Tuesday, March 01, 2011

“Theories of International Politics & Zombies”, by Dan Drezner (Princeton)

This is a rather unconventional review for Civilian Reader. I would normally post reviews of politics and international relations books over at The Politics Reader, but because this one was so interesting, accessible and above all fun, I thought I’d cross-post it, on the off-chance that someone who frequents this site would, uh, bite…

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Drezner-TheoriesOfIR&ZombiesThe Best Book ever written about International Politics?

What would happen to international politics if the dead rose from the grave and started to eat the living? Daniel Drezner’s ground-breaking 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 IR theories might be applied to a war with zombies. Exploring the plots of popular zombie films, songs, and books, Drezner 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. [Back Copy]

In August 2009, Professor Drezner, who blogs for Foreign Policy magazine, wrote a short piece about how international relations theories might apply in the wake of a zombie apocalypse. Not only did Drezner do it very well, and in a manner that should make anyone familiar with IR theory chuckle, but it also opened up the possibility that those who automatically shudder at the word ‘theory’ could actually understand and enjoy what Drezner was writing about, and gain an understanding of IR theory in the process. It was the perfect vehicle to bring a greater understanding of the theories that inform international interactions to a wider audience: it was fun, intelligent and quirky, and therefore likely to stick in one’s mind. [As someone who has taught Intro to IR Theory, I can tell you that this is very important.]

So, why zombies? “Despite the zombie renaissance in popular culture, they are still considered disreputable”, and it’s certainly true that no zombie has the appeal of Harry Potter or the Twilight series. “From a public policy perspective, however, zombies merit greater interest than other paranormal phenomenon,” Drezner writes. For, “in contrast to vampires or demons, scientists and doctors acknowledge that some variation of a zombie could exist in our physical world.” Drezner gives a brief overview of how far and wide zombies have found a place in society, how even some institutions have “mock” plans in place for hypothetical zombie apocalypse, and then defines what a zombie is, for the purposes of this book. It’s clear that Drezner’s not the only person with zombies on his mind, and with the current supernatural pop culture zeitgeist, it makes perfect sense to study some shambling-undead hypotheticals.

The literature review will make the reader both raise an eyebrow as well as snigger or laugh outright – Drezner offers examples of zombie studies from across the scholarly spectrum, from biology, zoology, physics (best way to avoid randomness of zombie-shuffle), mathematics, and even computer sciences (online zombies, or “botnets”). A “brief survey of the zombie literature reveals an immediate and daunting problem.” And yet, social scientists have been noticeably negligent in zombie studies (but have often studied UFOs and vampires). This is particularly problematic:

“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.”

Enter Drezner.

In the event of a zombie plague, the existing zombie canon is conspicuously silent on international relations and foreign policy implications, despite it being common sense that such an occurrence would warrant massive governmental intervention. This book is intended to help fill the ‘zombie gap’ in the study and preparation of foreign policy. Dealing with zombies will be very different to dealing with any other potential supernatural or paranormal entity – zombie relations are a more zero-sum endeavour (either we win, or we have our brains eaten). “Zombies crave human flesh, not carrots or sticks”, which makes diplomacy tricky. Not so with vampires and wizards, who can be easily “co-opted into existing power structures” (or high-school cliques), and would possibly be open to various forms of coercion and persuasion practiced by diplomats the world over.

Government responses in general are seriously limited by zombie apocalypses; it’s not just diplomacy that would get thrown out of the window as an option. Nuclear deterrence, a bedrock theory of international relations since the beginning of the Cold War, would also not be applicable during a zombie outbreak: Nuclear deterrence relies on fear of overwhelming, devastating retaliation to prevent or reduce the likelihood of conflict. But zombies don’t know fear... In addition, and here Drezner exhibits superb common sense and appreciation of his chosen adversary:

“If any government was so foolhardy as to launch a first strike, it would create the only thing worse than an army of the living dead: a mutant, radioactive army of the living dead.”

Before delving into specific theories and how they might explain what might happen in the event of a zombie plague, Drezner takes a quick moment to address a couple of key “distractions” that could hinder or complicated this study: specifically, the causal roots of zombie-ism (whether biological, mythical, or some blend of the two; or, perhaps, simply the Evil of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”); and also whether the zombie outbreak is fast- or slow-spreading. After brief explanations of what these variables might mean, he dismisses them as distractions:

“Because either variety of zombie leads to an international relations problem, we can dismiss the causal importance of speed as a determining factor in global policy responses... neither the origins nor the speed of zombies is of much causal significance.”

Drezner then proceeds to address each of the main theories of international relations and politics, and how their tenets would stack up and apply during a zombie outbreak. This is where the book’s overall value is readily apparent – not only does he use zombies as an amusing and interesting case study, but he provides the best summaries of key theories I’ve ever read. If my students had this book to hand, then I wouldn’t have had anywhere near the trouble getting them to understand the simplest IR concepts. It’s really quite superb.

Drezner does take a moment to explain why he discounts two important international relations theories, Marxism and feminism: “To be blunt, this project is explicitly prohuman, whereas Marxists and feminists would likely sympathize more with the zombies.” To Marxists, “the undead symbolize the oppressed proletariat”, and “unless the zombies were all undead white males”, those in the feminist camp “would likely welcome the posthuman smashing of existing patriarchal structures.” (I don’t mind saying that this had me laughing a great deal, much to the confusion of those sitting near me in the cafe at the time...)

Realism favours ‘selfish’ gain over the transient nature of cooperation and alliances, argues that the ‘anarchic’ nature of the international system forces nations (the primary actors in IR) to focus on power maximisation. Drezner’s summary of realism describes a “dystopic and jaundiced” view of the world, which would suggest that realism would be “perfectly comfortable in the zombie universe” – particularly when used to study of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. Ultimately, Drezner argues, realism would argue that international politics would not be noticeably affected, at its core, with the introduction of zombies into the mix, and over the course of the chapter, he breaks it all down, addressing variables and potential events within the framework of realism.

“The failure of humans to cooperate in the presence of reanimated corpses in a common theme that permeates the zombie canon – just as the futility of international cooperation recurs throughout the realist interpretation of history.”

One of Drezner’s more interesting proposals is that the anarchic nature of the international system might, actually, lead to a tacit agreement between zombies and some nations to leave each other in peace. The notion of zombies that can think and strategise is frightening, but as Drezner shows, not absent from the zombie canon (see Land of the Dead).

Liberalism argues that cooperation is possible in an anarchic international system. But, if a zombie’s raison d’ĂȘtre is to eat human brains, surely “Neither cooperation nor coordination is possible with the living dead”? Where liberalism does offer some insight, is into the zombies themselves – who never seem to attack each other. This chapter was not quite as compelling as the Realism chapter, but it offered some interesting considerations to be made (not to mention a tongue-in-cheek section about pro-zombie NGOs that might emerge to stymie international action and cooperation). Ultimately, Drezner concedes that liberalism would predict an “imperfect and vulnerable” paradigm and outcome, and would likely only lead to management and containment policies, rather than rollback.

Neoconservatism, that oh-so controversial school of foreign policy theory, is a melange of liberal and realist themes (pro-democracy, suspicious of international organisations and cooperation, muscular approach to threats, etc.). The neocon tendency to spot threats from miles away (some might say, where they don’t exist), might suggest that neocons would be fore-warned. However, another “concern would be that the initial neoconservative response to a zombie outbreak would be to invade Iraq again out of force of habit.” The zombies, very much like al Qaeda, “hate us for our freedoms”. There is no accommodation or recognition that could – or should – be offered. Instead, an invasion in the very centre of the zombie-affected region would be the best possible approach – fight them there, so we don’t have to fight their spread over here. A war against zombies would offer neocons total justification of their views – it would, after all, be a war against evil itself, thereby adding justification to their Manichaean view of the world, which could very easily be split into the living (good/virtuous) and the undead (bad/evil). A zombie apocalypse would be a win-win for neocons. There is some concern, however, that neoconservatives might conflate the undead with despots, thereby shooting themselves in the foot again.

Social constructivism, the newest of the ‘big’ theories, offers some interesting amusement for this scenario. SC is based on the premise that society is what we make of it, and actors in international relations operate within socially-constructed norms. So, “zombies are what we make of them”. SC also offers some of the only existing IR scholarship on paranormal entities (UFOs). SC is a little ‘wishy-washy’ to some, but Drezner offers some great observations and anecdotes in this chapter. At one point, for example, zombies are put in the same basket as sharks, cannibals, and “very hungry bears” due to their shared interest in the consumption of human flesh. But this is not, according to social constructivists, why zombies are the bigger threat: “Zombies threaten the powerful norm of not devouring each other for sustenance and pleasure – and therefore arouse greater security concerns as a result.” SC does, however, offer some explanation of the likely altruism that would emerge from zombie catastrophe, as borne out by observations of natural disasters, attacks, and so forth.

Zombies “are extremely ecofriendly – they walk everywhere and only eat organic food.”

In his chapters about Domestic Politics and Bureaucratic Politics, Drezner looks below the systemic theories. He suggests the likelihood of “rally round the flag” effect in the wake of a zombie apocalypse, and an enhancement of executive authority to confront this imminent threat. The author also discusses how politicised staffing of institutions (resulting from electoral considerations) could hinder governmental response to zombie crises. “If both domestic political pressures and bureaucratic politics play a role in affecting government policies, their combined effect could be disastrous.”

The psychological impact of zombie outbreaks are covered, also, in a short chapter before the conclusion – that zombies tap into the most powerful negative emotions is unquestioned, and it can have a devastating impact on human behaviour:

“Zombies are often assumed to lack intelligence, but it should be noted that humans frequently respond to new undead situations with confusion and ignorance... There is no shortage of stupid or self-defeating behaviour in zombie films.”

Drezner’s conclusions are brought together in a very concise final chapter that ably demonstrates the similarities, strengths and weaknesses of the theories he’s discussed. He has hoped to show that when zombies walk the earth, it is not the end of humanity, and that international theory can offer a handle with which to approach this shambling threat.

Some of the jokes and references in this book might go a bit over some readers’ heads, or may pass completely unnoticed, but only because the reader may not get the significance of some apparently-mundane phrases that are actually paraphrased ‘jargon’ of the various theories. Despite this, however, there is no doubt that Drezner has written a book that is both fun and also academically sound. I am certain that the world can now breathe easy knowing that global governments might be just that little bit more prepared to deal with any future zombie apocalypse. This slim volume is very well-structured and written, and offers a superb introduction to not only zombie apocalypses, but also international relations theory.

I’ve been a fan of Drezner’s writing ever since he started his blog on Foreign Policy. Reading Theories of International Politics and Zombies has only reinforced my respect for him and his work – he offers light humour to supplement his expert summaries and analysis. This review has only touched on a small fraction of how much the author has managed to cram into such a slim volume.

If you buy only one book about international relations (or zombies), make it this one. Very highly recommended, this is already one of my favourite books. It will change the way you watch zombie movies, and read zombie novels.

Also try: Max Brooks, World War Z (2007) & The Zombie Survival Guide (2004); Mira Grant, Feed (2010) & Deadline (2011); John C. Hulsman & A. Wess Mitchell, The Godfather Doctrine (2009); George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Day of the Dead; The Walking Dead (TV & graphic novel); And any other zombie movie/novel you care to think of...

Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His books include All Politics Is Global (Princeton). He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Zombie Research Society.

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