[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD]
I enjoyed the first season of Game of Thrones but was somewhat underwhelmed with efforts to use it as a window to understanding world politics today. The second season, which concluded this past Sunday, however, did much better on this score. I think this is because in season one the primary narrative dealt with one ruler of Westeros coping with
stupendously naive staff contending factions, whereas this season dealt with a more variegated set of leaders, which worked far better for the show. Two signs of this: First, whereas the Daenerys Targaryen plot in the first season was fun and diverting, I found season two's Dany sections distracting and deadening. Part of this might have been because Dany was whining more, but it was also because she was largely operating in a political vacuum and therefore less interesting. Second, whereas Cersei Lannister seemed like a master Machiavellian in season one, in season two she appeared to be just a little out of her depth. It's not because she got dumber, but because the protagonists who interacted with her were wiser or more powerful than Ned Stark.
Season two's War of the Five Kings allowed for greater contrast between different styles of political leadership and political culture -- and was therefore all the richer for it. Leadership ranged from Stannis Baratheon's humorless determination to Tywin Lannister's stolid competence to Joffrey's sadism to Robb Stark's efforts to preserve humanitarian norms to Balon Greyjoy's sheer bloody-mindedness. The staffers were great too. I'm sorry that Tyrion Lannister and Davos Seaworth never got to share a scene together -- that would have been a hoot. Similarly, the interactions between Tyrion and Varys -- especially this one -- were delicious.
Indeed, the final episode alone is so rich in its contemplation of political leadership alone that it made up for the less comprehensible parts of the plot (why the hell did Bran, Hodor, and company need to abandon Winterfell?) Tyrion's explanation for why he wanted to stay in King's Landing was one of those rare moments in television in which a character was honest about his enjoyment of politics. As Alyssa Rosenberg shrewdly observes, the Throne Room scene in which much political kabuki theater transpired was a powerful reminder of how the victors write the history. And the Varys-Ros alliance bodes well for political machinations in season three.
For all of this -- and zombies too! -- the finale was great. What put it over the top, however, might be the best rejoinder to the Great Speech Theory of Politics that I have ever seen -- Theon Greyjoy's efforts to rally his troops in the face of overwhelming odds during the siege of Winterfell:
Anyone who calls for better political "leadership" should watch this again and again and again. Yes, leadership matters on the margins -- but power and purpose matter one whole hell of a lot more.
The end of the episode promises an even wider array of political actors -- Mance Rayder, the White Walkers, a returning Dany -- influencing activities in Westeros. This bodes very, very well for season three.
What do you think?
The rest of FP's hard-working, award-winning contributors will provide plenty of reactions to Obama's Afghanistan speech from last night. I don't have anything new to add that I didn't say, oh, about a year ago to the week.
So let's talk about.... Game of Thrones!!!
Set in a fictional medieval-type world (that looks juuuuust a bit like England) with a wisp of fantasy, there's a lot for culture vultures and international relations geeks to like. Based on a series of novels by George R.R. Martin, the first season on HBO just ended on a ratings high. Essentially, Game of Thrones consists of a lot of palace intrigue, a healthy dollop of transgressive sex, and a whiff of zombies. So you can see the attraction to your humble blogger.
Having finally caught up with the entire first season, however, I'm still puzzling out the show's applicability to current world politics. I think there are a few, but there's a bias in the show that does suggest some serious constraints [WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD].
On the one hand, Game of Thrones' best feature has been demonstrating the importance of strategic acumen in politics. The first season's protagonist, Ned Stark, is a stalwart friend, accomplished soldier, and dogged bureaucrat. He was also a strategic moron of the first order, which was why I didn't bewail his beheading in the season's climactic moment. Yes, it's a shame that the good man died. The thing is, he had so many, many opportunities to avoid that end, had he only demonstrated a bit more ability to think about how his rivals would react to his actions. Important survival trip: don't reveal all of your plans and information to your rival until you have engaged in some rudimentary contingency planning. Or, to put it more plainly:
On the other hand, I'm just not sure how much the world of Westeros translates into modern world politics. Realists would disagree, of course. Cersei Lannister makes the show's motto clear enough: "in the game of thrones, you win or you die." That's about as zero-sum a calculation as one can offer. In this kind of harsh relative gains world, realpolitik should be the expected pattern of behavior.
Which is also part of the problem with Game of Thrones. World politics is about the pursuit of power, yes, but it's not only about that. What do people want to do with the power they obtain? Social purpose matters in international affairs as well, and there's precious little of that in Game of Thrones. Sure, there are debates about dynastic succession, but there are no fundamental differences in regime type, rule of law, or economic organization among the myriad power centers in this world. I hope this changes in Season Two.
My favorite touch in Game of Thrones is the words of each house in Westeros. For House Stark, "winter is coming"; for House Lannister, "hear me roar"; for House Baratheon, "ours is the fury"; and my favority, House Greyjoy, "we do not sow." In case you were wondering, for House Drezner, our words are, "it is time to read." Alternatively, "Chinese food is coming."
Readers are warmly encouraged to proffer the words of House Obama, House Clinton, House Bush, House Saud, House Putin, House Chavez, or House Singh in the comments.
Analysts are trying to decipher the content and implications of the Senate's financial regulation bill. Noam Scheiber and James Pethokoukis have surprisingly similar takes, in that the bill doesn't directly address the "too big to fail" problem, though Scheiber thinks it does address the problem indirectly.
Wall Street has an enduring PR problem. Yes, big banks are unpopular. But it has gotten so bad that they may not be able to so easily counter their image issues with campaign cash. Getting Wall Street money now has a stigma attached to it like oil and tobacco money. Candidates like Meg Whitman in California and John Kasich are getting hammered for their Wall Street ties. The industry’s continued unpopularity will no doubt spawn further attempts to tax, regulate and restrict the sector.
If the public stays this outraged for this lomg, then Pethokoukis is right. The political problems of finance are becoming so great that we could be talking about a shift in social norms with regard to what is considered "honorable" work.
Of course, paradoxically, this could serve to increase the salaraies of those still willing to go into finance. As Adam Smith pointed out in Wealth of Nations:
[T]he wages of labour vary with... the honourableness or dishonourableness of the employment.... Honour makes a great part of the reward of all honourable professions. In point of pecuniary gain, all things considered, they are generally under-recompensed, as I shall endeavour to show by and by. Disgrace has the contrary effect. The trade of a butcher is a brutal and an odious business; but it is in most places more profitable than the greater part of common trades. The most detestable of all employments, that of public executioner, is, in proportion to the quantity of work done, better paid than any common trade whatever.
Question to readers: Will the social stigma against Big Finance persist or fade as the economy bounces back?
The last three decades have seen two important shifts among advanced industrialized economies. The first is the move away from state ownership of large chunks of the economy, and the replacement of hands-on government control with a variety of regulatory instruments. This has happened across all countries in the industrialized world – there are few developed states which still directly own substantial parts of their economy. The second is more specific and recent – the tendency to replace ‘heavy-handed’ forms of regulation with ‘regulation with a light touch’ and self-regulation. This has been most marked in Anglo-American economies, but other countries (in continental Europe and elsewhere) have faced persistent ideological pressures to move in this direction. This is a large chunk of the so-called ‘reform’ agenda that the Economist magazine, the OECD and other such bodies keep pushing. Both of these shifts are largely ideological – that is, they gained much of their impetus from changes in the shared ideas which constitute policy-makers’ shared collective wisdom about how to deal with the economy. The second shift (the reform agenda) is now a busted flush. Its proponents are in disarray.... But what is utterly startling to me is that the first bit – the claim that the state shouldn’t be directly involved in running the economy – is under serious threat too. I genuinely hadn’t expected this to happen. As the NYT notes, countries like France are using US actions as a way to justify state involvement in picking and supporting national champions.It's not just France. Russia has planned aggressive state actions to intervene in financial markets. So has China. The Gulf economies are now feeling domestic pressure to use their sovereign wealth funds to prop up their own equity markets. Is this the beginning of a norm shift in the global economy? It's tempting to say yes, but I have my doubts. The last time the United States intervened on this scale in its own financial sector was the S&L bailout -- and despite that intervention, financial globalization took off. The last time we've seen cordinated global interventions like this was the Asian financial crisis of a decade ago -- and that intevention reinforced rather than retarded the privilege of private actors in the marketplace. In other words, massive interventions can take place without undecutting the ideological consensus that private actors should control the commading heights of the economy. Finally, there's the odd fact that despite the financial chaos of the past year, in relative terms the United States is still doing surprisingly well. U.S. equity markets are actually outperforming the world, and as the crisis has deepened the dollar has strengthened. Over the past fifty years, this has been America's saving grace -- in past crises that were thought to end U.S. hegemony, it's the U.S. that suffers the fewest costs. This does not mean that history will repeat itself -- but it's something to bear in mind as the crisis moves foreward.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.