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In China's Game of Thrones in Latin America, is the US playing to win?

The characters in the popular series bear an interesting resemblance to some of the actors in current Western Hemisphere power relationships. Instead of a fight to the death to occupy the Iron Throne, the struggle revolves more around the competition for influence. Think Daenerys Targaryen as China and Jon Snow as the United States.
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John Feeley was US Ambassador to Panama and is a Univision political analyst.
2019-05-25T12:09:13-04:00
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King's Landing reduced to ashes by Daenerys aboard a fire-breathing dragon. Crédito: HBO/AP

Tens of millions of English and Spanish-speaking Americans from Alaska to Argentina watched HBO’s Game of Thrones (GOT). Over eight seasons, it produced memes, jokes, and endless water cooler and WhatsApp group debate.

While many loved the series for its special effects, more were captivated by the tales of intrigue and power that drove the twisting plot. A fan myself, as I watched the finale, I began to contemplate the sad reality of Sunday evenings without a GOT fix.

I also reflected on how the characters in this enormously popular series resembled to a certain degree the multiple actors in current Western Hemisphere power relationships. Instead of a fight to the death to occupy the Iron Throne, the struggle among non-Latin nations in the Americas revolves more around the competition for influence, and thus, power, on a number of commercial and ideological fronts.

A major figure in GOT is Daenerys Targaryen. Calculatingly driven to seat herself upon the Iron Throne of the kingdom of Westeros, she is like China; and not just because she is the mother of dragons. China is comparatively young in the Western Hemisphere, as was Dani, and possesses a similar sense of expansionist destiny.

"Like Daenerys on her auto-incinerate dragon, China is maniacally single-minded in pursuit of flipping countries who still recognize Taiwan diplomatically." - John Feeley


Convinced that its authoritarian and non-democratic form of government is the best way to control its 1.4 billion people, China’s formidable success in lifting hundreds of millions of its people from abject poverty in the last twenty years depended in large part on Latin energy and food resources.


Like Daenerys on her auto-incinerate dragon, China is maniacally single-minded in pursuit of flipping countries who still recognize Taiwan diplomatically. In these negotiations, it offers boiler plate agreements and has brooked little dissent from poorer Latin nations who were, at first, only too happy to sell China the petroleum and protein it needed to grow.

Despite sound advice not to burn King’s Landing to the ground in pursuit of her ambition, Daenerys proved tragically unwilling to adapt her rapacious instincts.

In this sense, perhaps, China may be wiser than the power-drunk queen. Xi Jinping recently recognized the need to compete more transparently and avoid the lopsided debt-trap deals that have characterized much of Chinese expansionism to date. It remains to be seen if China and its new Latin friends will be able to strike the deals that result in the peaceful coexistence Daenerys promised, versus the scorched earth tactics she pursued to achieve her pyrrhic victory.

In a return engagement for another actor who last appeared on the hemisphere stage almost three decades ago, Russia is back and seemingly competing for regional influence in the Americas. Putin’s Russia is clearly Tyrion Lannister, the crafty, occasionally successful, but ultimately unempowered player in this drama. Betting on the hemisphere’s three biggest losers - the authoritarian governments in Venezuela, Havana and Nicaragua - Russia’s true influence and power is dwarfed by China’s.

True, it flies periodic military flights with several dozen uniformed soldiers into Venezuela, sells weaponry and obsolete tanks to Nicaragua, and has made up some of the lost oil for Cuba, as Venezuela’s oil industry atrophies from twenty years of disinvestment and U.S. sanctions. But in the final analysis, Russia’s influence, like The Hand of the Queen, is purely referential. Mostly it creates mischief. Were Maduro and Ortega to be unceremoniously offed like so many other nefarious characters in the Seven Kingdoms, Russia, too, would very quickly be written out of the Americas script.


Perhaps the most disappointing character in GOT is the reluctant yet legitimate heir to the Iron Throne, Jon Snow. His birthright is to be king, and wisely wield the power and influence that comes with it. He is the mightiest warrior, feared by enemies and revered by his troops. His intentions are noble, but his execution of the role assigned to him by destiny is flawed. Ultimately, though beloved by most, he is relegated to a position of insignificance because he refused to assert his prerogative as Westeros’ natural leader for peace and prosperity.

In our Western Hemispheric analogy, Jon Snow is the United States.

"Much like Jon Snow’s inability to read the handwriting on the castle wall and see Daenerys for what she truly was, the U. S. response to China’s aggressive commercial expansion has been slow in coming, unfocused and episodic." - John Feeley


At a time when the demand for U.S. leadership in support of democracy, the rule of law, and the defense of human rights across Latin America is great, the Trump administration is reluctant to assume this historical role. President Trump has given short shrift to those traditional priorities, instead focusing his regional engagement through a construct of conflict with the Troika of Tyranny - Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Much like Jon Snow’s inability to read the handwriting on the castle wall and see Daenerys for what she truly was, the U. S. response to China’s aggressive commercial expansion has been slow in coming, unfocused and episodic.

Then there is the issue of President Trump’s relentless mixed messaging. He rails against Russian involvement in Venezuela one day, yet assures the American people that after one conversation with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, Russia has only good intentions in Venezuela.

Snow’s confused and frustrated northern brothers fail to understand why he bends the knee to Daenerys, just as the United States’ traditional southern partners fail to grasp why Trump’s Wall and inward looking nativism leaves them largely on their own to grapple with the forces of globalization, the White Walkers of transnational crime, and a foreign tiger queen who promises a benign reign, but practices corruption and asymmetric warfare. And let’s face it, no one in the region can tame a dragon alone.

As a parlor game, this analogy, however imperfect, might be entertaining. Yet the competition for power, influence, partnership and alliances throughout the Western Hemisphere is anything but a game. It is a deadly serious undertaking that requires nation states to understand all of their instruments of national power and bring them to bear in a coherent and consistent strategy.

Winning requires a clear vision of a desired end state and recognizing which players on the field are friends or rivals. As Donald Trump continues to attack Mexico and the Northern Triangle for not doing enough on immigration, and Colombia’s President Duque as insufficient to the task of combating narcotics trafficking, he is effectively turning his back on some of our best friends and natural allies.

Had Jon Snow just listened to those who urged him to stick with his own kind – the democrats, the free traders, the emerging middle class, young students and entrepreneurs sick of corruption and hungry for American partnership – perhaps his last scene would not have depicted him, back to the camera, riding off into the wilderness of irrelevance with his Wildling supporters.

Let’s hope there is still an unwritten chapter in the Americas GOT. After all, no one seriously thinks Bran the Busted can pull off the whole king thing.

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