An Analysis of The Hunger Games through International Relations Theories

The Hunger Games, a youth novel written by Suzanne Collins, does indeed have a scholarly use in the field of International Relations. This novel, with its conflicts both within the nation of Panem, a fictional nation that replaces the United States with twelve districts, all controlled by the “Capitol” and on a more useful and micro system level inside of the arena, where two children from each district are forced to fight in an arena until only one remains is an accurate representation of the international systems in the real world. This micro level allows the scholar to make assumptions from the individual behavior witnessed within the arena. Cooperation within the arena is also a controversial topic for international relations scholars based on the differing opinions of the different paradigms. These conflicts, relationships, propensity for violence, the fight for survival within this novel all represent individual human behavior and international relations and can be used as analogies for the three main paradigms, realism, liberalism, and constructivism.

The behavior of the individual participant within the arena differs between the paradigms. From the perspective of realism, the individual is expected to value power over everything else, for in power comes peace. One of the assumptions of the realist perspective, such as those by John Mearsheimer is that “great powers inherently possess some offensive military capability, which gives them the wherewithal to hurt and possibly destroy each other.” (Mearsheimer 61) in this case, the powers, or states, are the individual within the arena. At the beginning of the deathmatch, the individuals begin with nothing but themselves, they must rush to find a weapon and increase their power, while evading the other opponents who are also arming themselves. These opponents are not evenly matched, nor are they matched by gender, there is a mix of all types of individuals, big and powerful boys, cunning young women. Realists would suggest that the “greater powers”, specifically those of the participants that are physically strong and now possess weapons, would now become more aggressive, however, in this situation the participants must utilize calculated aggression when fighting with equally powerful opponents.  When realizing that an opponent is equally as power, the participants will often avoid direct contact, and defend what current power and resources they possess and analyze the cost and benefit of going on the offense.

Because of the necessity to increase their power, the individual’s behavior is also affected by the fear from the other individuals having the same if not more power, this fear breeds suspicion. The main goal of the entire event is to be the last one standing, and just as states in the real world and the individuals within the fictional arena would, “any state bent on survival must be at least suspicious of other states and reluctant to trust them.” (Mearsheimer 62). This is especially true once the alliances begin to form within the arena, by the “Career Tributes”, Katniss and the other independent individuals, “the strong band together to hunt down the weak then, when the tension becomes too great, begin to turn on one another.” (Collins 159).  This constant power struggle of the participants is directly related to John Herz analysis of the anarchical nature of international relations, specifically power dynamics, “…states are drive to acquire more and more power in order to escape the impact of the power of others.” (Mearsheimer 64).

The arena itself only represents some states of human nature dictated by the realist paradigm. The assumption that the system is anarchic, is correct, and that inside of the arena there are not any set rules, everything is permitted. However, the Capitol serves as a sole hegemonic power and has the ultimate power within the arena, by being able to change and manipulate the balance of power and even the environment, meaning that the system is not purely anarchic. All the participants inside the arena desire to increase their power so that they can survive, and tend to pursue their own interests, and stockpile as many resources as possible, another assumption made by realists. Inside of the arena, power is directly related to the physical weapons, medical supplies, shelter and food that are available, this provides safety in a very chaotic world. Lastly, the arena is not traditionally conducive to cooperation, “although cooperation is sometimes difficult to achieve and always difficult to sustain.” (Mearsheimer 73) and alliances do form in the beginning but dwindle towards the end of the deathmatch when the individual participants begin to put their self-interests ahead of the group. On a micro level, this inhibited cooperation represents the international relations under realism and how each state must weigh the risk and reward of cooperating with another state they might not be able to trust.

Under the basic assumptions of liberalism, the participants within the arena would be expected to cooperate and the individuals being multipolar, rather than bipolar or unipolar powers, meaning that allies today could be enemies tomorrow, and gives many ways to balance power and threats. Liberal scholars would also assess that the alliances that form in the arena are purely for the survival of the participants within that alliance. Because there isn’t a need for a trading or economic system within the game, the only focus of this analysis would be on the power dilemma that is created and the trust building between participants for security purposes.

Constructivists would expect that the participants behave different towards other participants based on their social relationship. This paradigm would also expect that the agency of the participant is directly related to the socially created influence that the arena puts on them. The participants do behave differently towards one another based on their relationships, for example, Katniss treats Rue much differently than she would Glimmer, a member of the career tributes, because of the relationship she built with her while trying to survive, and the hatred that Katniss has for said career tributes. The changing of social relationships can also change how the participants interact, an example of this would be Katniss and Peeta’s relationship. From the start of the deathmatch, Peeta allies with the career tributes ostensibly to survive, which angers Katniss, but when Peeta betrays the allies to protect Katniss, her opinion, and thus relationship turns to one of friendship, rather than enmity.

Inside of the arena cooperation is already very inhibited by the traditional rule that only one person may survive, and cooperative alliances should be banned from the start. In the beginning of the deathmatch, alliances do form, such as the “career tributes” who have trained their entire lives to enter the games and survive. These participants, namely the tributes from Districts 1, 2 and 4, band together early, Katniss notices that they begin to form an alliance even before the games and describes them as “the ones who lunched together.” (Collins 159). This unfair advantage of the strongest individuals becoming allies makes it incredibly unfair for those from the other poorer districts such as 11 or 12, without the physical prowess, and wealthy benefactors, sponsors that can air drop things such as food, medicine, and clothing. This unfair advantage leads to a power dilemma within the arena as the hegemonic allied participants begin with more overt power, and latent power as they can manipulate more variables within the game through their connections to sponsors. The allied participants quickly utilize their hard power and gather their power through force and violence, killing and terrorizing for survival.

The games inside of the arena should be solitary, fighting and surviving only by themselves the same way that Thomas Hobbes wrote as the state of nature “everyman versus everyman” (Tickner 117).  In war of everyone versus everyone else, participants are less interdependent on their alliance or partner, and now independent, allowing for the strongest, or sometimes the luckiest person to survive, rather than who has the most support from others. Making a rule against cooperation also forces the participants to utilize self-help, which “tends to reward competition and punish altruism.” (Wendt 102). The arena is meant to pit everyone against each other instead of making friends or allies, despite the game makers choosing at the last minute to change the rule to allow two survivors, traditionally there could be only one and the game should be played as such. Participants, much like real states, who rely too much on greater powers, are often stabbed in the back when the greater state realizes that the lesser powers have no use to them anymore. All in all, the ability to cooperate within the arena should not be possible, but this it still happens regardless though unsuccessfully for the hegemonic alliance.

The international system differs from the situation and conditions within the arena because it lacks true rules within the arena, there is not a true trade system or economic system and there is no real ability to cooperate without destroying your ally to eventually becoming the surviving state. Regardless of paradigms, these differences create a separation between the fictional arena and the true reality of the international system.

With cooperation in the arena stifled, there is not a significant comparison to be made with the international system. This is apparent in the real world with “states such as Brazil and Botswana may recognize each other’s sovereignty, but they require incentives to engage in joint action.” (Wendt 105), this is much akin to the participants within the arena. The participants cannot fully trust one another, with the possibility of being betrayed by their supposed allies, the only thing that brings the participants together is the fact that they are stronger together and have a higher chance of survival. The only problem with this loose alliance is that unlike the real world where there can be more than one “winner” or powerful state, the arena only allows one survivor typically or two with the ending of the novel, the alliance eventually must consume itself and fight inside of itself to create on survivor.

One of the main distinctions between the arena and the international systems, is that there is not a true economic system within the arena. Emphasis is placed on survival, and tactics, rather than cooperation or economic gain. In the real world, states must also worry about the prosperity of their society, which typically requires them to trade with other states, either for materials or for supplies that they need. Materials and supplies within the arena are not traded, they are acquired through theft or gathering, so there is not a social relationship created between participants.

The lack of a set of rules or laws within the arena, is directly comparable between the conditions of the arena and how states within the international system would behave. Without rules, the arena is completely anarchic, it is the same if the international system was truly anarchic, without any formal sanctions. Predatory states would emerge, increasing their power through aggression and destroying smaller and weaker states. This is especially true within the arena, as the strongest participants, especially after the first few eliminations quickly realize that they can take out the weaker states by direct force rather than coercion or attrition because there are no consequences to worry about from a higher power.

Just like participants in the arena, even strong states cannot always gain what they want via aggressive behavior. Behavior is directly related, at least to the rational state, is based on “not only what states want, but also their capacity to realize their desires” (Mearsheimer 65), this means that even though states, or participants in the case of the story, want to survive, want to win, they might not have the means, or armaments to achieve what they want. These strong nations are more inclined to be aggressive when they have more supplies and better weapons and there is not another strong opponent to keep them in check. However sometimes powerful states make decisions based on poor intelligence, or by an educated guess, and this can lead to miscalculating the means of other states or overestimating their own power.

Another condition that applies to both the international system and the arena is that there is no room for miscalculation when dealing with enemies. Though there are not nuclear weapons within the arena, the threat of death is eminent, even the smallest participant, Rue, can kill a stronger participant with the use of subtlety and misleading the strong opponent to believe that she is weak. This same scenario happens in the real world with countries such as the Vietnam conflict where the United States underestimated the Vietnamese, in both size, nationalistic resolve and subtlety. Another mistake the allied participants made was to underestimate Katniss’s willingness to survive and to fight back, especially once they have corned her in a tall tree in the beginning of the deathmatch. In the international system any miscalculation of an opponent’s willingness to fight, can also be deadly, such as “North Korea miscalculating U.S willingness to defend South Korea; the United States miscalculated China’s willingness to defend North Korea; and so on.” (Fearon 383). These potentially grievous miscalculations can be seen in both the real world and the fictional arena.

Power and fear are the main weapons inside of both international systems and the arena. Even before the deathmatch begins, the participants are ranked with a number that matches their combat prowess, physical ability, more specifically, their power. This power, creates fear within the other participants and dictates how they strategize, just like states, “the more profound the fear is, the more intense the security competition, and the more likely is war” (Mearsheimer 68). Katniss overhears the career tributes asking Peeta “wish we knew how she [Katniss] got that eleven.” (Collins 162) meaning that though she is alone, that they fear her for her high-power score. Security competition inside of the arena means the procurement of weapons and supplies and this distribution of power does change the levels of fear between participants. The distribution inside of the arena resides mostly in the hegemon of the career tributes and gives them the capability of dominating the rest of the participant, leaving the rest in fear.

Scholars analyzing the arena should use it to create analogies between the real world, and the fictional arena. The arena provides analogies such as how the hegemonic career tributes are very similar to hegemonic powers in the real world international system. Other analogies include that weaker participants can take out stronger participants by utilizing soft power and more strategic methods, instead of overt power and direct conflict, this analogy in the real world means smaller, weaker states can overcome greater states with the use of better strategies, and being able to avoid direct conflict, much like the Viet Cong or fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though plenty of analogies can be made throughout the entire novel, the most important ones can be drawn from the conflicts and strategies used by the participants within the arena, as these accurately represent how states act given the same set of parameters.

Utilizing what can be analyzed from the arena, scholars can make general assumptions on individual behavior when trying to understand state behavior. The behavior observed from the participants, which is on a very microscopic level compared to an international system of states, provides only a brief expectation of how individuals would act under similar conditions. The parameters that the participants face does accurately represent states in the real world under the realist perspective. Inside of the arena, the goal of the participant is survival, which is not unlike states, who desire prosperity, but most importantly, survival and longevity of their society.

Through the analysis of The Hunger Games, behavior of states can be derived from the behaviors of individual participants. Despite the different ideologies of the paradigms, realism, liberalism, and constructivism, there is a basis to all their expectations. The arena does represent the state of nature expected from realists, with the participants using power and fear, manipulation for power, cooperation limited by the parameters of the arena and need for calculated aggression to successfully survive the arena, and in the real world.  Deeper analysis allows scholars to use the fictional arena and the participants actions within as a basis for states behavior in the real world, and on a much smaller level. All of the analysis and the application of the different international relations theories on the arena lead to a much better understanding overall of state behavior in the international system.

Work Cited

Mearsheimer, John. “Essential Readings in World Politics.” Essential Readings in World Politics, by Karen A. Mingst and Jack L. Snyder, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017, pp. 61–61.

Mearsheimer, John. “Essential Readings in World Politics.” Essential Readings in World Politics, by Karen A. Mingst and Jack L. Snyder, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017, pp. 62-62.

“The Hunger Games.” The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic, 2009, pp. 159–159.

Mearsheimer, John. “Essential Readings in World Politics.” Essential Readings in World Politics, by Karen A. Mingst and Jack L. Snyder, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017, pp. 64-64.

Mearsheimer, John. “Essential Readings in World Politics.” Essential Readings in World Politics, by Karen A. Mingst and Jack L. Snyder, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017, pp. 73-73.

“The Hunger Games.” The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic, 2009, pp. 159–159.

Tickner, J. “Essential Readings in World Politics.” Essential Readings in World Politics, by Karen A. Mingst and Jack L. Snyder, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017, pp. 117-117.

Wendt, Alexander. “Essential Readings in World Politics.” Essential Readings in World Politics, by Karen A. Mingst and Jack L. Snyder, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017, pp. 102-102.

Wendt, Alexander. “Essential Readings in World Politics.” Essential Readings in World Politics, by Karen A. Mingst and Jack L. Snyder, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017, pp. 105-105.

Mearsheimer, John. “Essential Readings in World Politics.” Essential Readings in World Politics, by Karen A. Mingst and Jack L. Snyder, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017, pp. 65-65.

Fearon, James. “Essential Readings in World Politics.” Essential Readings in World Politics, by Karen A. Mingst and Jack L. Snyder, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017, pp. 383-383.

Mearsheimer, John. “Essential Readings in World Politics.” Essential Readings in World Politics, by Karen A. Mingst and Jack L. Snyder, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017, pp. 68-68.

“The Hunger Games.” The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, Scholastic, 2009, pp. 162-162.

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