Why Tyrion Lannister is a Master Diplomat
Part II of my series on the rhetoric of Game of Thrones from a speechwriter’s perspective (with occasional insights from my past life as a diplomat)
I’ve often thought that Tyrion Lannister should be taught as a model in international relations classes. Tyrion has the three elements you see in most great diplomats: pragmatism, the ability to turn strategy into concrete actions, and a bit of a drinking problem.
Nowhere was that more evident in last week’s episode of Game of Thrones, when Jon Snow’s appeal to Daenerys Targaryen to join the fight against the White Walkers meets with a frosty (no pun intended) reception. As Jon Snow broods on the cliffs, Tyrion arrives — first for a little snark about Jon Snow’s effectiveness at brooding over failure — and then for some back-channel diplomacy with Jon.
Let’s break down the key parts of the exchange:
JON: I’m not playing word games with you. The dead are coming for us all!
TYRION: Why don’t you figure out what to do about my missing fleet and murdered allies — and I’ll figure out what to do about your walking dead men.
Takeaway 1: Diplomacy Is About Overlapping Interests and Mutual Give-and-Take. As good and courageous as Jon Snow is, he is an awful diplomat. He arrives in Dragonstone seeking a broad commitment to tackle an unproven threat — without acknowledging the interests of Team Daenerys and offering any clear benefit to her goals. It’s the same challenge Lyanna Mormont bailed him out of last season.
JON: How do I convince people who don’t know me that an enemy they don’t believe in is coming to kill them all?
[ . . .]
TYRION: People’s minds aren’t made for problems that large . . . [Daenerys is] not about to head north to fight an enemy she’s never seen on the word of a man she doesn’t know, after a single meeting. It’s not a reasonable thing to ask. So do you have anything reasonable to ask?
JON: What’d you mean?
TYRION: Maybe you are a Northern fool. I’m asking if there’s something I can do to help you.
Takeaway 2: Diplomacy Requires You to See the Big Picture, And Turn It Into Concrete Requests. The scene ends there, but we know Jon then asked to mine the dragonglass — the one material, along with Valyrian steel, proven to kill White Walkers — located beneath Dragonstone.
In my previous job as a diplomat at the State Department, I worked with one senior diplomat who would often return prepared talking points for diplomatic meetings with one comment: “OK, but what’s the ask?”
Like Tyrion, he understood it’s not enough to paint in broad, strategic strokes. People — and especially bureaucracies and other large groups — won’t move unless given something specific and manageable to act on.
Tyrion is a master strategist, able to see the big picture and think at a high level of abstraction, but he recognizes diplomats need concrete asks. He’s willing to trust Jon on the White Walkers, but he warns that “people’s minds aren’t made for problems that large,” so he nudges Jon to provide something “reasonable to ask.” It may take a long time for Daenerys to believe Jon’s warnings about the White Walkers, but in the meantime, Jon has gotten something specific that benefits his cause while Daenerys now has some leverage over Jon. Tyrion has artfully built a foundation for future cooperation.
Without strategy, you don’t know why you should do anything. Without concrete requests, you don’t know how you can do anything. I’ve encountered many talented diplomats who are only good at one or the other; Tyrion is the rare diplomat who can do both. Add to that his pragmatism — an ability to work with others regardless of ideology or background to find a basis for a productive relationship — and you can see why Tyrion is so incredibly effective.
Public Diplomacy: Tyrion Convinces Soldiers to Fight
Tyrion brings these principles to bear on an important type of diplomacy: public speeches. His speeches, too, tend to have actionable requests at the end — though, to be fair, Tyrion is usually demanding a trial by combat.
But in the case of Tyrion’s speech in King’s Landing at the Battle of the Blackwater, he’s asking something entirely different. Stannis Baratheon has arrived at King’s Landing to press his claim to the Iron Throne. Though Tyrion used wildfire to destroy many of Stannis’s ships in the harbor, the surviving forces are now arriving to lay siege to the city. King Joffrey has fled the battle, further demoralizing the defending troops. Tyrion needs to get the soldiers to defend the city under his command.
As you can see here, Tyrion starts with an audience that’s apathetic, even hostile.
So Tyrion makes an interesting rhetorical choice:
Don’t fight for your king, don’t fight for his kingdoms, don’t fight for honor, don’t fight for glory, don’t fight for riches because you won’t get any.
The formal term for this rhetorical device is antithesis — “parallel structure to present contrast,” as Robert Lehrman defines it in The Political Speechwriter’s Companion. Dramatic negation creates tension that has to be resolved. It sharpens the focus on what the speaker considers important. Here, Tyrion systematically rejects a whole host of common rationales for fighting. It’s a structure that demands resolution (“ok, if we’re not fighting for these things, what are we fighting for?”).
This is your city Stannis means to sack, your gate he’s ramming. If he gets in, it will be your houses he burns, your gold he steals, your women he will rape.
Tyrion resolves the tension with a naked appeal to self-interest. Through repetition and concrete details (“your city . . . your gate . . . your houses . . . your gold . . . your women”), Tyrion drives home the real stakes for his audience. By presenting such a clear contrast with the justifications he cites at the top, Tyrion also sharpens the focus on his self-interest argument.
Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them!”
Tyrion ends the speech on a simple call to action. But just as he does in his one-on-one diplomacy, Tyrion makes his closing call concrete and immediately actionable.
Why Tyrion’s Rhetorical Choices Matter in Game of Thrones
Tyrion’s use of antithesis matters for substantive reasons in the Game of Thrones plot as well. As I wrote in my introductory piece for this series, speeches tend to be important plot points because each speech represents a moment when a character has to go beyond the usual institutions of the Seven Kingdoms and appeal to the public. This reflects the broader dynamic of the show: it’s not really about the fight for the Iron Throne; it’s about a much larger conflict that will challenge the legitimacy and integrity of this feudal system itself.
Tyrion’s Blackwater rally speech represents one of the earliest displays of this broader tension in the series. Tyrion has been raised within the reigning system of power where, as he muses in Season 6, “the true history of the world is the history of great conversations in elegant rooms.” So it’s deeply significant that Tyrion begins his speech by rejecting key pillars of the legitimacy of this system (“don’t fight for your king; don’t fight for his kingdoms . . .”) and convinces the common soldiers by acknowledging their self-interest — something Cersei or Joffrey might not have stooped to consider.
A lesser speaker might have justified the fight using the language and values that made sense to them. Tyrion has the empathy — another vital quality for a great diplomat — and the pragmatism to recognize different interests and find a basis for cooperation in those interests.
Tyrion’s Rhetoric in Real Life
Antithesis is one of the easiest ways to create soundbites that can appeal to the audience and make it into the news. President John F. Kennedy used this tool perhaps more than any other leader, and it’s one of the rhetorical elements in one of his most quotable lines: ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. Formulations using the word “not” appear in Kennedy’s inaugural speech 19 times. Kennedy and his speechwriter/counselor Ted Sorensen used antithesis repeatedly to create clarity through contrast — and, in some cases, introduce nuance.
It’s important to keep in mind that negation isn’t the right tool for every speaker. Peggy Noon, a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, recalls receiving this advice from a colleague when she joined the White House: “Remember, it always has to be positive with him. Never ‘I’ll never forget,’ always ‘I’ll always remember.’” A positive, aspirational tone was key to Reagan’s brand, and though Kennedy and Reagan are both effective communicators, Kennedy-esque antithesis wouldn’t have worked for Reagan.
It’s also useful to consider whether speeches could have more immediate “asks.” Commencement speeches, for example, often tend toward lofty principles. But would these speeches have more impact if the speaker supported these big ideas with specific calls to action that students could implement immediately?
Breaking the Silos Between Diplomacy and Speechwriting
When I started this series of articles, I promised this would be about the speeches and rhetoric of Game of Thrones. And maybe it’s the fact that I came into speechwriting from a diplomatic background, but I firmly believe speechwriting and diplomacy are one and the same — and neither field benefits from being put into silos. Tyrion is an illustrative example that prompting action through diplomacy looks a lot like prompting action through speeches. Perhaps we should take a lesson from Tyrion — and master both.