Warning: There are major spoilers throughout this post.
House of Cards, the ridiculously popular, binge-watch-baiting Netflix drama that tells the tale of Frank Underwood's ruthless political rise, is fiction. The show thrives on absurd plot twists and heavy symbolism, and because of that, the Washington it presents is a caricature, both exaggerated and filtered.
For the show's characters, that caricatured Washington is only the center of a wider (and equally caricatured) world. In Season 2, viewers were offered a glimpse of that, with Chinese billionaires and hackers coming into the mix. Now, in the recently released Season 3, Frank Underwood is President of the United States, and he and his wife Claire have to deal with all kind of international issues: From an antagonistic Russia to a deadlocked United Nations, these issues come center stage.
So how does the foreign policy of President Frank Underwood match up with the real world's? Here's how three of the major foreign policy scenarios stack up.
One of the central foreign characters of the season is Russian President Viktor Petrov, a man who, with his masculine demeanor and repressive reputation, is an obvious stand in for Vladimir Putin. The time frame roughly works right, with Petrov telling the new president Underwood he's met three different U.S. presidents while leading Russia and references to a KGB past. The pair even talk about Petrov's manly shirtless photo-ops.
But some things are a little off. First, in purely aesthetic terms, Petrov is too tall and his English is too good to really be Putin. In their personality, too, the fictional Russian president seems different from the real Russian president. Petrov is portrayed as a womanizer and a man who loves to party in his Sochi dacha. While rumors about Putin's love life are everywhere, he definitely keeps a low-key profile, and his reputation is that of a loner rather than a partier.
On a darker note, Petrov does say he killed a man with his bare hands while serving in Afghanistan. Putin is not known to have killed anyone: Despite his judo skills, most accounts of his time working for the KGB while in East Germany make it sound quite dull. However, a brief mention of "false flags" used by Petrov to justify a war in Chechnya are clearly modeled on a series of apartment bombings that occurred before Putin's own war in Chechnya.
When we first meet him, Petrov is at the White House on a state visit to discuss Underwood's Middle East pace plan (more on that below) but his visit is overshadowed by protests against the LGBT propaganda laws in his country. Here you can see the limitations of lag between writing and airing the show: LGBT rights in Russia became a major issue of international attention before the Sochi 2014 Olympics. Today, these issues certainly haven't gone away (not by a long way), but in 2015 they are overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine and the shooting of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Things have moved on.
The realpolitik way that Petrov justifies his LGBT restrictions does ring true, however. As Underwood and his wife visit Moscow to secure the release of an American citizen, the Russian President tells the U.S. president: "Personally I don't care."
"Is the gay propaganda law barbaric?" Petrov asks. "Of course it is. But religion, tradition, for most of my people its in their bones. This law was passed for them." Many polls have shown real life Russians are, on the whole, supportive of restrictive LGBT laws, hence Putin's opportunistic embrace of them. "I don't take chances," Petrov says, echoing something Putin might say if he were more honest.
There's lots of other small details that resemble real life: Petrov's insistence on a scaling back of NATO's European missile defense system, the Russian concerns about being isolated on the United Nations Security Council, and an important, though low-key, mention of a Russian citizens named Sergey who died in Russian prison – perhaps a reference to the tragic case of Sergei Magnitsky.
A truly unrealistic moment, however, is a fictional White House state dinner held by Underwood in Petrov's honor, where the real-life dissidents of Pussy Riot, Nadezhda "Nadya" Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Tolokonnikova's husband Pyotr Verzilov, are guests of honor.
It's very hard to imagine Putin and Pussy Riot being allowed at the same dinner, and the Russian dissidents, unsurprisingly, use their close proximity to Petrov to criticize the Russian president, who takes it in his stride. In an interview with Russian publication the New Times, Pussy Riot admitted Petrov was no Putin. "In the [show] Petrov is more of a little tsar," Alyokhina explained. "He is too jolly for Putin, of course."
The Middle East
Underwood's plan for the Middle East centers around the idea of the United States and Russia putting troops into the Jordan Valley, a real valley that acts as a buffer between Jordan and the Palestinian West Bank territory. This does echo reality: The Jordan Valley is a key component of Middle East peace talks, with Israel demanding that their troops remain in the area for security reasons and Palestinians seeing it as a fertile, water-rich land that would be their window to the wider Arab world in any future state.
What makes less sense is a bilateral plan to send U.S. and Russian troops into the area. This plot line seems designed to show how Russian duplicity in the Middle East more than anything else, perhaps a reference to Russia's interests in the Syrian war. "Russia has nothing to gain from peace in the Middle East." Petrov pointedly tells Underwood at one point. Petrov and Underwood fall out over the plan, so Underwood decides to use the U.N. to go with a plan for an international peacekeeping force in the Jordan Valley. After some wrangling, Petrov eventually agrees.
Things quickly go wrong, however. Eight Russian soldiers die in the Jordan Valley and when the Russians won't let other nations investigate, the U.S. sends a Navy SEALteam to investigate covertly, suspecting a false flag. Their cover is blown, and the Russians kill one of the U.S. special ops soldiers. The Israelis send in troops, and Hezbollah and Hamas in turn start to mobilize. The Israelis announce a no-fly zone but then Petrov announces his plan to personally fly to the Jordan Valley, so Underwood does too. Eventually, they work out a deal to pull back Russian and U.S. forces from the Jordan Valley, averting a potential World War III.
On Twitter, the reaction to this plot line has been especially harsh, with critics focusing on the portrayal of the Jordan Valley, House of Card's insistence on its importance over other flash points, and just a general implausibility that permeates the entire thing.
The Jordan Valley storyline in House of Cards is so preposterous.
— Robert T. McGibbon (@rmcgibbo) March 2, 2015
The Jordan Valley storyline in Netflix's House of Cards is so nonsensical that I'm simultaneously confused and intrigued!
— SMPalestine (@SMPalestine) March 2, 2015
The house of cards production team have no idea what the Jordan Valley looks like, it looks like they filmed on the moon
— Josh Kaplan (@JNkappers) March 1, 2015
Most laughably implausible @HouseofCards season 3 moment: Israel even entertaining UN peacekeepers in Jordan Valley.
— William Lafi Youmans (@wyoumans) February 28, 2015
The United Nations
President Frank Underwood's wife, Claire Underwood, has a long career as a lobbyist and she spent time running her own NGO. However, with her husband as president in Season 3 of House of Cards, she sets her sights on a new target: Becoming the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
It's a very high-profile position. The list of past U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations contains plenty of illustrious names, including Susan Rice, Madeleine Albright, and George H. W. Bush, and it usually denotes a cabinet-level status in government (as it does in the show). To be honest, as The Post's Alyssa Rosenberg puts it, Claire doesn't really seem like a good fit: "It’s a position for which she is entirely unqualified and which seems to have little to do with her periodic interests," Rosenberg writes.
To be fair, a lot of U.S. ambassador positions go to political appointments (Samantha Power, the real-life U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a political appointment, though she certainly has a better resume than Claire Underwood). But Claire's appointment inevitably provokes controversy and she finds her appointment blocked by Congress.
Then, just as it looks like she has lost her shot, her husband appoints her while Congress is in recess. This echoes the August 2005 recess appointment of John Bolton, a controversial choice who had already been blocked by Congress. Bolton stepped down in December 2006 when it became apparent he would not receive Congress' approval.
Like Bolton, Claire Underwood's time as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is brief: She steps down as part of a strange deal made by the U.S. president and Petrov while they are in Jordan Valley.
The real world implications of House of Cards' fictional foreign policy
House of Cards is primarily designed for a United States audience, but sometimes its message can spread overseas. For example, last year The Post's William Wan wrote about how the show had become a major hit in China, where politicians in particular loved catching up with the Underwoods' exploits.
Somewhat disconcertingly, it appeared that some Chinese officials were learning about American politics by watching a fictional show about an immoral murderer. "To truly understand U.S. politics, I would prefer they watch C-SPAN, but that’s probably not realistic,” Michael Auslin, Asia expert at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Post.
Will foreign officials be watching Season 3 looking for tips on American politics? They might be already: Michael Oren, Israel's former ambassador to the United States and a candidate in upcoming elections, has already made his own cringe-inducing parody, featuring his attempt at Frank Underwood's South Carolina drawl.