‘The breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.’For all the praise that has been rightly heaped on Game of Thrones its greatest accomplishment has yet to be realized: Game of Thrones has set the American people up to finally realize that they’ve been getting foreign policy wrong for a very long time. Consider this irony. Every week, millions of Americans root for Daenerys Targaryen to bring order and stability to the land by using force to seize power. Will Daenerys hold elections? Probably not. And yet, in the political realities of Westeros, Americans want Daenerys as the least bad option. Politics is not about what we’d like. Instead, it’s as Otto von Bismarck said.
Game of Thrones may seem like a fictional story but it is a distillation of massive amounts of real history. George R.R. Martin famously based the book on England’s War of the Roses when multiple claimants to the throne sparked a series of wars that raged for 32 years. And it powerfully reveals why the Arabs say “Better a hundred years of tyranny than one day of anarchy.”
As bad as the rule of King Robert Baratheon may have been, that indifferent tyranny was much better than the anarchy that followed. The problem is that this is not the frame of reference of most Americans. Most Americans have as their frame of reference the relative peace and security of the last few hundred years. Americans are focused not on the choice between tyranny and anarchy. They’re focused on the choice between tyranny and democracy. And this leads to some incredibly bad foreign policy. Americans know how to remove a dictator. They’ve done it A LOT. But they naively assume that when you remove a dictator that somehow democracy will magically follow. Instead, they end up creating power vacuums that leave the field open for someone far more ruthless and far less principled to come in. Saddam Hussein was bad but by removing him AND all his supporters from power AND then drawing down, America created the perfect conditions for the emergence of ISIS. There was no strong government from either Saddam or the US and that meant a power vacuum. On top of that, all of Saddam’s old soldiers were highly trained and out of a job. And so, they banded together and formed an army. We all paid the price for that. The same thing happened in the former Soviet Union.
“The breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” — Vladimir Putin
Again, Americans tend to see this through their lens. Communism was bad. Stalin was bad. And from their frame of reference, they are right. I would want everyone to have as much prosperity and freedom as possible. But hope is not the same as a plan. And those like Francis Fukuyama who have spent their lives studying state building will tell you that they don’t know how to get a country to be as prosperous and stable as, say, Denmark.
This only makes the achievement of America’s Founding Fathers more impressive. They created a stable system of government. Part of how they did it was by removing the King but that wasn’t all there was to it. Removing a leader creates a power vacuum and if you don’t fill it then someone else will. And that is exactly what happened in Russia in the 90s. With the Soviet regime gone, Russian gangsters rushed in to seize power throughout society while an ineffective and alcoholic Boris Yeltsin was able to do little to stop them. It was against the back drop of that anarchy that Russians have welcomed the iron rule of Vladimir Putin.
Recently, I did a “debate” with Adam Kokesh who is seeking the Libertarian nomination for President in 2020. The cornerstone of his platform is the “orderly dissolution of the Federal government.” Americans are no longer to take out dictators abroad. Some of them want to take them out at home too. In Adam’s mind (and the minds of many libertarians), the government is a protection racket. It’s no different than the mafia. They promise protection and extort money in the form of taxation.
And they are 100% right. Governments are a long series of mafias. What do you think the Kings of England were? They had the same lurid taste. The same use of violence to ensure their power. The same basic deal of power in exchange for money. But the War of the Roses tell you that life WITHOUT a King is far worse than life with one. Of course, you don’t need to study the War of the Roses to see that. You can just watch Game of Thrones.
The achievement of the long march from the Magna Carta through the Glorious Revolution to the American Revolution and through the many improvements that American democracy has made since is to make the Godfather accountable. No Godfather may serve for more than two terms. There are checks on the Godfather’s power from his consiglieri in the Senate and Supreme Court. And the fourth estate, the press, are there to report everything that the Godfather does to the people. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 51:
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
Madison is saying that the problem of people is that you need a Godfather but then Godfathers are people and they can be corrupted. Sometimes, you’ve got to take a Godfather out. Just know that if you do, you’d better be prepared to step into that role afterwards. After all, as Cate Fogarty reminded me, it was by taking out a bad Godfather that Vito Corleone found himself suddenly thrust into the role of Godfather. To hold together communities past the Dunbar Number, you need clear and legitimate leaders. If you don’t have them, someone will try and become one. And you might find that the devil you know is better than the one that you don’t.