Watching "Occupied" as a Political Scientist

What the series gets right and wrong

I’ve been planning to write some posts about TV series that focus on politics. My goal is to see how well they fit with political scientists’ understanding of how politics works. I’ll start with the Norwegian series Occupied.

The backdrop of Occupied is the election of a Green government in Norway after a series of environmental disasters attributed to global warming. The new government announces that they are putting an end to oil drilling in the North Sea and plan to replace it with a new clean nuclear technology based on Thorium. Fearing the end of their main source of energy, the EU invites Russia to take military steps to make sure that Norway’s oil keeps flowing. This partial “occupation” of the country provides the backdrop for a political drama centered around the country’s prime minister (kidnapped by the Russians in one of the first scenes of the series), the head of his security team, a news reporter and his restaurateur wife, and the Russian ambassador among others. 

The big moral question of the series, a question that every small country is familiar with from the Melians to the present, is whether to resist one’s more powerful neighbor at the cost of unnecessary deaths and likely defeat or to find a way to get along with minimal disruptions at the cost of one’s national pride. Each character ultimately makes choices, sometimes more than one, about how to deal with the Russian presence. Some make what they view as necessary concessions, others pursue confrontation.

As someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about Czech history, these dilemmas ring true. Czechs still litigate President Benes’s decision to surrender to the Nazis after Munich and while the Norwegian situation is less dire, the logic is the same, all the way down to the shock when they are abandoned by their major allies who have interests of their own. One can even imagine EU bureaucrats in Occupied proclaiming like Chamberlain to have achieved peace in our time.

What the series gets right

While the series is not perfect, it does correctly convey an important political science concept, the idea, sometimes referred to as Miles’s Law, that “where you stand depends on where you sit.” The idea is that the positions that you take depend on the office you hold. Thus, executives responsible for the country take different positions than say legislators or bureaucrats who don’t bear the same responsibility. To put it another way, you can do and say what you want until you are, in the terms used by the Bush White House, the decider.

In Occupied, the Prime Minister constantly makes decisions that look like cowardly concessions to other Norwegians and dramatic breaks with his previous positions, but which are actually mostly understandable responses to Russian threats which he or ultimately she is the only one privy to. Thus, Jesper Berg, who wins an election on a radical Green Party platform that starts the series’s conflicts, ultimately backs down from all his programmatic commitments in order to stave off what he views as certain war and bloodshed. Though others are sometimes shocked by the way he accedes to Russian demands, he sees no option if he is to save lives. He (and later in the series his right-hand woman who succeeds him) knows the reality of the Russian threats than no one else sees. If you are familiar with the classics, imagine the leader of the Melians being able to foresee but not communicate the consequences of resisting the Athenians (according to Thucydides those were execution and enslavement)..

While it might seem that such dramatic reversals are uncommon in politics, political scientists have cataloged many examples of them. Thus, many Latin American presidents won office on stridently left-wing platforms. Upon taking office and learning about the real state of the budget and the leverage that international capital had over the economy, they quickly switched gears, becoming orthodox neo-liberals almost overnight. Carlos Menem in Argentina and Alberto Fujimori in Peru are the best known cases, but there are many others. Susan Stokes argues that they did this because they became privy to new information when they won office.

Getting back to Occupied, even more interesting, if not so plausible, is how Berg changes his position again once he is forced to flee the country and ends up in Sweden. No longer responsible, no longer sitting in the decider’s chair, he begins to take a much harder line. And not coincidentally, when his closest advisor becomes Prime Minister, she begins making similar decisions to Berg, compromising with the Russians in order to maintain what sovereignty is left to her. The series does sometimes portray her as power-hungry, but I think it more plausibly makes the case that the weight of responsibility and desire to avoid all-out war leads to her decisions.

Both Berg and his successor try to be walking embodiments of Weber’s Ethic of Responsibility. This is the idea that politicians always need to consider the consequences of their actions rather than simply do what is morally right. Yes, Russia’s actions are morally wrong, but just doing the morally right thing and opposing them is not necessarily the right answer if it will lead to a total occupation or to thousands of deaths. Those in positions of responsibility need to take responsibility.

What it gets wrong

While many of the consequences in the series follow from the premise of Norway being occupied by Russia at the behest of the EU, it is a bit easier to shoot holes in the premise itself. The series takes place very much in a realist world where states mainly pursue their own power and material interests. Thus, the EU abandons their traditional ally as soon as it is in their material interest to do so. And the injustice of Norway’s fate seems to have little effect on public opinion in the member states. Even if one were a realist in matters of international politics, one would expect international law and norms of justice to play a slightly bigger role, especially on the continent that acts most consistently according to liberal principles.

Like many series, the economics also didn’t make too much sense to me. Wouldn’t Russia benefit enormously if Norway turned off its oil spigots? The price of its oil would rise dramatically and it would have even more leverage over the EU. In the series, Russia is mainly a military enforcer rather than a fellow energy producer. Perhaps they felt threatened by Norway’s new Thorium technology which would make oil obsolete? And the EU would surely know that giving Russia a say over Norway’s oil production would massively increase Russia’s economic and political leverage over the EU.

More politically, there is relatively little strategic thinking in the series. The Norwegians mostly simply give in to Russian threats, though they do so hesitantly and with a heavy heart. One would imagine that real politicians would try to play more cards. They might try brinkmanship or threaten resignation in order to extract concessions. They could play what political scientists call a two-level game - that is, refer to the possibility that the army or citizens will take things into their own hands if the Russians don’t let up on certain demands. Indeed, one can imagine the Russians sharpening their demands, knowing that the Norwegian prime ministers are so averse to bloodshed. Mightn’t a willingness to suffer a few casualties help to turn EU public opinion on their side? Indeed, this is Berg’s calculation later in the series when he is outside of government.

Viewers, especially political scientists, might be a little frustrated by the leaders’ lack of creativity. But as I mentioned before, real politicians have behaved in similar ways, just look at Czechoslovakia. In short, I appreciated how the series portrayed this real political dilemma and how characters responded in real, if sometimes frustrating, ways.

Fun facts from real politics

  • Many of the stereotypes of European politics were fun to see. The series does give a sense of the EU’s ambivalence towards Russia. Many German politicians have cultivated close ties with Russia, including its former Prime Minister Gerhard Schroeder, who is currently the head of Gazprom, and so it is not implausible that the EU would take Russia’s side in the matter of energy, though obviously not to this extent.

  • The portrayal of French politicians as mainly concerned with feathering their own beds matches the stereotype. The way that Eastern European countries ultimately support Norway because they share worries about Russian aggression is also close to the mark. Though Hungary perhaps should no longer be included in this group, Poland most definitely is.

  • Occupied takes place in a post-Trumpian world, where America has all but withdrawn from Europe and is energy self-sufficient. Norway turns to the US, but the US has no interest in helping them or in antagonizing Russia. This was a prescient move for a series released in 2015 and presumably written and filmed when Obama was still in office.

  • An interesting portrayal was of Finland as Norway’s key ally against Russia. It is curious because Finland lived through several decades of something like the experience of Norway in the series. During the Cold War, Finland exercised a sort of limited sovereignty with the Soviet Union holding a veto over key offices and policies. For decades Finnish politicians accepted exactly the compromises that Berg does. Is it this awareness that leads the Finns to take a hardline against Russia?