By Marc DuBuis
A common complaint from those outside the discipline of political science and foreign policy is the lament over the use of contemporary and historical examples they are unfamiliar with to explain complex political phenomena that they find both remote and difficult to conceptualize. Yet elements from pop culture can also serve as ready cases from which to draw important insights into the actual challenges our country currently faces. Given the widespread and exploding enthusiasm for the book and HBO series Game of Thrones, this may be a particularly fruitful area to tie to current trends in international relations to topics more palatable to the lay reader curious about the world around them. Note, however, that as the rest of this paper deals with elements from the latest seasons of the series, readers should now take the time to weigh their academic interest with the knowledge that spoilers from the show, though inadvertent, are indeed a possibility.
The phenomenon of weak states has become a serious focus of United States foreign policy over the past two and a half decades. From the implosion of Yugoslavia and the Somali descent into the chaos of warlordism to the recent state-building exercises in Afghanistan and Iraq, the issue of weak states does not appear likely to disappear in the near future. Yet, while these states are unable to fulfill their basic duties and functions to their own citizens, this cannot be a solely domestic issue. This was perhaps most clearly evidenced in the terror attacks of 9/11, carried out by an extremist organization able to plan and train in the largely ungoverned wilds of Afghanistan. Yet terrorism is not the sole concern arising from weak states for the international community, particularly as epidemics, transnational crime, and violence can all coalesce in these weak states only to spill over their borders and undermine the strength of their neighbors. Even if the international community decides not to intervene, the states must nevertheless at least remain aware of the festering dangers that can so easily expand beyond a weak state’s borders to threaten other states in the system.
However, while the international community seems to have largely agreed that weak states are at least a problem to solve, there is less consensus, let alone success, in actually resolving this issue. Indeed, the international community has simply left some countries, like Rwanda, to their own centrifugal forces of self-destruction and genocide. Somalia, in contrast, has received significant international support, yet has continually struggled to assert government authority over the past two decades. Still others merely collapse back into chaos as soon as the peacekeeping and state building troops depart. The rapid success of ISIS is a particularly poignant example of such failure, due as much from Iraqi unpreparedness to function as a state and protect its borders from spillover in Syria as from ISIS effectiveness.
For those fans familiar with Game of Thrones, connections and comparisons to elements from the series have already started to form. For those who are not, Daenerys Targaryen’s efforts to build a state in Meereen after assuming control of the city presents numerous parallels to the contemporary phenomenon of weak states and the difficulty of forming a strong nation out of the collapse of its predecessor. For those unfamiliar with the series, Daenerys is the last heir of prestigious house Targaryen that has ruled the kingdoms of Westeros for centuries until a rebellion deposed and murdered her father. Forced to flee her homeland in her infancy and now a young woman, Daenerys has acquired three dragons, an army, and a number of skilled advisors, which help her to capture a number of city-states across the sea from Westeros. Though she still has designs to return and reclaim her throne, for the present Daenerys ultimately decides to rule over the cities she has conquered, making her last conquest, Meereen, her seat of power from which she rules as queen. However, Daenerys quickly realizes the difficulty in building a state out of the chaos her conquests created. Having freed the region’s slaves in her bid for power, she has alienated many of the nobles in her domain, and mutual animosities between the patrician former slavers and the newly freed slaves soon bubble to the surface. As a result, insurgencies and violence soon break out throughout the cities Daenerys has conquered. With her troops absent, the nobles have reasserted control over Yunkai and a strongman has usurped power in Astapor, while in Meereen a noble-backed insurgency known as the Sons of the Harpy carry out clandestine attacks on isolated troops and even Daenerys’s advisors, culminating in a surprise massacre during the gladiatorial fights of the Great Games.
These developments present a number of intriguing parallels to the phenomenon of the weak state in international relations. On a most basic level, it presents the direct threat posed by weak states. Still struggling to solidify her rule, the lingering animosities between the former slaves and their former masters creates an environment where conflict and extremism thrives. The clandestine insurgency waged by the Sons of the Harpy extremists against Daenerys s rule and her supporters is thus similar in many ways to rebel movements like the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Congo or Al Qaeda in Afghanistan that contested government control and brutalized the citizenry to destabilize the regime. The rise of strongmen in other cities captured by Daenerys is also remarkably similar to the disintegration into warlordism that has plagued Somalia and other weak states over the past two decades.
In responding to this crisis, Daenerys initially encounters many obstacles that also impede the international community’s own attempts to resolve weak states. In particular, Daenerys, the United States, and western developed nations in general must all wrestle with the question of how to achieve legitimacy for the new government. This is closely tied with the model on which any fledgling state is built and to what extent it incorporates grass roots developments with top-down impositions of external structures. In many cases, efforts at state building have all too often attempted to transplant western democratic state structures into developing countries that have not first inculcated the western norms, values, and ideas on which those states depend. As a result, such efforts generally lack the support of the local populace, which views any efforts at state building as an artificial imposition from outside actors to direct their own system. In response, these attempts suffer from an acute crisis of legitimacy.
Daenerys’s early rule in Meereen is no different. At the very least, the clandestine insurgency waged by the Sons of the Harpy, as well as public discontent (as in the case following Mossador’s legal execution for murdering a man to be put on trial) demonstrates the difficulty of imposing top-down efforts at state building and forming legitimacy. Daenerys’s heritage as the “mother of dragons” and the last heir of House Targaryen might carry weight among the Westerosi, yet is clearly insufficient to win over a large faction of her new populace. Indeed, in many ways, Daenerys’s rule resides on shaky legitimacy from a powerful army, a renowned yet ultimately foreign house, and from her determination to free the region’s slaves, a decision that wins her few friends amongst the remaining nobility that previously enjoyed the profits of those they had enslaved. The former slaves too soon lose some of their love for Daenerys when they realize that her evenhanded rule will apply to them as well should they violate her decrees.
Another common pitfall of international attempts to strengthen weak states has been the difficulty in engendering trust and cooperation between opposing domestic factions, a prerequisite for sustaining any peace initiatives. Without addressing the animosities of the various factions in that society and engendering cooperation and investment in the new government, these fragile states all too often return to cycles of violence that undermine their ability to provide for its citizens. Conflict resolution efforts in Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and in other peacekeeping missions are cases in point. While the presence of international peacekeepers may have kept outbreaks of conflict suppressed with varying success, their inevitable departure only allowed simmering hostilities to erupt into violence as neither faction in the conflict trusted the other to share power. Daenerys’s situation is hardly any brighter as she struggles to maintain order amidst the mutual antagonisms of the haughty Mereenese nobles and the newly freed slaves’ intent on redressing their past generations of subjugation. Indeed, Daenerys proves unable to reconcile the enduring disputes between the recently freed slaves and the entrenched patrician class that previously dominated city life, society, and the government. As a result, she ultimately fails to prevent outbreaks of violence in the city or the formation of the patrician-backed Sons of the Harpy Insurgency.
Of course, coercive punishments to fix the problem, such as feeding a noble or two to her dragons or sending out armed patrols as a show of force are only temporarily effective. At most, it merely drives hostilities below the surface, only to blaze forth in sporadic attacks on isolated soldiers and in the massacre during the gladiatorial Great Games in the fighting pits. Without having incorporated the nobles into her fledgling power structure, they ultimately lack any incentive in the newly imposed system she represents. Instead, order only remains until the opportune moment for an outbreak of violence, following which we find the regime facing an uncertain future as Daenerys flees on the back of her dragon, while her advisors Tyrion, Greyworm, Dario, Missandei, and a newly returned Jorah must now run the state in her absence.
In attempting to institute order, Daenerys initially refused to incorporate certain norms, values, and ideas of the Meereenese culture into her new rule. In particular, while the genie of freedom from slavery cannot go back in the bottle, she does have the opportunity to incorporate the elites into her rule, yet initially refrained from doing so. Reopening the fighting pits, though distasteful to Daenerys, nevertheless honors a long tradition of Meereen in the eyes of its people, and represents one of the few cultural elements that can unite former slave and master alike, though Danyres initially refused to countenance what she views as barbaric killing for sport. However, many in Meereen, both noble and former slave, view the gladiatorial combat as a form of entertainment and a vital tradition of their society. The conversation between Daenerys and Tyrion and Hizdahr zo Loraq during the gladiatorial games serves to emphasize this point. What Daenerys (aka the new regime) and Tyrion view as senseless killing, Hizdahr zo Loraq argues is instead a vital part of the Meereenese culture and a keystone of the greatness and order that has upheld its civilization. Yet even if she recognizes the value of reopening the fighting pits to bolster her flagging legitimacy amidst a divided public, Daenerys is similar to many contemporary efforts at state building in that she is loath to incorporate these elements into her own rule. Unfortunately, this usually comes at the expense of reduced legitimacy and effectiveness by not incorporating existing traditions, values, norms, and norms into the new government.
Daenerys’s later attempts to incorporate previous elements of the Mereenese ‘wise masters’ and their rule shows a growing appreciation for reconciling the Mereenese traditions with her own fledgling rule. Indeed, following the death of Sir Barristan and wounding of Grey Worm at the hands of Sons of the Harpy Extremists, Daenerys decides to begin incorporating the some of the pre-existing elements of Meereenese society by garnering noble participation, reinstituting the gladiatorial games, and proposing a political marriage to the Meereenese noble Hizdahr zo Loraq. While ultimately too late to dissuade the insurgency, her decision nevertheless shows a clear recognition of the value in cooperating with the pre-existing norms, values, and power structures of that society.
By all accounts, Game of Thrones has taken pop culture by storm. Yet even as large numbers of fans return to the start of a new series every spring for its entertainment, the series itself presents some interesting corollaries to real issues in contemporary international politics. Not least among these is the challenge of the weak state and the difficulty of creating a functioning government in such a location. Much like Daenerys’s continuing struggles to solidify her rule, the outcomes of contemporary state building efforts and the fledgling states they seek to create remain in doubt. From the fictional Sons of the Harpy to the deadly serious threats of Al Qaeda or ISIS, weak states are a breeding ground for extremism and instability. Moreover, any attempt to create a functioning state cannot solely come from external actors transplanting a foreign political system without incorporating elements of the fragile state’s norms, values, and culture into the new state. It must also rely on actually addressing the underlying hostility of the various domestic factions and ensure that they are committed to a subsequent partnership in peacefully creating the new state. Without resolving these crucial obstacles, most efforts ultimately lack the legitimacy and political tools necessary to carry out this task. Yet to date, these two oversights have unfortunately plagued our own efforts at sustainable peace and state building initiatives over the past decades. Moving forward, a new and more expansive policy is needed to address the problem of weak states, one that only begins with a clear understanding of the society before transplanting the political system of the nation state. It is only through such efforts that we will eventually strengthen these states and eradicate the issues that will otherwise continue to fester within their ungoverned borders.
Marc DuBuis is a M.A. candidate at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce focusing on International Security and Intelligence. Marc completed his undergraduate degree in 2015 at Oakland University with a B.A. in Political Science with research interests focused on the resource curse and international conflict.
He has presented at multiple research conferences, including regional Phi Alpha Theta history conferences, Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA) Conferences in Chicago, and the International Studies Association Midwest Conference in St. Louis. Published works include “The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization” inSecurity and Intelligence Studies Journal (Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 2015), with electronic versions of “Resource Diversification and the Durability of Autocratic Regimes” (coauthored with Dr. Matthew Fails) and “Swedish Conduct in the Thirty Years’ War” forthcoming in Political Research Quarterly and the Grand Valley Journal of Historyrespectively.