Warning: This article contains spoilers up to and including season 7.
“As a clever man once told me: ‘We make peace with our enemies, not our friends.’” So said Game of Thrones’ Tyrion Lannister.
We all enjoy the drama and intrigue of the power struggles in Westeros – but facing the prospect of an all-out war between the competing Houses raises the question of whether there might be a better way to resolve matters on the fictional continent.
Violent conflict is seen by many as a rational process involving sequential rounds of fighting, during which the various leaders weigh up the costs and benefits of their strategies at each stage. And in Westeros, the costs are mounting – massive casualties have already been suffered, the financial price of war is growing, and “winter is finally here”. And yet it is still war, not peace, which looms large on the horizon.
Before we explain why peace remains elusive in Westeros, it is necessary to set the context. A conflict analysis technique known as “conflict mapping” allows us to graphically display all sides in a conflict and the relationships between them (Figure 1). Now there are complexities which a conflict map cannot capture – but it illustrates how three main factions have emerged: the Houses of Targaryen, Stark and Lannister.
These three factions have competing positions and interests determining their willingness to engage in a peace summit. An important concept for disputants to protect themselves from accepting an agreement that leaves them worse off is called the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA). The strength of a BATNA is intricately linked to the conditions on the battlefield, which in turn, reflects the potential strength of each participant’s negotiating position and willingness to seek peace. Actors with a weaker BATNA have less bargaining power, but are more likely to seek negotiations.
Despite the high costs, continued fighting remains the BATNA for all factions in Game of Thrones. The BATNA of the Stark alliance is weaker than the others’ as they will be the first to experience the extreme conditions of winter and face conflict with the undead White Walkers, possibly forcing them to fight a war on two fronts.
Despite Euron Greyjoy’s successful assault on Danaerys’ fleet, House Targaryen still seems to have the military advantage with the well-trained Unsullied troops and three dragons. The Lannisters may have lost ground but still control the capital, King’s Landing, and an alliance with Euron and his powerful fleet now seems all but certain.
The costs of peace
War is costly, but peace talks are not free. Seeking peace could signal weakness either in terms of military strength or in willingness to fight. Rulers – in this case, House Lannister – face higher reputation costs when seeking peace. An offer to compromise could be perceived as weakness, encouraging the opposing factions to pursue military victory.
Furthermore, a problem that nearly all disputants share is the need to appease their constituents – which even applies to autocratic regimes such as the Houses of Westeros. This is particularly relevant when gendered notions such as power and strength – seen as masculine traits – are regarded as what is needed to defend one’s House; regardless of whether the leader of a House is a woman or man.
A willingness to talk or cooperate could thus lead to a questioning of one’s ability to lead – Prince Doran Martell’s assassination by the Sand Snakes in Dorne is a perfect example of this.
Pursuing peace could also alienate key constituents, which in turn can lead to spoilers – factions breaking away in order to avoid compromise. Jon Snow faced this after reaching an agreement with the Wildlings. It even cost him his (first) life.
Another obstacle to peace is the high number of competing groups involved in the conflict. Group fragmentation complicates the resolution process by increasing the number of positions and interests and creating continually shifting alliances. Fragmentation also encourages outbidding – where extreme positions outbid moderates – and infighting between leaders competing to gain eminence over a shared group of supporters. Infighting has been evident throughout Westeros, most recently within House Greyjoy, which complicates any attempts to make peace.
Even if these issues could be overcome, the historical pattern of patronage rule, rivalries and longstanding feuds between competing Houses will lead to further complications. Daenerys, the Tyrells, the remaining Starks, Tyrion, all have reason to seek revenge against Cersei and House Lannister. The rule by patronage that exists within Westeros provides all parties with strong incentives to fight on – either to maintain political power due to fears of future marginalisation (House Lannister), or to overthrow an unfair and unjust system (the other claimants).
Historical rivalries constrain the potential for trust to develop. This means that, even if all sides reached an agreement, they probably would not trust the others’ commitment to fulfilling it. For instance, if the Houses were to share power, who could guarantee that no faction would attempt to seize power through a coup, or use the crown’s institutions to gain control?
Prospects for peace
It is often assumed that a conflict must reach a mutually hurting stalemate before it is “ripe” for negotiations. While the costs of the Westeros conflict have increased year on year, they have not been distributed equally.
Jon Snow’s coalition was nearly destroyed at the Battle of the Bastards and needs further troops and supplies. House Lannister lost many men in the War of the Five Kings and has been stretched by the campaign to take back Riverrun from the Blackfish. Daenerys Targaryen still appears the most powerful – even after her allies’ fleet was destroyed – but will need to consolidate alliances in order to be seen as a Westerosi rather than a “foreign conqueror” from across the Narrow Sea.
A peace summit would, accordingly, hinge on Daenerys’ strategic decision as to whether her interests would be better secured through negotiations or continued warfare. In other words, while a peace summit is unlikely, negotiated alliances will probably determine who will be the next crowned ruler of Westeros.