Avatar was one of the defining fandoms of my childhood. The first series aired on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008, with a second series, The Legend Of Kora airing from 2012 to 2014. In its time the franchise has spawned numerous comic books, a terrible live-action movie, and an upcoming Netflix adaptation.
The world of Avatar shown to us is heavily inspired by Asian culture and religion, and divided between four “nations.” Each nation corresponds to one of the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water). Some citizens of these nations can control their nation’s element granting them higher standing in their communities than others.
Only one person has power over all four elements; the avatar. A human being whose purpose is to maintain balance in the world and act as an intermediary between humans and the spirit world. At their peak, an individual avatar has the knowledge of thousands of past lives to draw on and a near god-like ability to shape the world.
The existence of the avatar puts a serious limitation on what the governments of this world are able to do. It is assumed, but not always true, that nation in which that generation’s avatar is born will have a great advantage on the world stage. Some avatars pay little attention to their duties, others step in when needed, and some take it upon themselves to reorder the world as they see fit.
Avatar has been lauded for its focus on complex stories and themes and for its amazing worldbuilding. Even in 2022, there is no shortage of video essays and web pages dedicated to discussing the franchise in depth.
In this article, I will be talking about the geopolitics of the Avatar World and how the existence of the avatar is likely to influence the decision-making of government leaders.
The Four Nations Living In Harmony (Sometimes)
The first series takes place at the end of the 100 years war in which the fire nation attempted to conquer the rest of the world. The end of the war saw the creation of a fifth nation from the colonies established by the fire nation during its war. I am choosing to only focus on the original four for the time being.
The first thing that needs to be clear is that none of the nations depicted in the franchise are in any way democratic.
The Air Nomads – probably the least authoritarian regime. The air nomads lived in four temples across the world. Their temples seem to be run by elder monks but the society seems rather egalitarian overall.
The Earth Kingdom -a conglomerate of smaller polities centered around the Earth King in Ba Sing Sei. Bending seems to be rather here. Areas of settlements are divided by mountains and deserts.
The Northern and Southern Water Tribes – two distantly related groups, each with their own chieftain. The Southern Tribe seems to be weaker than the Northern Tribe.
The Fire Nation – an archipelago controlled by a ruling family of fire benders. Control over fire granted its people skill in metallurgy and other heavy industries.
Creating A False Balance
The purpose of the avatar is somewhat nebulous. Ostensibly the avatar exists to maintain the balance between humans and spirits, which includes maintaining internal balance among both.
Of course, the avatar is unlikely to completely understand what balance is. Each avatar’s experiences and assumptions about what the default state of the world should be are different. An avatar’s powers are only unlocked with training, therefore they are unlikely to learn to speak with their past selves until their teenage years at the earliest. Plenty of time for them to establish their own personalities.
An avatar been born in the Fire Nation and raised as a loyal citizen would likely come to agree that the Fire Nation should spread their rule and “prosperity” to the entire world. An avatar born into a noble house in the Earth Kingdom might push back against the idea that the common people deserve a say in their government.
Our childhoods influence what we view as normal. Education and exposure to other ways of living may change how we view the world over time but it can be hard to shake off those early biases and assumptions. The avatar has an advantage here because they have countless past versions of themselves to consult when they find themselves confronted with a moral dilemma. However, these past selves would likewise have been influenced by their own biases and an indecisive avatar might just find themselves presented with dozens of conflicting solutions.
We know of two avatars who acted in an instinctual defense of the status quo. Avatar Kora is one. Initially, she balked at the idea that non-benders are treated as second-class citizens. Eventually, she began to sympathize with non-benders as she was made to confront her privilege. The other is Avatar Kyoshi. In response to a peasant rebellion in the Earth Kingdom, she created the Dai Li to preserve the Earth Kingdom’s heritage. Over time the Dai Li grew into a secret police force that ruled the Earth Kingdom from the shadows.
Aspiring to balance is one thing. Actually achieving it is another.
Geopolitical Cycles Revolving Around The Avatar
Each avatar is reincarnated in a cycle so that each nation has a turn to produce its own avatar. This cycle is always the same, which allows the inhabitants of the avatar world to predict where the next avatar will be born. Because this cycle is so predictable, it’s sensible to expect governments to make decisions based on it. Successfully taking advantage of the cycle would require making plans on a generational scale. With multiple characters living to be well over 100, this is entirely possible.
What this cycle would look like is 50-80 years of the status quo propped up by the current avatar. Their nation of origin would likely influence who they sided with, but rulers could work around even true neutral avatars.
Once born, an avatar is not immediately effective. First, they must be discovered, then they must be trained. As I already mentioned, this period of education provides a chance for those close to the avatar to influence their priorities. More importantly, It provides a time span of 10-20 years during which the avatar’s ability to influence events is relatively limited.
It is this time span that governments would likely take advantage of. In fact, the Fire Nation did, following the death of Avatar Roku, Fire Lord Sozin took advantage of the situation to invade his nation’s neighbors. He then staged an attack on all of the Air Nomad temples and wiped them out in an attempt to kill the next avatar before they could become a threat.
This gap between avatars, which was extended to a century due to Avatar Aang becoming frozen in an iceberg, gave the Fire Nation so much breathing room that they came close to conquering the world. If they had succeeded it might not have mattered where the next avatar was born so long as the Fire Nation could find each avatar and raise them themselves. They might even choose to marry the avatar to Fire Nation royalty. Of course, the Fire Nation failed in the end, but they probably would have been far better off if Sozin had chosen to pursue a more modest agenda.
Winning Over The Avatar: What Sozin Should Have Done
Following the death of Avatar Roku, Sozin had a chance to pursue an expansionist policy abroad. However, instead of waging a war for global domination, he should have adopted a much slower and more modest approach that takes advantage of two facts known to Sozin.
- The Fire Nation has 10-20 years to realistically pursue its goals.
- The next avatar will be born to the Air Nomads who are known for their pacifist ways.
These ten years are enough to begin to lay claim to various islands and territories on the periphery of the Earth Kingdom. Ancient documents could be forged and true histories distorted to imply that the islands may rightfully belong to the Fire Nation. This would give Sozin a chance to make offers of a diplomatic solution before resorting to the use of military force.
These actions create an image for Sozin as a reluctant conquered who merely cares about his people. If these attempts at seizing islands are successful, the Fire Nation gains a handful of commercially important trading posts and forward operating bases.
At this point, the best thing for Sozin is to establish some kind of peace or cease-fire on the assumption that a pacifist avatar would prefer to see a negotiated peace rather than get involved in a protracted war. Balance, in other words.
Once this happens Sozin would need to do two things.
- Establish himself as a kind and generous ruler for whom violence is a last resort. This may include humanitarian aid both at home and abroad, and growing trade relationships with the western edge of the Earth Kingdom.
- Foment unrest inside the Earth Kingdom.
The key objectives of point one are for Sozin to establish himself as a ruler who wants peace and to build closer links with the western edge of the Earth Kingdom. In an ideal situation, some regions might even become economically dependent on Fire Nation trade and technology.
The second point takes advantage of the inherent weakness of the central government in Ba Sing Sei. The sheer size of the Earth Kingdom and the lack of a single national identity means that the Earth King/Queen’s control is tenuous. Rebel groups can be funded and propaganda spread. Without a clear and obvious enemy, the Earth Kingdom is likely to fall to into a period of instability if Kyoshi’s experiences with peasant revolts and warlords is anything to go by.
These conflicts in the Earth Kingdom should be made to erupt as the avatar comes of age so that these riots and rebellions occupy the bulk of their time. At this point there should be many factions in the Earth Kingdom that depend on the Fire Nation, are sympathetic to it, or are indifferent. With unrest in the Earth Kingdom the avatar’s main focus, Sozin could then deploy his armies and resources to help put an end to the fighting, while putting friendly governments and favorable treaties in place at the same time.
Once this is done, the main goal for the Fire Nation should be to maintain a favorable image in rebuilding the regions in which it intervened. These regions should become defacto client states of the Fire Nation so long as the avatar’s aversion to violence is accommodated.
Once that pacifist avatar dies, much of the world will then be used to this status quo, the Fire Nation will have another decade or two to cement its control. By the time the next avatar comes of age, the world will have found a new status quo and thus a new idea of what “balance” is.
The approach I outlined here is not without faults. There is no guarantee the avatar will remain sympathetic to the Fire Nation and once an army is unleashed it can be hard to keep the violence in check. A slow, simmering conflict like that between North and South Korea is a lot easier to accept than a quest for world conquest. As long as the Fire Nation can temper its expansionist impulses and keep the avatar’s focus on unrest within the Earth Kingdom I see no reason why the Fire Nation would not be able to establish a completely new world order in just a couple of generations.
Of course, all of this requires extreme long-term thinking, which I think is perfectly feasible in the world of Avatar where individuals regularly live for over 100 years and the nations have shown themselves in the 100 years war to be able to pursue consistent policies for extended periods.
But all of this is just what I think. How would you have conquered the world if you were Sozin? Leave a comment below or tag me on Twitter.