Strange Bedfellows

GabeGovernment(ML), Mini Lessons

Strange Bedfellows

Watch: CSG: Alliances

Alliances from Certell on Vimeo.

People group together for a variety of reasons, voluntary, and involuntary. You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. For the most part, we like, and are like those we choose to associate with as friends.

Allies are a different story. We enter into alliances for a variety of reasons, as noted in the famous saying, “politics makes strange bedfellows.”

In Episode 5 of Game of Thrones, we saw a number of strange bedfellows: Bronn and Jaime, The Hound and Thoros, Jorah and Jon, and even the newly reunited Sansa and Arya. Are these alliances of convenience, while they gather their strength to fight each other again? Temporary bonds to meet a pressing emergency? Or something more lasting?

For those who survive the next few episodes and into Season 8, the question will become ever more pressing.

What makes for good allies? What’s a good alliance? These questions are pressing for us, as well, in our ever more complicated and dangerous world. To learn more about American ideas about allies and involvement in alliances check out Certell’s American history and government courses!

The phrase “politics makes strange bedfellows” comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and in the original was “misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”

Episode 6 of Game of Thrones illustrates this point well! North of the wall Jon Snow, The Hound, Gendry, Thoros, Beric Dondarrion, Tormund, and Jorah Mormont are going out together in pursuit of the same goal – capturing a White Walker. Why would one do such a thing? To bring it back to Cersei to convince her that they are real, and of the importance of at least suspending hostilities until the Westerosi can defeat the Army of the Dead, allying with Daenerys, her dragons, and the Dothraki to do so. What a strange band, united in their misery!

However their quest ends, it is hard to imagine such an alliance lasting much longer than necessary to achieve its limited (if existential) end.

George Washington, in his Farewell Address, warned Americans against the problem of entangling alliances:

While, then, every part of our country thus feels an immediate and particular interest in union, all the parts combined cannot fail to find in the united mass of means and efforts greater strength, greater resource, proportionably greater security from external danger, a less frequent interruption of their peace by foreign nations; and, what is of inestimable value, they must derive from union an exemption from those broils and wars between themselves, which so frequently afflict neighboring countries not tied together by the same governments, which their own rival ships alone would be sufficient to produce, but which opposite foreign alliances, attachments, and intrigues would stimulate and embitter.

… It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.

The great wordsmith Thomas Jefferson put it more succinctly: “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations – entangling alliances with none.” If he had the liberty to do so, this sounds a lot like what Jon Snow what like for the North.

During the Revolutionary War, the United States entered into a “Treaty of Alliance and a Treaty of Amity and Commerce” with France in 1779, which lasted, officially, until 1800. In addition to the aid sent by the French government, true French friends, such as the Marquis de Lafayette, came to the aid of the Americans. The numerous streets, squares, and monuments to Lafayette throughout the United States even today speak to the personal bond he created. Lafayette was more than just an ally.

Purdue University Campus, West Lafayette, Indiana

Purdue University Campus, West Lafayette, Indiana


The United States’ first major steps outside this self-imposed isolation occurred with the entry into World War I on the side of the Allies. Woodrow Wilson ran on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” And then almost immediately sent U.S. soldiers overseas to fight in France.

Today, the United States is part of the formal NATO alliance, which has 26 members, as well as the Rio Pact, an alliance of 23 nations. It is formally an ally of Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand.

While some of the countries are unquestionably also friends (the “Special Relationship” with the U.K. is strong; and who wouldn’t want to be friends with the Aussies?), the U.S. has also entered into alliances with less savory partners. During World War II, we were allied with Soviet Union, despite the fact that Stalin had invaded Poland and only recently murdered more than a million people in the “Great Purge.” Over his career, Stalin was likely responsible for more than 10 million deaths – perhaps many more!

And among the U.S.’s NATO allies today, Turkey is going through turmoil as the Islamic movement continues to grow in influence and effect there. Not to mention our involvement with other countries in the Mid-East who systematically violate the rights of women, minorities, and others.


1. How important is it to only ally oneself with those whose values we overwhelmingly share?

2. Should the United States be as involved internationally as we have become?

3. How should we judge those who, in the past, led us into alliances with countries whose policies and actions are unacceptable today?

4. Bonus: Look up the phrase, “Paris is worth a mass.” How much of one’s values should one be willing to sacrifice in order to meet some more immediate expediency?