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Armies, Gold, Flags—and Stories

What Game of Thrones Has Taught Us About Pop Culture and Foreign Affairs

At a screening of the final episode of Game of Thrones in Moscow, Russia, May 2019 Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

The eight-year-long cultural phenomenon of HBO’s Game of Thrones culminated on May 18 with the fiery destruction of the Iron Throne and the death of the formerly beloved Queen Daenerys. The show’s final season has produced an explosion of commentary on what it all means. What is the appropriate basis for political authority? Can Daenerys be both a feminist hero and a war criminal? Does might make right? Should it, in a time of war?

Among the foreign-policy intelligentsia, and society broadly, interpreting Game of Thrones (and the book series by George R. R. Martin that the show is based on) has become a cottage industry. Every political analyst, historian, or theorist has his or her take on what lessons can be drawn from the story for real-world foreign policy. This enthusiasm tells us something about the show’s political implications: fans and writers argue over Game of Thrones precisely because there is power in interpreting a story to support one’s own arguments about what is right and who gets to choose.

In 2012, I joined this fray, arguing in these pages that the overall narrative arc of Game of Thrones favored a constructivist rather than a realist view of global politics, in that it disrupted stale formulas, privileged the marginalized, and taught that power hinges on attention to justice. The series’ denouement largely confirms this reading. Those left standing can include women, cripples, bastards, and “cowards.” Meaningful and necessary institutional changes can arise from global collective action. Brute force cannot win the day in the absence of ethical restraint.

Above all, Game of Thrones contains a still deeper constructivist message about the power of narrative to lead or mislead. Tyrion’s message to the elites of Westeros in the season finale sums up this lesson of the show: “What is it that unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags?” The realist answer to Tyrion’s question would have been armies: war makes nations and nations make war. But that claim is

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