Theories of International Politics and Zombies

Could political theories be applied to an invasion of flesh-eaters? Stephanie Lawson finds out

April 7, 2011

If the dynamics of international politics have conventionally been understood in terms of the quick and the dead, Daniel Drezner invites us to consider another way of being - undead, or "differently animated". This ontological category emerges from the world of popular culture in which the "zombie canon" has a distinctive place. In drawing together the interpretation of popular culture and international politics, Drezner provides much food for thought - the food in this case being human flesh, of which zombies are notoriously fond.

Drezner cleverly deploys the zombie metaphor to illustrate how different theories would deal with a situation in which ravenous zombies roamed the Earth. The "realpolitik of the living dead", not surprisingly, scarcely departs from established wisdom. A zombie plague is simply a variation on the theme of the pestilences that humans have confronted from time immemorial, rather than a new existential threat. But the dynamics of power politics in an anarchic world with zombies thrown into the mix would add a whole new dimension to the security dilemma. Certainly the mind boggles at the prospect of being trapped in an iron cage competing for survival with ghouls interested only in one's nutritional value.

Liberal approaches would invariably focus on regulation of the undead. One possibility would be to draw zombies into a regime in which incentives for cooperation replace zero-sum strategies. Less sanguine liberals would treat a zombie outbreak as a deadly pandemic and establish a robust biosecurity regime. Its success, however, could well be undermined by authoritarian regimes prone to denial about internal zombie problems while poor countries lack the capacity to respond adequately.

The emergence of pro-zombie non-governmental organisations could also raise the transaction costs for global governance institutions in dealing with the pandemic.

Neoconservative responses would proclaim the Axis of Evil Dead as a precursor to invading some troublesome country - probably Iraq again. One of the things that neocons know that they know is that zombies "hate us for our freedoms" and are completely incorrigible. But the neocon preference for military tactics of shock and awe delivered from the stratosphere followed up by a light-touch campaign on the ground - and a poorly coordinated one at that - could well see the proliferation of zombie cells that subsequent surge tactics cannot eradicate.

Constructivist theory tells us a lot about zombie identity that would help us understand their preferences and intentions. But Drezner also outlines a number of interesting policy options that would, frankly, be much easier: destroy copies of all zombie movies and therefore the very basis for the social construction of the narratives that animated the undead in the first place. After all, if zombies are what we make them, then we can surely unmake them.

Three further chapters speculate on how domestic politics, bureaucratic responses and psychological factors might bear on a zombie threat, providing valuable insights into what can go wrong when public opinion gets out of control, bureaucratic dysfunction sets in and irrationality trumps smart politics and anti-zombie tactics. Disappointingly, there is nothing on feminist/gender theories. These would surely show how a particular masculinist paradigm renders both females and alternative masculinities invisible in the world of high zombie politics. Nor are critical theory, postmodern/poststructural, postcolonial or green theory considered. Some of these would surely provide thinking space for zombie-centred analysis - a much-needed antidote to Eurocentrism and indeed anthropocentrism in conventional approaches.

These omissions aside, Drezner elucidates the often-arcane world of international theory in an interesting and highly amusing way. He also shows how close the relationship between politics and popular culture is, how the latter can convey social and political critique in the most unlikely ways, and why satire remains such an important form of that critique.

Theories of International Politics and Zombies

By Daniel W. Drezner

Princeton University Press

136pp, £10.95

ISBN 9780691147833

Published 9 February 2011

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