Theories of International Politics and Zombies

Theories of International Politics and Zombies

by Daniel W. Drezner

ISBN: 9780691147833

Publisher Princeton University Press

Published in Arts & Photography/Performing Arts, Reference

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Book Description

What would happen to international politics if the dead rose from the grave and started to eat the living? Daniel Drezner's groundbreaking book answers the question that other international relations scholars have been too scared to ask. Addressing timely issues with analytical bite, Drezner looks at how well-known theories from international relations might be applied to a war with zombies. Exploring the plots of popular zombie films, songs, and books, Theories of International Politics and Zombies predicts realistic scenarios for the political stage in the face of a zombie threat and considers how valid - or how rotten - such scenarios might be.

Drezner boldly lurches into the breach and "stress tests" the ways that different approaches to world politics would explain policy responses to the living dead. He examines the most prominent international relations theories - including realism, liberalism, constructivism, neoconservatism, and bureaucratic politics - and decomposes their predictions. He digs into prominent zombie films and novels, such as Night of the Living Dead and World War Z, to see where essential theories hold up and where they would stumble and fall. Drezner argues that by thinking about outside-of-the-box threats we get a cognitive grip on what former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously referred to as the "unknown unknowns" in international security. Correcting the zombie gap in international relations thinking and addressing the genuine but publicly unacknowledged fear of the dead rising from the grave, Theories of International Politics and Zombies presents political tactics and strategies accessible enough for any zombie to digest.


Sample Chapter


It would be reckless to proceed with any discussion of the zombie problem without first reviewing the literature on the subject. Thankfully, the living dead are now the focus of rigorous scholarship, as figure 1 demonstrates. The humanities are replete with cultural decompositions of flesh-eating ghouls. Philosophers have chewed over the conceivability and metaphysical possibility of zombies at some length.

The natural sciences have started attacking the zombie question. Zoologists have looked at the presence of zombielike creatures elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Biologists have researched the disease-transmission properties of humans biting humans. Forensic anthropologists have considered how long zombies can persist while their body decomposes. Physicists have explored the best place to hide from the "random walk" pattern of zombielike bodies. Computer scientists are working frantically to ward off online zombies, or botnets. Mathematicians recently modeled the theoretical spread of zombies, and offered some sobering conclusions: "An outbreak of zombies infecting humans is likely to be disastrous, unless extremely aggressive tactics are employed against the undead.... A zombie outbreak is likely to lead to the collapse of civilization, unless it is dealt with quickly." This study has provoked some critical feedback, however.

This brief survey of the zombie literature reveals an immediate and daunting problem. The humanities and the hard sciences have devoted attention to the problem posed by reanimated corpses feasting upon human flesh. The social sciences, however, are curiously absent from this line of inquiry. As of July 2010, the advisory board for the Zombie Research Society does not contain a single social scientist. When social scientists mention zombies, they do so only for metaphorical reasons. While economists have rigorously modeled the optimal macroeconomic policies for a world of vampires, they have yet to flesh out a zombie consumption function. Despite their mob tendencies, sociologists have not analyzed the asocial sociability of zombies. Political science has abjectly failed to address the policy responses and governance issues associated with the living dead. When compared to work in cognate disciplines, the social sciences in general—and international relations in particular—suffer from a zombie gap.

This dearth of scholarly inquiry should gnaw at international relations scholars and policymakers alike. Classical authors were clearly aware of threats posed by the living dead, as the opening passage from Ezekiel suggests. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu stressed the importance of fighting when on "death ground," clearly anticipating the imminent threat posed by the undead. In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides recounted how a "plague that showed itself to be something quite different from ordinary diseases" would lead to general lawlessness and chaos. When Thomas Hobbes described the state of nature as one of "continuall feare, and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short," zombies were either on his mind or outside his door.

In contrast, recent scholarship has been either inarticulate or brain-dead on the subject. Modern international relations theorists have eagerly delved into other paranormal phenomena—including UFOs, wizards, hobbits, and vampires—but not zombies. It is genuinely surprising that more scholarship in world politics has not been devoted to the living dead.

From a policymaking perspective, further research into flesh-devouring ghouls is also warranted. As powerful decision makers have demonstrated in recent years, low-probability events can elicit hyperbolic policy responses if the predicted effects are severe. Former vice president Richard Cheney believed that extreme measures were warranted if there was even a 1 percent chance of a severe terrorist attack. If a policy analyst applies this logic to the undead, then preventive measures are clearly necessary. Even if the probability of a zombie uprising is much smaller, the dead rising from the grave and feasting on the living represent a greater existential threat to humanity than nuclear terrorism. Indeed, the living dead literally embody what Jessica Stern calls a "dreaded risk."

Because the postulated effects of zombies appear to be so dire in film and fiction, more strategic planning should be devoted to this scenario. It is certainly possible that any counter-zombie contingency plans will disintegrate at first contact with the undead enemy. Nevertheless, the planning process itself can improve future policy responses. If the past decade of military incursions teaches us anything, it is the dangers of conducting foreign policy with only a facile or superficial knowledge about possible enemies. Traditional tools of statecraft like nuclear deterrence, economic sanctions, or diplomatic démarches would be of little use against the living dead. Zombies crave human flesh, not carrots or sticks. A deep knowledge of zombies—and the possible policy response to zombies—is required in order to avoid both overreactions and underreactions.

The rising popularity of zombies is in and of itself another reason for further investigation. Research suggests that exposure to paranormal narratives increases the likelihood of individuals to believe in their existence. Such beliefs have a viral quality—that is, exposure to other people's beliefs will increase the likelihood of accepting that same belief, regardless of its logical plausibility. As zombies bleed into popular culture, more people will come to believe, fear, and dread their existence. Fear is a powerful emotion that can profoundly affect policymaking across several dimensions. A phobia of the living dead could lead to self-defeating policy responses in the same way that the fears of terrorist attacks led the post-9/11 U.S. military to torture prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Clearly, public fears of being devoured by flesh-eating ghouls can only be allayed by rigorous scholarship.

In many ways, international relations is the missing link in most discussions of how to cope with a zombie uprising. The undead menace usually goes global in the zombie canon. These stories lack a basic grounding in world politics, however. Narratives about the living dead use small communities or families as their unit of social analysis. The effect of national governments or international relations is barely discussed—even though logic suggests that the living dead would provoke some kind of policy response. As Jonathan Maberry observes, "most of the major entries in the genre have military, police, or civilian defense as part of the backstory." The problem is that these responses are either dismissed or glossed over quickly to get to the apocalyptic portion of the story. Even if official policy responses are suboptimal, they should be factored into our expectations about how the world would respond when the dead walk the earth—and how international relations would look afterward.

What follows is an attempt to satiate the ever-growing hunger for knowledge about the interaction of zombies and world politics. Alas, some lines of academic inquiry are simply not feasible. Human subjects committees would impose a formidable barrier to experimental methods. The rare nature of zombie outbreaks make statistical approaches unsuitable. Nevertheless, there are many possible ways to proceed—develop a new theoretical model, interview experienced policymakers about their experiences with zombielike scenarios, create powerful computer simulations, or search for other modalities.

Looking at the state of international relations theory, however, one quickly realizes the absence of consensus about the best way to model world politics. There are multiple existing paradigms that attempt to explain international relations. Each of them has a different take on how zombies affect world politics and how political actors would respond to the living dead. I have therefore decided to flesh out how existing international relations theories would predict what would happen in response to an outbreak of zombies. What would these theories predict would happen? What policy recommendations follow from these theories? When will hiding and hoarding be the right idea?

This analysis is useful not merely because of a possible zombie threat but as a way to stress test our existing theories of international politics. Scholars, commentators, and policy analysts rely on deductive theories as a cognitive guide in a complex world. The more observational implications that flow from these theories, the greater their explanatory leverage over known unknowns and unknown unknowns. One measure of their explanatory leverage is their ability to offer useful and counterintuitive predictions in the wake of exogenous shocks to the system. Surely an army of the ravenous living dead would qualify as such a shock.

Zombie denialists might argue that since there is minimal chance of the dead rising from the grave and feasting upon the living this exercise will yield little in the way of enlightenment. This ignores the ways in which world politics is changing, and the need for international relations scholarship to change with it. Traditionally, international relations has been concerned with the interactions among nation-states. Many current security concerns, however, center on nontraditional threats. A growing concern in world politics is the draining of power from purposive actors to the forces of entropy. In the most important ways, flesh-eating ghouls are an exemplar for salient concerns about the global body politic. Zombies are the perfect twenty-first-century threat: they are not well understood by serious analysts, they possess protean capabilities, and the challenge they pose to states is very, very grave.

I will rely on two sources of evidence to buttress the theoretical paradigms. The first data source is the social science literature on events akin to an attack of the undead: pandemics, disasters, bioterrorism, and so forth. Past responses to calamitous events can inform our expectations of how states and nonstate actors would respond to the presence of reanimated and ravenous corpses.

The second data source is the fictional narratives about zombies that exist in popular culture. In recent years, policymakers have relied on the creators of fictional narratives for insights into "out of the box" threat scenarios and outcomes. Similarly, international relations scholars have branched out beyond standard statistical analyses and comparative case studies for their empirical analysis. These scholars have used simulations and agent-based modeling to test their theories. The use of fictional narratives as a data source for theory building—particularly horror and science fiction—has become more common in recent years.

To be sure, there are some dangers with this approach that should be acknowledged at the outset. First, the narratives of film and fiction might be skewed in ways that could bias our analysis. Perhaps people would respond to a real night of the living dead in a different manner than George Romero or Max Brooks posit. This possibility will be considered—but as we shall see, there is a hidden heterogeneity to the zombie canon. There are a sufficient number of variations to the traditional ghoul narrative to illuminate each of the major international relations paradigms.

Second, pursuing a paradigmatic approach to explain the field of international relations has some drawbacks. Some might argue that paradigmatic debates have yielded much more heat than light. The predictive power of these approaches has been underwhelming. Other scholars posit that calling these different theoretical approaches "paradigms" gives them a coherence and completeness that they lack. As will be seen, some of the concepts in one paradigm bleed over into others, as they rely on similar actors and processes.

Nevertheless, these paradigms do help to clarify what different international relations theorists believe is important in world politics. Whether researchers admit it or not, all coherent international relations work proceeds from some paradigmatic assumptions. A theoretical attack of the undead can further reveal how these different approaches diverge in their predictions. In eliding some internal theoretical disputes, however, I fully acknowledge that I am committing some conceptual violence to these paradigms. In fairness, however, the undead would likely do far worse.

Before proceeding with the variegated predictions of different international relations theories, a few definitions and distractions must be addressed.


Definitions of zombies range from the philosophical one of a human being without consciousness to the anthropological one of a person buried and then resurrected by a conjurer. Consistent with the Zombie Research Society, I choose to treat the zombie as a biologically definable,animated being occupying a human host, with a desire to eat human flesh. This definition is at variance with the etymology of the word zombie in West African and Haitian voodoo rituals. Those reanimated corpses, however, do not represent a transnational security threat—indeed, these "traditional" zombies are usually described as the most obedient of laborers. All modern works in the zombie canon are rooted in the kind of ghoul that first appeared in George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968). Because they can spread across borders and threaten states and civilizations, it is flesh-eating ghouls that should animate the concern of international politics scholars and policymakers.

From a national security perspective, the three relevant assumptions about zombie behavior are as follows:

1. Zombies desire human flesh; they will not eat other zombies.

2. Zombies cannot be killed unless their brain is destroyed.

3. Any human being bitten by a zombie will inevitably become a zombie.

Every modern zombie narrative adheres to these rules. These criteria do eliminate some of the urnarratives that laid the foundation for the zombie canon, such as Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend or Don Siegel's 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Nevertheless, any zombies that satisfy these rules would have a pronounced impact upon international relations. In turn, however, the nature of international relations would affect the global response to an attack of flesh-eating ghouls.


There is significant variation in zombie capabilities across the canon—and vigorous debate within the zombie studies community over these differences. In most of the literature, zombies cannot talk, and do not retain any attributes of their human identities. There are distinguished exceptions, however, in both film (Dan O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead, 1985; Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror, 2007) and fiction. 2 In most of the narratives, only humans can turn into zombies; in the Resident Evil franchise, however, dogs and birds are affected as well. It is usually assumed that there are no gender differences among the walking undead, but recent films provide some unusual exceptions.* Whether zombies have desires beyond the consumption of human flesh is unclear. Most narratives do not discuss this question, but the Italian zombie films of the 1980s, as well as Peter Jackson's Dead Alive (1992), suggest that ghouls lust after other ghouls. There is no consensus about how long a zombie can exist before decomposing. Obviously, most works assume that a human being needs to die before becoming a zombie—but most scholarship also counts Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002) and Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's 28 Weeks Later (2007) to be part of the canon. In those films, the "rage virus" does not exactly kill the infected; they merely transform into bloodshot, bloodthirsty maniacs in less than thirty seconds.


Excerpted from "Theories of International Politics and Zombies" by Daniel W. Drezner. Copyright © 0 by Daniel W. Drezner. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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