfect subject upon which to center this book. In addition, since Game of Thrones is a very popular series, setting a record for viewership, boasting 18.4 million viewers overall (Pallotta 2019) most people have at least heard of the show even if they have not watched. This familiarity helps make it easier to relate theories and concepts of international relations rather than using real world examples which often require more in-depth historical knowledge (Young et al 2018). Moreover, for those who simply do not like history or prefer pop culture, Game of Thrones makes it an interesting way to discuss the concepts because of its popularity.[1]

Game of Thrones and the Modern State System: An Unlikely Comparison?

Game of Thrones is set on two fictional continents: Westeros and Essos. The Seven Kingdoms is the name given to the realm that controls most of the continent of Westeros and the islands surrounding it. Once divided among the seven distinct kingdoms (the Kingdom of the North, The Kingdom of The Mountain and the Vale, the Kingdom of the Isles and Rivers, the Kingdom of the Rock, the Kingdom of the Stormlands, the Kingdom of the Reach, and the Principality of Dorne), it was Aegon, later referred to as the “mad king,” who (with the help of his sisters) conquered all of the kingdoms, except Dorne. Dorne did, however, later join Aegon’s kingdom through marriage, and thus Aegon was able to consolidate power over them. The Iron Throne is where the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms sits and serves as the symbol of power over the kingdoms. It is the desire to sit upon this throne as the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms that has led to most of the wars that take place in the series.

The Seven Kingdoms is an absolute monarchy ruled by a King. An absolute monarchy is a government in which the monarch exercises ultimate governing authority over the state with no constitutional limitations, or otherwise, to his or her powers (Harris 2009). At the start of the series Robert Baratheon is the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, though this changes many times over the course of the show. Because of the size of the Seven Kingdoms, Aegon appointed several “Great Houses” over nine administrative regions to be ruled by Lords who pledged allegiance to Aegon originally, and later Robert, Joffrey, Tommen, etc. Ned Stark, for instance, rules The North, but “bends the knee” to King Robert of the Seven Kingdoms. Ronnel Arryn, likewise, is the ruler of the Mountain and Vale, but also “bends the knee” to whomever sits upon the Iron Throne.

In return for their loyalty, the Lords are granted a certain amount of autonomy to oversee their region. Below the Lords in each region are vassals who swear allegiance to their Lord and the King of the Seven Kingdoms. Each vassal may, in turn, have their own vassals, and so forth. Lady Lyanna Mormont is the head of House Mormont of Bear Island, for example. She commands her own army and provides for those within her realm. She, however, swears her allegiance to The North as well as lives under whomever rules the Seven Kingdoms, to which The North currently belongs. Though, it is worth noting when asked to commit her army to Stannis Baratheon’s quest to take over the Iron Throne Lady Mormont replied that “Bear Island knows no king but the King of the North, whose name is Stark” (Season X Episode X). This is important because it indicates the power the King holds over the Seven Kingdoms is not as consolidated as would need be to ensure its ability to maintain control over the territory.

If one defines the state as an entity that maintains control over a territory and its people through the legitimate use of force, as is common in international relations (Dusza 1989), then any discussion of states in this book would need to focus on the Seven Kingdoms as if it were a single power/state with King Robert the recognized ruler of the state; though, admittedly, Robert presides over a very decentralized system. If you limit the definition of a state in this way, however, you also limit explanatory capacity when it comes to making comparisons among the different regions and their vassals in the series. The North, for example, would need to be viewed as a separatist group within domestic society and the resulting war between The North and King’s Landing as a civil war and not an international conflict. Because we want to apply theories of state behavior at the international level, relaxing the definition of a state makes analysis at the international level possible.

Adding to the above problem, there is little consensus among disciplines on the definition of a state with “no shortage of competing definitions” (Mitchell 1991, 77). Political Scientists think of a state in very limited terms. Realism, for instance, defines states simply as unitary, rational, and geographically-based actors. Defining power in terms of relative military, economic, and even political capabilities does allow for states to have different levels of power (Morgenthau 1948); unfortunately, though, this definition lacks the ability to distinguish at what point a group reaches the unitary, rational, and geographically-based actor status. While useful at the international level, it does little to help think about the actions of actors who have not yet achieved this unitary, rational-actor status.

In addition, realists tend to ignore all but the Great Powers. Since many different people maintain control over a number of different regions, but with different power capabilities, it would disqualify many areas in Game of Thrones from inclusion in our discussion since places like Braavos, The Dothraki (before Daenerys’ takeover and rise to global power), The North (before the reign of Jon Snow), Bear Island, and Dorne, among others, would not rise to the level of a Great Power. Thus, using examples of the impact of these areas would be problematic if sticking strictly to the definition of a state conceived by realists as described above.

Definitions of the state also tend to focus on the type of institutions within a state or reduce the state to a decision-making body only. Thus, for example, if there is a lack of hierarchical institutions, some might argue a state cannot exist. This view is often considered narrow and idealist, though, because it attempts to divide the state from society with an “elusive boundary” scholars try to “fix” with the right definition. However, one could argue any group that comes together and forms a system of governing, whether it be flat or hierarchical, could be considered a state if they stake a claim to a specific territory and defend it from encroachment by others (similar to the definition set forth above). Thinking of a state from this perspective would then allow for the inclusion of a much broader array of regions from which to draw examples of state behavior.

Some argue the type, or “ideology,” or institutions in a state matter when determining if an area has reached the level of statehood (Weber 1958). However, these characteristics matter to a much lesser extent than typically portrayed. An autocratic regime – a government where power is controlled by one person, can maintain strong infrastructure, institutions, and internal (as well as external) military control just like a democratic regime. Likewise, some democracies suffer from a lack of capacity, especially newly transitioning ones. Because state capacity is not dependent upon the type of institutions in place, it is necessary to broaden how we think about states if we are to use the different regions in Game of Thrones as representative of territorial states.

In addition, Timothy Mitchell points out, “a definition of the state always depends on distinguishing it from society, and the line between the two is difficult to draw in practice” (1991, 77). Although less of a problem when examining societies individually, it becomes particularly problematic when attempting cross-country analysis of a system where societies take on many different forms or, in the case of the societies in Game of Thrones, when a society has not reached a level complex enough to be comparable to the modern territorial state. On the other hand, one could rely on Max Weber’s definition of the modern state as a “compulsory association which organizes domination” and seeks to “monopolise the legitimate use of physical force as a means of domination within a territory” (Weber 1958, 82). However, such a definition is limited in explaining the intricacies of government organization or even states that have renounced the use of physical force over their given territories for various political purposes (e.g. Japan and Article 9 of its Constitution).

Importantly, who is to say the Kingdom of the North ceased to exist when power was “temporarily” gained by Aegon? Did Germany not encroach upon and take over other countries temporarily during WWI and WWII? After the war, borders, for the most part, were returned to their original lines of demarcation (or were redrawn to suit the victors). Thus, the states temporarily controlled by Germany did not necessarily cease to exist, but merely saw a loss of sovereignty, or their ability to rule one’s self without outside interference. Some were able to regain it after the war like France and Belgium, while others like Hungary and Poland were not so fortunate having been weakened too much. The North, at the end of the series, too, reclaims its independence with Sansa Stark ruling as the sovereign queen over the territory, turning the Seven Kingdoms officially into the Six Kingdoms.

The same ebb and flow of sovereignty experienced by states after both WWI and WWII occurred to the Kingdoms that make up the Seven Kingdoms. Sticking to a rigid definition of a state as set forth by Weber, though, makes discussing these areas as “states” difficult since their status changes across time throughout the series, with some gaining power (e.g. The North and the Iron Island) while others see their power almost completely diminished (e.g. Dorne). Again, relaxing this definition to account for states at various stages of development and levels of power makes applying the theories of international relations to states in the modern state system as well as to states residing in a system that lacks the characteristics of the modern state system possible.

To that end, we define a state as “a society with some sort of rituals, traditions, and rules that can differentiate in terms of structural organization, such as levels of hierarchy, as well as capacity to project power both internally and externally” (Young 2013). This definition meets most basic assumptions about the various components that make up a state. It also makes it possible to discuss a state throughout different levels across time and space. In other words, reworking the definition of a state to include specific characteristics of differing groups allows us to discuss the societies in Game of Thrones as if they were emblematic of modern states.[2]

We maintain states did not exist in their present form (a/k/a “the modern territorial state”) hundreds or thousands of years ago; this does not mean, however, that the origins of the Germanic people that currently make up the modern-day state of Germany, for example, are not identifiable in some other type of societal structure prior to the modern-day state era. Moreover, Poland, Belgium, France, and etc., did not cease to exist when Germany invaded. Rather, their sovereignty was temporarily lost. Moreover, just because Bear Island pledges its allegiance to The North, Lady Mormont makes it clear: Bear Island is free to rule and make decisions for itself and does not make those decisions at the pleasure of The North. Rather, it has decided, upon its own free will, to enter into an alliance with The North and join it in battles if needed, and only if Bear Island agrees to do so (See for example Lady Mormont’s conversation with Ser Davos and Jon Snow when considering to join The North’s fight against the Boltons: (Game of Thrones, Season 6, Episode 7). This is similar to the Triple Entente among Russia, France, and the United Kingdom. While they pledged allegiance to each other, they still retained their own individual sovereignty, and could, if they so decided, refuse to honor the alliance – though, of course, some repercussions might be felt if one did.

Just because the structure of the Seven Kingdoms is a hierarchical order where power is consolidated in the Iron Throne, the reality is, the different areas see this consolidated power as temporary, and are willing to take back their own sovereignty when the time is appropriate. Thus, it makes sense to discuss these different regions as separate states. It also prevents confusion since, as the series progresses, you see the Iron Throne lose its consolidation of power over The North, Dorne, and other regions; in fact, in the last episode of the series The North declares its independence and reclaims its sovereignty free from the Seven Kingdoms. If we start with the premise that each area is its own state, then it prevents the need to change the characterization of an area from example to example depending upon at what stage in its evolution a country is when the example takes place.“ Cultural evolution is not a continuous, cumulative gradual change, in most places ‘Fits and Starts’ better describes it” (Wenke 1999, 336). In short, states take on many shapes during thousands of years of formation just like those in the series.

From Band Level Societies to the Modern State System

The first societies were vastly different from those we find today. Before the development of fixed agriculture man primarily lived in nomadic, hunter-gatherer societies sometimes referred to as band level societies, or, as Weber describes them, charismatic societies (1946, 295-299). The Dothraki, before Daenerys becomes queen at least, has characteristics of band level societies – moving from place to place and relying on hunting (or scavenging) rather than establishing fixed farming communities. Although societies take on many shapes throughout history, at one time, all people organized themselves at this basic level (Fukuyama 2011, 59).

Band level societies have a hierarchical structure that recognize a leader with special qualities that differentiated him from the rest of the group. These unique characteristics can range from superior intelligence, trustworthiness, or strength; the individual that brought home the most game from hunting; or, in some cases, an individual who possessed some sort of supposed magical or spiritual quality (Fukuyama 2011; Weber 1946). The White Walkers and Dothraki (before Daenerys’ reign) are the best example of band level societies in Game of Thrones, though since they do not talk it is hard to know how their leaders are determined. Nevertheless, while some hierarchical structure does exist, it is not as complex as those states in Westeros and Essos. The White Walkers are also nomadic, like band level societies, and have not developed fixed agriculture, though it would seem as though the reason is because they do not need to grow food to survive. They also do not have fixed settlements with permanent residences, but rather continue to roam around the area North of the wall, waiting for their opportunity to migrate further south.

The Dothraki also exhibit characteristics akin to band level societies. The leader of the Dothraki is the one who is the greatest warrior or who has earned the respect of his fellow Dothraki. If he is deemed to lose these qualities, then a new ruler replaces him, just like in band level societies. When Drogo becomes ill and falls from his horse, for example, this is seen by the other Dothraki as a sign of weakness prompting one to proclaim: “A Kahl that cannot ride cannot lead” (Game of Thrones, Season 1, Episode 9). The Dothraki, prior to Daenerys’ rise to power, is nomadic, moving from one location to the next in search of resources.

Leaders in band level societies change frequently and do not have the ability to dictate to others. Instead, they lead by example rather than authority and give advice or an opinion rather than a command. No one is under any obligation to follow his suggestion (Fukuyama 2011, 53-55; Pilbeam 1970, 12). Moreover, the ruler’s legitimacy is contingent upon his ability to maintain proof of these special characteristics. Once contrary proof emerged, the belief in and, therefore, legitimacy of the ruler disappeared (Weber 1946, 296). In short, band level societies displayed some form of hierarchical structure not present before this point, though these structures still lack much capacity by modern-day comparison.

Once band level societies adopt agricultural practices, though, they form what is known as fixed settlements. This new way of organizing adds a layer of social complexity to society. Class cleavages emerge, the rule of law iss established, and, importantly, fixed settlements lead to increases in population, which bring a level of complexity of its own. As fixed settlements beca=ome more involved, they also expand by taking control of new territory. As this growth continues, they became more intricate creating distinctions with the way society organizes itself. Several different types of states emerge as a result. City-states, empires, monarchies, and theocracies are just a few of the other forms of government above the band or tribal level.

The Wildlingsare a good example of societies that have progressed past the band level, but not quite reached the same level of development as the more complex states on Westeros and Essos. The Wildlings have a hierarchical structure, with Mance Rayder designated as the leader of the group, or the “King Beyond the Wall.” Society is much less complex than, say, The North or King’s Landing, with fewer class-cleavages, division of labor, and a more equitable transition of resources throughout the society. They do have fixed settlements and have developed fixed agriculture, though some of the Wildlings still exhibit nomadic tendencies, especially when in search of safer settlements or for more resources.

The North, King’s Landing, and Dorne, as well as others in the series, are much more complex than the Wildlings, Dothraki, or White Walkers. The government structure is much more rigid, with clear lines of succession, clearly defined class cleavages, and separation of labor. King’s Landing, arguably the most developed of all the states, also has a large army and has clearly demarcated borders. Its economic structure is much more sophisticated than the Dothraki, Wildlings, and White Walkers. In fact, the latter three do not appear to exchange money for goods. The Dothraki and White Walkers take what they want, whereas the Wildlings, while they do cross the wall and steal from those living in The North, for the most part, live off the land, not needing to establish the same sort of levels of commerce as King’s Landing.

Though each of the above groups have distinct characteristics to differentiate it as a separate type of political order, all represent the different levels and types of statehood that evolved with time. In fact, Charles Tilly argues, the different types of governments that emerged were merely “plausible alternatives” from which elites chose (1992, 1 – 5). If the organization controls “the principal concentrated means of coercion within delimited territories, and exercise[s] priority in some respects over all other organizations acting within the territories,” then, regardless of how homogenized or centralized authority, the political unit is a state (Tilly 1992, 5). All forms of government, therefore, represent one form of a state or another (Tilly 1992, 1-5; See also Connelly 2003; Cooper 2005; Kumar 2010). Using this interpretation, it is easy to conceptualize the different kingdoms and vassals throughout Westeros and Essos as merely progressing through different levels of statehood since, it is important to note, the process of state formation is not always continuous, resulting in ever more expansion and growth.

An empire is, perhaps, the greatest expansion a state can undertake. Empires form when territorial expansion continues beyond a states original borders into other regions or states’ territories; the Holy Roman Empire or the United Kingdom are examples. Though the Rome was able to reach a level that could be called an empire, Rome itself never ceased to exist as a state. The control it was able to exert over territory, however, did change.

Although an empire is a natural extension of power-seeking states, as stated, it does not represent the final stage in a state’s development. Empires can weaken, causing the state to lose control over its territory. After an empire collapses, however, the state does not disappear. Instead, its capacity significantly weakens, and it also occupies a much smaller territory (whether consolidated or not). In essence, the state loses some of its capacity to project its power. For some empires, such as the Roman and Ottoman, for instance, they virtually disappeared, leaving their citizens to be conquered and/or absorbed by the new states that emerged in the fallen empires’ places. Though, for the United Kingdom, they never disappeared, only lost territory and the ability to project power globally at the same level it once did.

This phenomenon occurs to the power once held by King Robert over the Seven Kingdoms. After his death, internal unrest due to the tyrannical rule of Joffrey, compounded by a shortage of food and other vital resources, as well as a challenge to the legitimacy of the heir to the throne, all contributed to the weakening of the Seven Kingdoms and the breakaway of The North and others from the power of the Iron Throne. Though King’s Landing still exists and has not disappeared, the state itself has lost its ability to control territory beyond its borders. King’s Landing’s loss of power is comparable to the United Kingdom losing its control over its prior colonies while still maintaining control over the original territory of England, Scotland, and Wales.

In sum, though the kingdoms in Game of Thrones do not represent the modern state system, if we relax the definition and use the above assumptions instead, we can make comparisons between the modern state system and the kingdoms in Game of Thrones. Importantly, the theories of international relations help us to understand the modern as well as the pre-modern era. It is here that the series will prove to be the most useful.

Overview of Chapters

The book is divided in two parts: one section that covers the concepts and theories of international politics and the other which explores thematic topics relevant to this field of study. Chapter I begins with a discussion of the different levels of analysis. Each level is related to specific characters and/or events from the Game of Thrones series to help provide “real” examples to which the concepts can be applied. Chapters II, III, and IV cover the main theories in International Relations. Specifically, chapter II explains the main theories within the realist paradigm. Specific focus is placed on classical realism and neo-realism. Terms like anarchy, power politics, and balance of power are also discussed. The liberal paradigm is covered in Chapter III. Specific focus is placed on idealism and neo-liberalism. Chapter IV explains the theory of Constructivism with emphasis on its basic assumptions.

The second section of the book involves Chapter V and VI, that cover thematic topics in international relations, namely human rights and underrepresented actors or groups in politics. The emphasis of Chapter V is on torture and violations of women’s rights, and Chapter VI includes discussions on the indigenous peoples in international politics. In each chapter, examples from the television series are used alongside real world examples to provide context for the concepts covered. Chapter VII provides a conclusion.

 

Notes

[1] In 2015, the television series set a record for the most Emmys won in a single year with 12, including the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series. According to The Guardian, Game of Thrones is the “most talked about show on television” (Hughes 2014; Otterson 2017). It has become more popular with each new season and shattered HBO ratings records (Otterson 2017).

[2] It is necessary to note this definition differs from that given to “nation.”  Although it defines one characteristic of a state as having some sort of ritual, traditions, and rules, this is not the same as having a shared identity or culture. Though important for state strength, it does not accurately define “state.” As Walker Connor explains, a state is tangible – readily defined and easily quantified. “Peru, for illustration, can be defined in an easily conceptualized manner as the territorial-political unit consisting of sixteen million inhabitants of the 514,060 square miles located on the west coast of South America between 69 and 80 west, and 2 and 18, 21 south” (1978, 300). No mention about the identity of the people in the area is necessary to identify the “state.”  Therefore, a state can be thought of as the territory over which a central power makes claim to political power and is able to demonstrate that power by extracting compliance from inhabitants and recognition of this power over the territory from foreigners and other states.

Nations, on the other hand, are intangible, self-defined, and consist of “a psychological bond that joins a people and differentiates it, in the subconscious conviction of its members, from all other people in a most vital way” (Connor 1978, 300-301). A popular definition in international relations of a nation is that it consists of “a social group which shares a common ideology, common institutions and customs, and a sense of homogeneity.” The group may have a sense of belonging to a particular territory, though certain religious sects also exhibit these same characteristics (Connor 1978, 301-304). International relations scholars have gone to great lengths, according to Connor, to differentiate between state and nation. Nevertheless, “having defined the nation as an essentially psychological phenomenon,” he argues scholars still treat the term “as fully synonymous with the very different and totally tangible concept of the state” (1978, 301).

The merger of these two terms is problematic. The more homogenous a society, the easier it is for a state to establish institutions with a great deal of capacity, though it is not an essential component for state formation. In fact, Connor surveyed 132 states and found that only 12 states, or 9.1%, qualified as nation-states. In “this era of immigration and cultural diffusion,” he cautions, “even that figure is probably on the high side” (1978, 301-304). These two terms must be kept separate, however, as the two are distinct from each other conceptually and merging them can cause confusion when defining a kingdom or vassal as a state.

 

This except is from Game of Thrones and the Theories of International Relations (Lexington Books, 2019). Our review of the book is here.

Laura D. Young and Nusta Caranza Ko

Laura D. Young is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Georgia Gwinnett College; Nusta Carranza Ko is an Assistant Professor of Global Affairs and Human Security in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore.

Back To Top