This is my first post directly on this fantastic blog. Hello, world!
Also, I’d like to announce a new series I’d like to start: For Your Enchantment. At the start of every post, I mention that these are only to address real-world characteristics. Fantastic elements like magic and monsters can change things dramatically, and I don’t want to make these posts longer than they already are. However, people have consistently requested that I talk about these aspects, so For Your Enchantment will revisit every post from the original series and discuss how these might change in fantasy.
This post will talk about political dynamics within and between nations. You may notice I dropped “premodern” from the title. This particular topic is one of a few I’ve been asked to tackle that require this kind of treatment. Sometimes, it’s hard to find things that premodern societies all had in common that separate them from modern ones. This is one of those fields. There’s a lot of variation in governments and international relations, and what few things premodern civilizations had in common with one another are things that modern civilizations also share.
Because of that, I’ll be using general theory to address these areas. This should effectively cover most societies you’ll be designing.
Our sections will be internal power, international anarchy, trinity of war, and diplomacy.
- This section is largely inspired by Bueno de Mesquita et al.’s “selectorate theory,” which you can learn about through three methods. The book The Dictator’s Handbook contains a lot of great information on power within and between countries. You can also see the same material in its original, scholarly form in The Logic of Political Survival, or the more accessible YouTube video The Rules for Rulers by CGP Grey
- There are two questions you should ask yourself when thinking about power dynamics within an organization: “Who’s in charge?” and “Who’s really in charge?” The answer to the first question is the “leader” (which doesn’t have to be a single person; we’ll stick to “leader” to simplify things) and the answer to the second is the “coalition.”
- The leader is the person or group that technically has the most power in the country or organization. There is one overpowering motivation behind every leader: they have to stay in power. This is true regardless of their alignment or intentions. Even a benevolent ruler who wants to help their people will be unable to do so if they can’t hold their position of authority. Sometimes, this incentivizes good leaders to do questionable things so they can retain their ability to serve their people. This is the central idea behind Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (though it’s argued that he wrote the book to get in the good graces of Italian nobility).
- The coalition—who’s “really” in charge—may not have authority in most areas, but they can do one very important thing: remove the leader from power. Maybe these are key voters in a democracy, aristocrats with military might in a feudalistic nation, or anything else in between. Because they have the ability to do the one thing that the leader is truly afraid of, most of the leader’s time will go into keeping the coalition happy. Everything else is secondary. The constant struggle between these two groups has a significant impact on the organization’s activities.
- The leader’s main tool to limit the power of the coalition is his ability to replace the coalition members. Coalition members have the same fundamental fear that the leader does: if they lose their position, they won’t be able to coerce the leader to act to their benefit. If the leader can expand the pool of people the coalition can be picked from (called the “selectorate”) and/or limit the amount of members in the coalition, this will give the leader greater power to switch members out if they misbehave. The greater the leader’s ability to replace coalition members, the greater power they’ll have and the longer they’ll stay in office. Democracies have huge coalitions (the voting population), so leaders have relatively little power; autocracies have small coalitions and large selectorates (the few elites the leader has to keep friendly), so they live long and strong.
- If the leader can’t replace the coalition members, they have only one option left: bribery. They need to spend resources to buy coalition loyalty. If the coalition is small, then the most efficient way to do this is with “private goods,” like personal riches and favors. If the coalition is very large, then it’s too hard to single members out to give them private goods. In this case, the leader must turn to “public goods” like education, infrastructure, and healthcare, which are more expensive but blanket almost everyone in the organization. This is why autocracies have relatively poor people and rich elites, while democracies have relatively equal conditions between the rich and poor. (When democracies start seeing the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, selectorate theory suggests that this is due to the formation of a new coalition that has the power to get rid of the leader, or otherwise have resources the leader can’t function without.)
- These two dynamics spiral out into most of the things we see governments doing. A monarch is encouraging the growth of new noble families? They’re making their aristocratic allies more expendable. A fascist who served the people became the victim of a coup? The leader’s benevolent spending spree left less for the coalition, who then sponsored a revolution. A politician makes grand promises on campaign, but doesn’t follow through once in office? The large coalition needed to get elected switched to a much smaller coalition needed to stay elected. You can even follow the chain down and see the coalition that keeps coalition members in power. The possibilities are endless.
- Because it goes nowhere else, I’d like to briefly discuss the “separation of power” theory of governance. To my surprise, I haven’t been able to find a better framework to describe different governmental structures than what Americans learned in high school. (Other countries probably learn about this, too, but I don’t know since I’m an ignorant American.) Put simply, a government serves three main activities: legislative (makes laws), executive (enforces laws), and judicial (judges cases where laws are broken). Understanding the relationship between these branches is a simple way to visualize governmental characteristics. The judicial branch is frequently separate from others to encourage objectivity, though it has had executive powers in the past (see the reign of the judges in ancient Israel). A presidential system keeps legislative and executive branches independent and places the power of the executive in a single person. A parliamentary system makes the executive leader a special member of the legislature. There are far too many variations to list here, but this is the simplest way to describe your government. Who writes? Who enforces? Who judges?
- One very brief note on premodern countries: nations as we think of them are actually a very modern concept dating back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Through most of history, there weren’t states with clearly defined borders with a monopoly on power within those borders. Instead, there were constantly-shifting lands defined only by which group held the most control over them. To paraphrase Bret Devereaux (I can’t find the exact reference), there was no “nation of France” any more than there’s a specific “library of Bret”—there’s just the books that I happen to have at a given time, the same way there’s just the lands that happen to be under the control of the French monarchy. We can still look at historic international relations through a state-based lens, but we need to acknowledge that things were muddier than that in real life.
- There are a few theories that can be used to describe international relations, but the one that I find to be most useful is “realism.” This starts on the same assumption that selectorate theory does—just as the most important thing for a leader (regardless of their motives) is to stay in power, the most important thing for a nation to do is survive. Here, this means that its government must retain authority over its lands. The other basic assumption behind realism is that there is no power above nations that can effectively control states’ actions. This hasn’t always been strictly true (the Roman Catholic Church and the modern United Nations are examples) but they’re extreme exceptions. Even when such super-national forces exist, they usually only work because states all agree to let these institutions control them and not because they have any power by themselves. The failure of the League of Nations to stop World War II made that evident.
- The lack of super-national institutions is called “international anarchy” and it, along with the state goal of survival, forms the basis of realist theory. The result of these two principles is that nations will always seek to increase their security by trying to grow more powerful than their neighbors. This is usually done through military might and conquest, which give them the resources to become more resilient against outside threats. The issue is that the stronger a nation gets, the more threatening they become, inspiring neighbors to invest in militaries themselves and wage preventive wars. This is called the “security dilemma” or the “Red Queen effect”—nations will always try to out-compete their rivals, but will usually not become any safer.
- If a nation doesn’t try to increase its security through conflict and military might, it will often become taken over by a state that’s more pragmatic in its policies. This forces even well-meaning states to become military powerhouses if possible. Just like leaders, they can’t help anyone if they’re not in charge.
- Nations can usually only escape the security dilemma and grow stronger in general if they have a special advantage that its neighbors lack. This is usually geographic in nature (better waterways for transportation, better farmlands that can feed more soldiers, a rare resource that gives them more revenues through taxes), but can sometimes be cultural (like a more robust military culture or a religion that encourages fervor in its citizens). When a nation has these advantages, it can grow into an empire and last longer than most other countries. A nation like this is called a “hegemon,” and this system of international domination is a “hegemony.” Most hegemonies are regional, but there have been one or two worldwide hegemonies before.
- One important thing to consider is the fate of the small nations. If survival is based on military prowess, what can a country do if it just can’t achieve that kind of dominance? The answer is to ally itself with stronger nations, giving them shelter at the expense of some of their freedoms and resources.
- Alliances tend to form to curb the power of a threatening neighbor. The neighbor then forms alliances of its own. This leads to a complex system of constantly-shifting allegiances, roughly trending towards alliances of vaguely similar strengths. This is called the “balance of power” theory, and can be best seen in the dizzying network of allegiances in European nations prior to World War I.
- In rare cases, an extremely asymmetrical alliance network can form if nations decide to work together to fight an especially dangerous nation. These temporary alliances are called “coalitions.” The most amazing example of historical coalitions is the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon was so terrifying that he inspired Europeans to form coalitions against him seven times. This is, obviously, rare; an upstart nation usually can’t survive a single coalition, let alone several.
- I should mention that there are a few other theories of international relations out there. Liberalism says that a super-national authority can hold power by itself, and constructivism says that culture, not self-interest, is the motivating force behind state actions. I would argue that both of these theories go against historical record and—more important for us—are less useful for worldbuilders.
Trinity of War
- We’ve discussed warfare before, but we’re now going to look at it through the lens of “grand strategy,” which is the realm that most foreign policy takes place in. Put simply, if there’s an option of “don’t have a war,” we’re discussing grand strategy.
- The most influential military theorist throughout history is probably Carl von Clausewitz, writing during the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Clausewitz’s ideas have had a huge impact on military thought. For the purposes of worldbuilding, we’re going to focus on the idea of his “trinity of war”—government, people, and army. For those of you already familiar with Clausewitz’s work, you may note that I’m using his “secondary trinity” instead of his “primary” one.
- Clausewitz argued that any serious attempt to study of warfare has to go beyond the effectiveness of its armies. We’ve already discussed the characteristics of armies and militaries extensively, so feel free to look at the second article in this series if you’d like to learn more (or just want a refresher). We’re going to focus on the other two elements here: government and people.
- Government describes the administrative, relatively rational element of a society. In general, in order to wage war effectively, a nation needs a strong government with clearly defined and sensible goals. It needs to be able to utilize non-military tools as well, such as diplomacy, espionage, and economic persuasion. If a government is fractured, disorganized, or starved of resources, its wars will probably end in defeat.
- People describes the popular, relatively irrational element. The greatest tool a nation’s people bring to a war is its resources. This includes economic strength and manpower for armies. However, one of the best things it can offer is its determination to fight. The will of the people can keep a war going for a very long time—or cut it short. Military defeats and victories have a strong impact on popular support, which is one reason why nations that are on the losing side of a conflict tend to push towards unrealistic, desperate victories. They need to keep the people on their side, or they’ll lose what little momentum they have.
- In practice, a nation at war doesn’t need to check all these boxes in order to function well. In one of these elements is lacking, however, it does mean the others have to compensate if the country is to have any hope. A loose or nonexistent government requires strong coordination and determination on the part of the people. An unwilling populace requires a very authoritarian government to keep the war effort moving. Military ineffectiveness is hard to deal with, but a well-organized resistance can at least make it hard for enemies to secure their gains.
- Speaking of “securing gains”—an often-overlooked step in conquest is how the conqueror makes temporary control of lands into permanent ownership. One useful resource is the talk, Reaping the Rewards: How the Governor, the Priest, the Taxman, and the Garrison Secure Victory in World History, a talk by Wayne Lee. He argues that each of these roles is necessary for premodern success after war. The priest uses religion and culture to integrate conquered peoples, the taxman extracts local resources for the victor, and the garrison is a small military force stationed locally to discourage resistance. The governor is often filled by local authorities who are encouraged to ally with the region’s new rulers. This allows the victor to assert control without expending too many resources on setting up a local bureaucracy.
- I’m including this section because I feel duty-bound to cover it, but to be honest, there isn’t much for me to say here. The logic behind alliances has been discussed in the “International Anarchy” section, and there’s a lot of variation in diplomatic systems. There’s honestly too much to find overarching trends. I’ll do my best to convey what little I’ve found.
- In general, it seems that extensive diplomatic systems form in two main scenarios. The first is when a tenuous assortment of states with roughly-equal power need to ensure communication to prevent catastrophic, all-out war (as in much of Indian history and the Warring States period in China). The second is when a hegemon wants to extend its reach beyond its borders, either preparing for war with neighbors or enticing them into peaceful unification (as in the Roman Empire and Imperial China). If things are more disorganized than either of these scenarios, it seems that diplomacy tends to be more informal and less widely-utilized.
- The role of diplomats has varied across cultures and eras, though they were usually granted a protected status to ensure peaceful communication (sometimes this was enshrined in local religions). In China’s Warring States, diplomats were essentially hostages. If a state acted up, its diplomats in rival states would be killed. In India, diplomats were expected to act as spies and thieves, though I’m not sure how this worked with the norm that diplomats were to be unharmed—if you knew who was stealing your secrets and treasures, why would you let them go free? Roman diplomats acted mostly as archivists, documenting local trends for imperial records. In many areas, diplomats acted as religious missionaries or economic intermediaries.
- There’s also a lot of variation in the types of diplomatic positions. Messengers or heralds simply conveyed information, lacking the authority to do anything else. Envoys tended to stay in the target nation’s lands in order to learn more and build a relationship, expressing the general views of their home country’s leadership. Ambassadors were long-term envoys who usually had more authority to negotiate on behalf of their home nation. The most extreme on this spectrum were called “plenipotentiaries” (“many powers”), which had the right to enter into treaties and other agreements even without their leader’s permission. Plenipotentiaries became necessary when diplomats had to go far from their home, making constant communication for confirmation impractical.
And that’s all I’ve got! I hope this article was useful. Please let me know if there’s anything else you’d like to see me cover!