There is no new episode of Game of Thrones this week, and since I’ve been re-reading the books I thought this would be a good time to start tackling the many, many conflicts in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series and A Game of Thrones, the tv-show based on the books, A Game of Thrones. As long as you’ve read the first book or season the first season of the tv series, I won’t be spoiling anything.
Many people have pointed out the similarities between Realist Theory and the plot of Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire (take a look at http://tinyurl.com/crzucmh). Where in the books/tv show specifically, do we see examples of Realist Theory? After reviewing Cersei’s thoughts while re-reading the first book, I saw parallels between her worldview and Realist Theory’s description of human behavior. Realist Theory should not be confused as referring to a “realistic” view of the world. Like any theory, it has both strengths and weaknesses when it comes to explaining politics and human behavior. Just because Cersei appears to have come out…ahead… of Ned so far does not mean that her Realist worldview is a successful way to understand the world she lives in.
Before explaining the parallels, it’s important to remember that Realist Theory is meant to explain the foreign policy of modern nation-states and their governments, not the actions of single individuals. Realist Theory, as described by Morgenthau (1978), considers countries to act in rational ways -that is, governments take actions that they think will benefit them. The main point of Realist Theory is that modern nation-states (countries ruled by a centralized government) act in ways that will increase their power, because the stronger a country is, the less likely it is another country will attack them. The feudal (and therefore de-centralized) government of Westoros does not really match the governments described by Realist Theory. Westeros consists of seven kingdoms ruled by individual families (Stark, Lannister, Tyrell, etc.) that are relatively united under one royal family. Still, many of the thoughts and reasoning of the characters can be explained by the concepts discussed in Realist Theory.
We see that Cersei considers people’s interests in terms of political power, just like governments do according to Realist Theory. Bran overhears Cersei telling Jaime her fears about Ned’s intentions. She points out that Ned has never shown any interest in the world outside of Winterfell since Robert became king, and Cersei believes he would only accept a position so far from Winterfell, which is “the seat of his power” (p. 52) if he had a plan to gain even more power once he was the Hand of the King.
After all, just becoming Robert’s Hand of the King wouldn’t gain Ned much power, since Ned would be very far from the armies of his loyal bannermen, has no friends or allies at court, and is not familiar with the political machinations of the capital. Hand of the King or not, Ned would be at a serious disadvantage compared to the rest of the lords at King’s Landing. Ned confirms this fact when he tells Cat he does not intend to accept the position and states that his place is in the North. In other words, it would not be in Ned’s best interest to leave Winterfell unless he had a way to strengthen his position at court besides Robert’s friendship. So how could Ned increase his political power? By bringing down Cersei and her children.
Cersei knows that Ned is brother-in-law to Lysa Arryn, the widow of the man who may have known that Jaime fathered Cersei’s children, not King Robert. He could tell Robert about Lysa’s suspicions and even if he cannot prove the accusations, Robert’s hatred for his wife would make him all too eager to believe his best friend. If Ned doesn’t know Cersei’s secret, then his presence would still constantly remind Robert of Lyanna Stark and increase his desire to set Cersei aside for a new wife.
Finally, Cersei points out that Ned could desire to take the throne for himself. Jaime dismisses the idea that Ned has any desire for the throne (after all, he was there when Ned had the chance to take the Iron Throne but instead gave it to Robert). Cersei acknowledges that Ned would never betray Robert, but she fears what would happen after Robert dies. Robert may not consider Ned am ambitious man, but then again he also hasn’t realized that his wife has been cheating on him for over a decade. The honorable Lord Eddard Stark already betrayed one king (Aerys Targaryen) and could just as easily betray Joffrey.
The best way to protect herself and her children is to keep an eye on Ned (“We will have to watch him carefully” p. 82), to undermine his influence as much as possible, and to see Joffrey on the throne sooner rather than later. Cersei, like the nation-states described by Realist Theory, views political power as the best form of protection against her enemies. Not once does she consider that Ned does not necessarily have to be an enemy, because it does not even occur to her that he may have altruistic reasons for agreeing to become Robert’s Hand of the King.
Realist Theory considers human behavior to motivate the desire for greater power, and thus the need to gain power as a defensive strategy against other people’s desire for greater power. Neo-realism, an updated theory of Realism, argues that having no superior power that forces other nations (or Houses) to obey the same rules means there is no way to know what other countries (or Houses) will do, and this anarchy makes it necessary for country’s or lords to increase their power to prevent others from take advantage of their weakness.
This uncertainty, also known as the Security Dilemma, is demonstrated by Cersei’s decision to act against Ned by increasing her own power and decreasing his as much as possible. We see her carry out this decision by having Ned spied on in King’s Landing, by befriending his daughter to use her against her father, and her demonstration of power over the King by insisting that Sansa’s direwolf be killed as punishment for Joffrey’s wounds.
Cersei consistently demonstrates reasoning that corresponds to a worldview that shares the assumptions of Realist Theory. Other characters do as well, including Peter Baelish (“Littlefinger”), and there are plenty of more posts to come that analyze the thought processes, goals, and worldviews of the other characters. Theories of politics and international relations are important to conflict resolution practitioners because so many of the people who create or contribute to conflicts are acting under the assumption that political theories like Realist Theory are accurate. Theories are useful, but it is important to remember that most situations cannot be completely explained by adhering to only one theory. Some theories are more accurate than others, but it is never a good idea to assume that others are operating under the same beliefs as ourselves.
Cersei would probably never have been friends with Ned, who was prejudiced against the Lannisters because they only helped Robert when his victory over the Targaryens was assured. There were better ways that Cersei could have dealt with Ned however, ways that may have prevented him from ever finding out her secret. Failing to consider that Ned’s definition of self-interest could differ from her own limited her ability to deal with him. By assuming that he must already be her enemy, she ensured that her assumption proved true.