When George R.R. Martin began his epic fantasy saga, A Song of Ice and Fire, back in 1996, he started with a domestic story about a king who was struggling to manage the country he'd seized in rebellion and the man he chose to help him rule. Fifteen years after the publication of the first book in that series, A Game of Thrones, Martin's series is an Emmy-nominated HBO show of the same name, the fifth New York Times-bestselling book has just been released (A Dance With Dragons, out last week), and the story has evolved from a dark domestic fairy tale of wicked queens and kings to a sweeping geopolitical mega-saga with complex and shifting rules of engagement -- and a surprisingly large number of lessons for the foreign-policy-inclined reader.
It turns out that, apart from the dragons and giant magical wolves, the Westeros of Martin's novels is a familiar place: The challenges of international relations are pretty much the same whether you're an American president or a feudal king; whether your national debt is due to the Chinese government or to a mystically powerful foreign bank that employs professional assassins; whether your unsavory trading partners are oil cartels or slavers; and whether your enemies are motivated by a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam or by a priestess who sees the future in sacrificial fires.
The novels are framed by a very sophisticated and complex IR philosophy, which questions the efficacy of moral statecraft in a world scorched by dragons and stalked by zombies -- and, worse, by truly evil men and women. As combatants who range from Bush-era idealists to Muammar al-Qaddafi-style pragmatists battle for supremacy, it's difficult to make final judgments about what approach will win out: The game of thrones is far from over (Martin plans two more books in the series). But the crucial point, at least up through these first five books, may actually be about soft power. If you want to keep a firm grip on the throne, don't let supposedly tangential things like trade, diplomacy, and immigration issues fall by the wayside. Herewith, a look at the brutal, practical foreign policy of Martin's rough-and-tumble world.
Warning: This discussion contains significant spoilers for the first four Song of Ice and Fire novels and mild spoilers for the fifth, A Dance With Dragons.