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‘Game of Thrones’: In Westeros and Washington, leaders blind to real peril

Analysis: George R.R. Martin understands better than most how human pettiness can shape complex political power games

Politicians in the capital squabble and jockey for influence. Their quarrels breed distrust and open warfare, jeopardize alliances and preclude united action. The main players have the power to shape the world around them, but they lack perspective, ignoring the perils threatening the future of their society.

It’s a familiar story — as anyone on Capitol Hill knows — but it’s never been more compellingly told than by George R. R. Martin in “A Song of Ice and Fire,” his as-yet-unfinished series of novels that has been turned into the wildly popular television show “Game of Thrones.”

Martin told Al Jazeera in an exclusive interview that there's an implicit link between his fictional Westeros and our contemporary politics. “We have things going on in our world right now like climate change that’s ultimately a threat to the entire world,” he said. “But people are using it as a political football … You’d think everybody would get together. This is something that can wipe out possibly the human race.”

The failure of politicians to put aside their ambitions to confront a greater danger provides an underlying narrative for Martin’s books. While they take place in a universe of dragons, giants and ice zombies, the novels contain a real life warning: The self-interested rivalries that consume so many politicians endanger everyone.

"Why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?" one character asks rhetorically in the series’ first book, “A Game of Thrones.”

Fire and ice

In our world, which patiently awaits both book six in Martin's series and Season 5 in the HBO series, the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a chilling report on climate change this month.

IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri warned that failure to confront the threat imperils “all species that live on this planet.”

In the report's original draft, the panel blasted politicians who “engage in short-term thinking and are biased toward the status quo.” That line was later deleted, but it's also a great description of many of the political actors in “A Song of Ice and Fire.”

Last Tuesday, China and the U.S. announced a nonbinding environmental deal. While it was a pleasant surprise to many environmentalists, there are reasons to fear that any progress in combating climate change will be undercut by politics.

Beijing promised to start reducing emissions in 2030, three years after Bloomberg News Energy Finance predicted its emissions would peak anyway. For China, the U.S. just countersigned the status quo.

In Washington, when Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., heard about the climate deal, he used it as an opportunity to rail against President Barack Obama, saying, “The American people spoke against the president's climate policies in this last election.”

Inhofe, the author of “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future,” vowed in a statement to do everything in his power to “reign [sic] in and shed light on the EPA’s unchecked regulations.”

As head of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees the EPA, he could hamstring the agency he once compared to the Gestapo.

Even before the Republicans took control of the Senate, passing climate-change legislation was a nonstarter on Capitol Hill. And now if Inhofe and the rest of the GOP carry through on their promise to enfeeble the EPA, Obama will have few remaining tools to put the U.S. on track to meet the greenhouse gas emissions targets called for in his deal with China.

That would be an easily recognizable scenario for George R.R. Martin, in whose books internecine fighting in Westeros has diverted attention from the common threat: the looming invasion of the Others (called white walkers in the HBO show), supernatural creatures who wield icy blades that can cut through steel and who can transform dead humans into frozen zombie killers.

All that separates Westeros from the threat of annihilation is the 300-mile-long, 700-foot-high Wall manned by the Night’s Watch, a military order dedicated to protecting the realm but has been allowed to dangerously degrade. The regions of Westeros are supposed to supply the Night's Watch with capable men but have for years kept the best fighters for their own armies and instead sent the Night’s Watch — as one character puts it — “sullen peasants, debtors, poachers, rapers, thieves and bastards.”

North of the Wall live the free folk — dubbed wildlings by the Westerosi — who refuse to bend the knee to hereditary monarchs or heed the self-serving laws imposed by an unelected authority. (Free Folk choose their rulers.) Like contemporary climate refugees, they’ve had an early peek at the threat facing the rest of the world. Forced to migrate south, the Free Folk are willing to unleash unspeakable brutality to fight their way over or through the Wall to the relative safety of Westeros. 

A Westerosi IPCC would certainly accuse the bickering nobles of Westeros of short-term thinking and bias toward the status quo for ignoring the white walkers and the bitter cold they seem to bring.

Among the Westerosi contenders for the throne, the Stark family seems most aware of the cyclical danger. “Winter is coming” is the motto of House Stark.

“A winter that is always notoriously hard and can last not just years but a decade or more,” wrote John Lanchester in The London Review of Books, describing the Starks' fears. “It’s a huge, all-encompassing environmental force, determining the lives of everyone, open-endedly.”

Lanchester continues, “It’s a universe in which nobody is secure and the climate is getting steadily harder and no one knows when the good weather will return.”

There’s a historical analogue to the multiyear winters of Westeros — the Little Ice Age, which hit Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages — and the catastrophic effects of that climate shift and the actions of the political class do not bode well for either Westeros or contemporary society.

From about AD 1000 to 1300, Europe enjoyed years of mild weather, often referred to as the Medieval Warm Period. This led to agricultural windfalls, population booms and vineyards as far north as Norway.

When the weather turned during the Little Ice Age, a series of famines ravaged Europe. Millions died across the continent, starting with the Great Famine of 1315. Parents abandoned their children, and many resorted to cannibalism to survive, according to chroniclers of the time. The consequences of the declining harvests were exacerbated by the Hundred Years War, a dynastic dispute between England and France that began in 1337. As famine and plague combined to eliminate 30 to 50 percent of Europe’s population, many of the continent’s leaders were busy fighting an increasingly brutal war.

Westeros, not wholly unlike Europe before the 14th century, has been enjoying many years of summer. But unlike medieval Europe, Westeros knows that harsh weather is ahead. And like politicos of almost any era, they seem blinded by ambition.

Macedon and the white walkers

Climate change isn’t the only analogy Martin has in mind when shaping his narrative of leaders’ failure to recognize the most critical danger.

“It’s a common dynamic that takes place in history,” Martin told Al Jazeera, pointing to the ancient Greek city-states ostensibly allied to form the Amphictyonic League but were really “fighting with each other … even as Philip of Macedon built up his armies to conquer them all.”

“They're blind to Philip,” Martin explained, because "Thebes is quarreling with Corinth and both of them hate Sparta.”

Philip of Macedon may not be a white walker threatening all of humanity, but many of America’s Founding Fathers were obsessed with the tiffs of the Amphictyonic League and tried to create a system to prevent partisan fighting. In Federalist 18, James Madison — writing under the pseudonym he shared with Alexander Hamilton, Publius — argued that a closer union, like the United States under the Constitution, could have prevented Greece from wearing “the chains of Macedon.”

But the young Madison’s faith in the ability of governmental structures to contain the baser instincts of politicians was perhaps overly optimistic. Even if there is no current Philip of Macedon (or white walkers, for that matter) on America’s borders, political enmity can still prevent the nation from dealing with such existential threats, he explained.

Martin stressed, however, that “A Song of Ice and Fire”/“Game of Thrones” is not intended as an allegory — “If I really wanted to write about the present-day struggles in the Middle East, I would write about the present-day struggles in the Middle East,” he said — but he is describing what he said are “universal themes” of “power and justice.”

Better than grad school

Nonetheless, Martin’s books lend themselves well to real-world analysis and critique of theories that assume countries act rationally at all times.

What made the ancient Greek historian Thucydides “so superior to what’s typically taught at graduate school that teach international relations,” according to Yale historian Donald Kagan, is his analysis of human emotion. Thucydides, like Martin, describes structures of power, but both appear to be more concerned with the human failings and frailties of politicians — that often cost their citizenry dearly — than much of scholarly analysis.

Thucydides, said Kagan, revealed that “there is just a very thin veneer that covers over the brutal, the bestial, the worse than bestial that exist in human beings” — but he could just as easily have been discussing Martin’s books.

In Thucydides’ telling, according to Kagan,  “anger, frustration, desire for vengeance increases as the fighting drags on, producing a progression of atrocities.” And anyone who’s read or seen the Red Wedding massacre in Martin’s story would have to agree.

Some have stressed the hard-bitten realpolitik of Martin’s work, but those analyses often miss the deeper meaning, Charli Carpenter argued in Foreign Affairs. “The true moral of the story is that when good rules are disregarded, disorder and ruin follow,” she wrote about Westeros.

Instead of believing — as one character, Cersei Lannister, puts it — that “kings can do as they like,” Carpenter argued that lords and kings are punished for violating custom and agreement just as much as peasants are, revealing that power at the top is more precarious than it might seem.

In “A Clash of Kings,” the second novel in the series, the eunuch spymaster Varys poses a riddle. A priest, a king and a rich man stand together, and each one orders the same swordsman to slay the other two. “Who will the swordsman obey?” asks Varys.

The “damned riddle” confounds the normally clever Tyrion Lannister, until he learns Varys’ simple answer: “Power resides where men believe it resides.”

This vignette reveals, according to Carpenter, that “Peasants, infantry, sailors, stewards, camp followers, smiths, millers and the like are the social foundations on which the elites stand and through whose allegiance they ultimately rise or fall.”

She further argues that Thucydides’ description of Melos — a small island where the Athenians slaughtered the men and enslaved the women and children during the Peloponnesian War — combined with Athens’ ultimate fall to Sparta “is meant to suggest that the gains that power achieves without justice cannot endure.”

Just as King Joffrey Baratheon’s brutality comes back to get him (on his wedding day), the supposedly “civilized” Athens descended into barbarity and ultimately lost.

“War makes monsters of us all," one character says in “A Feast for Crows,” the fourth book in the series.

But here lies the thin silver lining to Martin's blood-soaked books: Power without justice is unsustainable — in Westeros, as it is on Earth. 

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