Political Strategy and Game of Thrones: What Machiavelli Would say About Season 7

– By J.W. Fox –

My favorite part of Game of Thrones is the political intrigue. Sure, the CGI dragons are pretty awesome. Sure, Daenerys Targaryen is a gorgeous bad ass. The castles, the armor, the battles, yes all of it is pretty cool. Still, what sets Game of Thrones apart from other fantasy epics is the brilliant presentation of realpolitik.

One of the fathers of realpolitik was the one and only Niccolo Machiavelli. His classic pamphlet, The Prince, laid out his recommendations for a ruler on how to maintain power. Phrases like “the ends justify the means” and “it is better to be feared than loved” came from his classic. In the centuries that followed, countless academics and statesmen elaborated on Machiavelli’s teachings, adding to the political philosophy known as realpolitik.

So how did the lords and ladies of Westeros fair according to Machiavelli and realpolitik?

Let’s take a look at the major decisions that took place in Season 7.

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR SEASON 7 FOLLOW

 

Jon Snow Travels to Dragonstone to Meet Daenerys Targaryen

Jon was the newly crowned King in the North, a vast kingdom, sparsely populated, and ripped apart from Bolton’s rebellion. They faced a major threat from beyond the wall: The Night King and his army of the dead.

Machiavelli did not have any advice for those facing an army of zombies. So, let’s explain it in terms Machiavelli and other practitioners of statecraft would understand. A new power is preparing to invade The North, with an army that is roughly ten times the size of any force King Jon can field. He needed to find a way to defend against this existential threat.

Realpolitik teaches that weak, vulnerable states must find strong allies to ensure their security. Stronger states will inevitably swallow you up, as France and other European powers did to the weak and divided city-states of Italy during Machiavelli’s lifetime. Machiavelli advised that to end foreign meddling, the quarrelsome city-states of Italy had to unite.

The North was hard at work rebuilding its army after the Battle of the Bastards. A good start but not enough. Even with an alliance with Littlefinger and The Vale, they were not strong enough. He needed more allies. If King Jon stayed in the north, as his vassals wanted, it is doubtful he could have convinced anyone to join his cause. He could have sent an envoy but who would believe in envoy’s claims of an army of zombies? By going himself, King Jon established credibility by putting himself in harms way to deliver his plea.

Why Daenerys?

There were three potential allies: the Iron Islands (Euron Greyjoy), Queen Cersei Lannister, and Queen Daenerys Targaryen. The Iron Islands invaded the North during the War of the Five Kings. The two kingdoms despise one another. More importantly, the Iron Isles have historically fielded small, ineffective armies. Their strength is their navy. Jon Snow doesn’t need a navy.

The Lannisters murdered his father and brother. They supported Roose Bolton’s rebellion. Jon Snow had no reason to think Queen Cersei would ever send her armies north, even if she did believe in the Night King. The season finale confirmed this assumption.

That leaves Daenerys Targaryen. She has a large army comprised of the Unsullied and Dothraki, along with a navy led by Yara Greyjoy. There was some bad blood between the Starks and Targaryens but it was old news in comparison to the more recent treachery of the Greyjoys and Lannisters. Tyrion’s letter also gave Jon Snow some confidence that Daenerys was a reasonable person.

VERDICT

Strategically, it was the correct move. The North desperately needed allies, and Jon Snow chose the one leader who would might listen.

Daenerys Targaryen Enters into an Alliance with Dorne and Highgarden

Daenerys first set foot in Westeros at Dragonstone, her ancestral castle. She chose not to attack King’s Landing, although she had enough might to take the city. Instead, she desired to build an alliance among the Great Houses, specifically those that hated Cersei. She found two of the seven kingdoms eager to join her: The Reach (ruled by the Tyrells) and Dorne (formerly ruled by the Martells).

The rulers of the two rebel kingdoms, Olenna Tyrell and Ellaria Sand, hated Cersei. Since their two kingdoms were not strong enough to take on Queen Cersei on their own, they were eager to align with Daenerys. The question is whether it was worth it for Daenerys to commit to two weak, and poorly led allies. Would the alliance encourage other Great Houses to swear fealty to Daenerys?

One fact simplifying the decision is that Daenerys did not use her own forces to protect either kingdom. Militarily, the alliance makes all the sense in the world.

VERDICT

Sun Tzu said that to win without fighting a single battle is the highest form of victory. Machiavelli agreed. By securing alliances with the two kingdoms, Daenerys was following the best approach to seizing the Iron Throne. Better to unite the anti-Cersei forces and persuade her vassals to abandon her, and avoid a bloody assault on King’s Landing. Had she taken the assaulted the capital with a foreign army, she may have inadvertently united the divided kingdoms of Westeros against her.

Unfortunately, the alliance did not encourage others to join. Jon Snow came to Dragonstone because of his need of support against the Night King. Littlefinger apparently was unswayed. As far as we know, the alliance did not encourage any others to swear fealty to Daenerys.

A good move. The Reach and Dorne fell to Cersei and Euron anyway, but that was a failure in tactics not strategy. The alliance made sense for all involved.

Daenerys Targaryen Agrees to Aid Jon Snow, First with Dragon Glass then Permits him to Leave

Daenerys incorrectly believed Jon Snow came to Dragonstone to bend the knee. Instead he spoke of a great threat from the north. She could have easily imprisoned him until he agreed to bend the knee, or executed him. At least, that is what most outside observers would say.

Executing the King in the North would have made the Northmen her permanent enemy. The North remembers. Therefore, execution was not a viable option. She could have imprisoned him until he agreed to bend the knee and then decided if she wanted to act concerning the Night King.

Instead, Daenerys followed Tyrion’s advice: Give Jon Snow a chance. Let him get to know the newest queen in Westeros, her dragons, and her army. It was a risk to trust Jon Snow, a total stranger and one who refused to offer anything in return for her assistance.

VERDICT

Imprisonment was the simplest and probably the more prudent move. Her leniency worked in the end because Jon Snow was such a honorable and trustworthy man but Daenerys barely knew him. Trusting Jon Snow was risky, since he could have traveled north and never came back. On his home territory, he could negotiate on equal footing, safe from imprisonment.

She lost the opportunity to force the submission of a new vassal but imprisonment would have squandered the possibility of a true alliance with Jon Snow. Rather than gain a committed ally, she would have a spiteful vassal unlikely to hold to his oath.

In the end, Jon Snow swore fealty to her and became a trusted ally… and her lover. She trusted Tyrion’s opinion of Jon Snow and her own judge of his character.

Cersei Lannister Agrees to Marry Euron Greyjoy

Cersei Lannister is ruthless and a capable schemer, but she is not a particularly effective ruler. Her greatest weakness is her knack for making enemies. Luckily for her, an ally sailed right up to her doorstep, eager to fight for her.

After blowing up the Great Sept, Cersei Lannister only had three kingdoms behind her: The Westerlands, The Stormlands (she inherited from her son King Tommen Baratheon), and the Riverlands.When Euron Greyjoy, a known pirate and oathbreaker, came to her she did not agree to marry her. He vowed to come back with a gift. One episode later, he returned with Ellaria Sand and her daughter, the women who murdered Cersei’s daughter.

In gratitude, Cersei agreed to marry Euron after the war was won, giving her a powerful fleet with an effective commander. Still, Euron has done nothing to really earn the trust of the queen and his misogynistic attitude suggests he lacks any notion of chivalry or honor.

Jaime and others did not expect much from him or his vow of presenting a gift. Against the odds, her alliance yielded immediate benefits. Yara Greyjoy and Ellaria Sand were captured, and Yara’s fleet defeated. His success allowed the Lannister armies to make their move on Highgarden.

VERDICT

She chose Euron Greyjoy due to a lack of options. Cersei isn’t one to keep her promises, so she may not marry the pirate. Euron cannot be trusted either, especially when he learns of her pregnancy. Once king, the child becomes a direct threat to his own line and himself. He will need to remove the child and Jaime to secure his position as King.

Short term gain, but long term problem.

Sansa Stark Executes Littlefinger

Littlefinger was a creepy but capable schemer. The master of coin ran brothels in King’s Landing, conspired to arrest Ned Stark, conspired to kill King Joffrey, killed Lysa Arryn, and married off Sansa to the monster Ramsey Bolton. We are then led to believe he wants Sansa to himself. If true, he has a strange way of going about it.

After coming to the aid of Jon Snow at the Battle of the Bastards, Littlefinger believed he repaired his relationship with Sansa and solidified an alliance with the North. He was wrong. Still, Sansa confronted and executed an ally.

VERDICT

The problem with executing Littlefinger is losing the support of the knights of the Vale, but Sansa turned out to be more clever than advertised. The commander of the knights of the Vale, Lord Royce, hated Littlefinger after he threatened to execute him. When Sansa confronts Littlefinger with his crimes, Royce did not defend his Lord. Littlefinger’s murder of Lady Lysa provided all the pretext needed to break his oath.

Littlefinger may not have been a threat to Sansa, but he was a threat to House Stark and The North. He cared little for either, he just wanted the cute redhead. His schemes to sow distrust between Sansa and Arya, and to remove Jon Snow as King would have weakened The North. Bran Stark’s time travel powers gave Sansa and Arya the ammunition they need to have him executed.

This move only made sense because Lord Royce and the knights of the Vale were on board. Otherwise, this would have been a catastrophic move.

The Truce

The question is whether the truce was a good move for the parties involved.

The truce allows Daenerys to march north and fight the Night King, which benefits all involved. Daenerys leaves her southern flank exposed but the bigger threat is to the north. Jon Snow gave up nothing since his kingdom was not threatened from the south. At least, not yet.

For Cersei, it makes perfect sense. She was weakened after her armies were burned to a crisp. She needed time to rebuild her military strength via mercenaries. Machiavelli would not approve of the use of mercenaries but there seems to be a consensus that she can’t raise an army quick enough from her own subjects. The truce also gives Euron Greyjoy time to operate at sea and undermine Daenerys’s power base through piracy.

For Euron Greyjoy, he is betting his entire future on Cersei. After seeing the zombie and the dragon, he should be having second thoughts. By breaking the truce, Daenerys will never accept any oath from him. There will be no peace. Only his execution will satisfy. Euron should have backed out of his alliance with Cersei and bid his time.

What’s Ahead for Season 8

Jon Snow returns to Winterfell where he’ll need to convince the northern lords that Daenerys Targaryen is their ally and that bending the knee to her is what is best for the North. Given the stakes, I doubt they’ll have the wherewithal to remove Jon Snow from power. Sansa may also object to his oath and the presence of a foreign queen. After the war, I expect she will try and persuade Jon Snow to break his oath. Then there’s Bran’s big bombshell, Jon Snow is Daenerys’s nephew! Then there’s Arya. I cannot wait for Daenerys and Arya to meet.

There is one additional consideration. If they survive the war with the dead, Jon Snow will need to defend his kingdom from Cersei. Not only must his own kingdom be strong enough to defend itself, his allies must survive as well.

Daenerys and Jon Snow need to think long term. If she wants to challenge for the Iron Throne, she needs to preserve her substantial but non-renewable military power. The Unsullied do not replenish their ranks. There is no way to replace dragons either, unless they’ve been laying eggs. Only the Dothraki can conceivably replenish their ranks with young Dothraki warriors.

In other words, she needs to be careful how she fights the Night King. Otherwise she may exhaust her power in The North and grow too weak to retake the southern kingdoms from Cersei.

Cersei will have to deal with Euron Greyjoy once he finds out she’s pregnant. There is a chance he won’t care but more likely he intends to kill the child and somehow get rid of Jaime. While she rebuilds her armies and consolidates her grip on the southern kingdoms, she better hope Jon Snow and Daenerys are victorious.

Everything depends on the war against the dead. How will they deal with the Night King’s dragon? If they are victorious, will they have the strength to fight Cersei next?

 

J. W. Fox is the Editor of Prescientscifi.com and author of two novels under the pen name Jacob Foxx: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works as a regulatory affairs consultant for small biotech companies in Raleigh, North Carolina.