Just in time for Game of Thrones‘ Season 2 (which happens inconveniently right in the middle of ISA), Foreign Affairs has posted this constructivist riposte to the foreign policy commentariat‘s realism-worship-fest from last Season (warning: contains Season 1 spoilers):
Commentary by foreign policy analysts on the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones stressed its supposed underlying theme of political realism. Thus one writer claimed that the TV show and the George R.R. Martin novels on which it is based “clearly demonstrate the power of might over right,” and another agreed: “In this kind of harsh relative gains world, realpolitik should be the expected pattern of behavior.” But a closer look of Game of Thrones suggests a different take.
To be sure, life in Westeros is poor, nasty, brutish and short, and Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series and David Benioff’s television program are laced with Hobbesian metaphors, Machiavellian intrigues, and Carr-like calculations of power. 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.