The distinction between the theories of idealism and realism relies on the idea of human nature: when stripped of the fundamental constraints set by society, how are humans predisposed to act? An idealist would contend that human beings are inclined to behave in a more diplomatic manner; humans are more likely to cooperate with one another and make more altruistic decisions in order to achieve shared goals. Under the right conditions, empathy and reason flourish; a mutual display of transparency and fairness between two parties would minimize the possibility of violence. Essentially, an idealist believes that human nature is fundamentally good. On the contrary, a realist would assert that humans are inherently immoral and violent; their lust for power and dominance over one another is a constituent of human fallibility. In order for an agent to secure its survival in such a harsh world, it is to adopt protectionist policies and amass an adequate amount of power to defend its citizens. In the eyes of a realist, when humans are not stifled by societal guidelines, they are prone to conduct their behavior in a more self-serving and antagonistic way. The obvious discrepancy between the principles of each theory has created discourse between the two separate groups of supporters. Idealists would say that realism is a source of violence and that concentration of power in the hands of the few causes warped perceptions of reality and war, while a realist would say that people are inherently prone to conflict and that idealists are naive and dangerous. However, there is evidence to support the claims of both sides to an extent, as depicted in popular works of science fiction, particularly Star Trek and Game of Thrones. Further examination of these fictional narratives demonstrates both the advantages and disadvantages associated with each theory of international relations.
Analysis of the Game of Thrones episode “Baelor” helps illustrate a clear distinction between the foundational properties of idealism and realism. The Starks and the Lannisters, two of the most influential households in the Seven Kingdoms, represent the fictional embodiments of idealism and realism, respectively; the actions of and values held by these families display the impediments that a person faces when having such rigid beliefs about the fundamental basis of human nature. Members of the Stark household are paragons of modern idealists; their equal levels of (albeit often legitimate) righteousness and stubbornness is the root of their conviction to stand on the moral high-ground. In this episode specifically, patriarch Ned Stark shows considerable idealist motives behind his actions and demonstrates the drawbacks to regarding so highly the value of unwavering virtue. In his attempt to navigate the political sphere of King’s Landing, Lord Eddard Stark attempts to uphold his virtuous ideology and adhere to his code of ethics when fulfilling his responsibilities as Hand of the King; his character is based heavily on the desire to “do the right thing.” Thus, when best friend King Robert Baratheon dies, Ned refuses to acknowledge Robert’s (non-biological) “son” Joffrey as the heir to the throne, even when faced with the possibility of heavy punishment, saying, “you think my life is some precious thing to me? That I would trade my honor for a few more years?” (Ned Stark). Ned’s reluctance to “bend the knee” to Joffrey angers the boy, whose rash decision-making instigates Ned’s subsequent decapitation; an arguably autocratic commitment to morality led to Ned’s downfall.
In his book Otherworldly Politics: The International Relations of Star Trek, Game of Thrones, and Battlestar Galactica, author Stephen Dyson describes this familial tendency to exhibit selfless and magnanimous behaviors as “Stark liberalism”. “Stark liberalism” in Game of Thrones has consistently led to shortcomings for the family, indicative of the flaws of idealism. Ned’s idealist nature gave him the false impression that other people will act according to honor and morality, making it difficult to distinguish a friend from a foe in the political world of King’s Landing. His misplaced trust with Lord Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish eventually led to betrayal and imprisonment. His agreement with Cersei Lannister, forcing him to admit to treason and declare Joffrey the king in exchange for the safety of his daughters, is later voided, as Joffrey decides to punish him anyways and kills the man. Robb Stark’s alliance with Walter Frey shown in the episode would also lead to subsequent betrayal, as his “ally” would later orchestrate his murder and the murder of his wife, his mother, and his unborn child. Failure “to take the prudent and necessary measures to ensure stability… alliances are based on sentiment rather than common interest and so are flaccid and fragile”.
By believing that people will act out of the goodness of their hearts and uphold moral standards, the Starks (and idealists) often leave themselves vulnerable to destruction. While the Starks are representative of the stereotypical idealist, the Lannisters are their realist equivalents. In accordance with the beliefs of realism, the Lannister family is not afraid to “go to greater lengths and stoop further from abstract moral principles” to achieve the power that they so desperately crave. Under Joffrey Baratheon’s kingship, disastrous decisions are made and the reputation of the monarchy is then tarnished; “the drive and ruthlessness that made people successful in seizing power would be manifest in the choices they made once in power”. Joffrey’s desire to “make an example” out of Ned Stark’s supposed treason and his declaration of decapitation of the man exemplifies the self-defeating character traits that often come hand-in-hand with realism. Cersei Lannister has the cynical sentiment of a realist, and the replacement of all of Robert’s former advisors with only subservient and trustworthy people demonstrates the skepticism often associated with realist principles. Tyrion Lannister is perhaps the sole member of his family to use realist ideas in a beneficial manner. As shown in the episode, the dynamic tactics that he developed demonstrate the use of his rationality, knowledge, and intelligence to create useful tools for the Lannister forces. By integrating the wildling army into the soldiers, Tyrion is able to recognize their value as strong allies and uses their inherent violence to his advantage. His effective practice of realist values indicates an understanding that power is versatile and can be used in more productive ways while other members of the family seem to poorly implement said values into their actions.
Even the noblest of intentions can lead to tragic outcomes when making decisions regarding international relations and politics; just because a good person acts in an ethical manner does not necessarily guarantee a positive result. Social worker Edith Keeler in the Star Trek episode “A City on the Edge of Forever” is a prime example of this phenomenon. As a humanitarian and vocal supporter of pacificism, Keeler was described as a key figure in a campaign for appeasement regarding the United States’ role in World War II; she believed that through diplomacy and cooperation was peace achievable between nations. However, her persuasion of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to delay the United States’ entry into the war eventually led to a victory for the Axis Powers and Hitler’s world domination, as the United States did not intervene within enough time to stop the Germans from developing an atomic bomb. Consequently, the United Federation of Planets was never established and the Enterprise never existed. Her noble attempt to save tens of thousands of lives through the use of appeasement tactics led to destruction of millions. This idea of the unpredictability of good intentions is also exemplified in “Baelor, ” as Daenerys’s attempt of humanitarian efforts leads to a great tragedy for her tribe. As khaleesi of the Dothraki, she attempted to save the women of a captured slave tribe from assault by Dothraki men. Her trust in one of the tribal slave witches to save her husband, Khal Drogo, from sickness was misplaced though, as the witch’s voodoo magic left her husband brain dead and killed her baby. Because of her misconception that human beings are naturally good people and have the desire to help others, she left herself exposed to the harshness of such an inimical world.
The relationship between sacrifice and morality must also be examined from both an idealist and realist lens. The answer to the question “to what extent is it ethical to sacrifice the life of one person in order to save the lives of millions?” is difficult to determine. Captain James T. Kirk must consider this question as he grapples with the predicament regarding Edith Keeler’s fate. Even though he is in love with her, he knows that she will be the downfall of the United States and that she must die in order to save the world from Hitler’s dominance; however, just because he knows that she must die, it doesn’t make the decision to consciously allow her to get run over any easier to make. Kirk is ultimately persuaded by the ever-rational Spock, who says “save her, do as your heart tells you to do, and millions will die who did not die before” (Spock). Though the utopian paradise depicted by idealist values would be a much-preferred option for him., Captain Kirk must accept the cruel reality of the Edith Keeler’s necessary death.
“Liberalism and realism, the first great dialectic in the new world of International Relations, rested on the fundamental assumptions about good and evil, and how good intentions could result in bad outcomes”. Works of science fiction are often shaped by the concepts and values of certain political theories; in the case of Star Trek’s “A City on the Edge of Forever” and Game of Thrones’ “Baelor, ” the foundational ideas of realism and idealism have provided an interesting commentary on the true meaning of human nature. To the Starks, Daenerys Targaryen, and Edith Keeler, the belief that human beings are predisposed to act in an ethical, virtuous, and cooperative manner is one that they are more inclined to believe, thus they would be considered idealists. To the Lannisters, humans are naturally violent and self-serving, and they find no moral issue with engaging in controversial practices to achieve power, thus they represent realists.
Though the events in Game of Thrones are completely fictional, there is a sort of historical basis behind Edith Keeler’s proposition of appeasement in Star Trek, which is where the key contrast lies. Both works are heavily based on the idea of human nature: how would humans act in a world without pre-established values? Idealists and realists will continue to debate over which theory indicates the correct answer, perhaps one doesn’t exist.
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