What do Arend Lijphart, John McGarry and Tywin Lannister have in common? Power-sharing!
Since we are halfway through the third season, and we got a nice dialogue about the interplay between nation, nationalism and anarchy between Varys and Littlefinger (not in the book), it is time for us to ponder how these basic concepts play in Westeros.*
* A reminder that Westeros is only one part of this world–there are the places beyond the seas that have their own political systems and identities. Plus the world beyond the Wall is not really part of Westeros either.
When I first wrote about the IR of Game of Thrones, I tended to treat each House as a country of its own, at least the major ones. But another way to look at this is that Westeros is one multi-ethnic nation especially given the aforementioned conversation about the meaning of “realm.” If one considers Robb Stark’s campaign as a secessionist one, then Westeros as a nation-state makes more sense.
Anyhow, Varys argues that he serves the realm, even if it is a bit of a myth or lie. Sounds like imagined community to me. The shared sense of belonging is based on belief and shared perceptions rather than any reality yet still has real impacts on the actors and their identities. Without a shared sense of community and identity, without all of those myths and symbols (the pointy throne for Westeros, the White House in every attack on DC movie this spring), we may only have anarchy or as it is called in the show: chaos.* Of course, for IR theorists, anarchy simply means without government which may or not be chaotic.
* As pointed out elsewhere, in the old D&D games, characters had two sets of alignments–good/evil and lawful/chaotic. The contrast between Melisandre and Thoros perhaps.
While the alliance by marriage stuff that dominates the politics seems so very feudal, it can also be seen as a power-sharing system that gives as many of the major Houses/ethnic groups a stake in the political system.* If all of the marriages go right (not spoiling things for the non-book readers … but how often do all things go right in Westeros?), Joffrey, the son of two Houses (Barratheon and Lannister, sort of if we ignore Joffrey’s true father), will be married to a third house, Tyrell. Meanwhile, Tyrion will be married to a Stark, and so on. The Lannister strategy, for all of its, well, evil, is quite inclusive. The only folks left outside are the Martells and the Aryns. Mycella, the daughter of Robert and Cersei (ok, Jaime and Cersei) was sent off by Tyrion to the Martells to build some ties. Tywin is also reaching out to the Aryns via Littlefinger’s pursuit of Lysa Tully.
* Of course, power-sharing has often been criticized for not being democratic but a series of elite bargains. And Tywin really is not sharing power, but he is, via the various claims that get inherited by the progeny of these marriages, giving the various houses stakes in the current Lannister-dominated political order.
Of course, the irony here is that we know that Littlefinger is out for himself. While Tywin Lannister is trying to create a Lannister-based order, Littlefinger is trying to upset all efforts as he sees more opportunity in chaos. We could use this to focus on anarchy at the international level, but I prefer to stick with the domestic analogy. In civil wars, those who control the smuggling become enriched and powerful–this is the ladder of which Littlefinger speaks. As a brothel owner and then as minister of the coin, Littlefinger was best positioned to benefit from the war and the chaos that ensued. He started from a position of low birth but has used his “indispensible-ness” to gain a title, lands, and trust. Well, sort of. Tywin probably wanted a Lannister to control the money, but still gave Littlefinger heaps of opportunity. As we shall see, Littlefinger’s plans are pretty damn complex and orderly as he uses disorder to his advantage.
The contrast between the intel expert seeking to promote order, even it is soaked in blood, and the legitimized organized criminal promoting and taking advantage of political conflict (his betrayal of Ned was key, remember) will be an interesting contest even if most of it happens behind the scenes with only a few (and the audience) privy to it.
The Game of Thrones is not for those afraid to spill blood or break a promise. Just like civil war and ethnic conflict (and IR, of course).