Night of the Living Wonks

Toward an international relations theory of zombies.

KAKO 2010, Levy Creative Management, NYC
KAKO 2010, Levy Creative Management, NYC

There are many sources of fear in world politics — terrorist attacks, natural disasters, climate change, financial panic, nuclear proliferation, ethnic conflict, and so forth. Surveying the cultural zeitgeist, however, it is striking how an unnatural problem has become one of the fastest-growing concerns in international relations. I speak, of course, of zombies.

For our purposes, a zombie is defined as a reanimated being occupying a human corpse, with a strong desire to eat human flesh — the kind of ghoul that first appeared in George Romero’s 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead, and which has been rapidly proliferating in popular culture in recent years (far upstaging its more passive cousins, the reanimated corpses of traditional West African and Haitian voodoo rituals). Because they can spread across borders and threaten states and civilizations, these zombies should command the attention of scholars and policymakers.

The specter of an uprising of reanimated corpses also poses a significant challenge to interpreters of international relations and the theories they use to understand the world. If the dead begin to rise from the grave and attack the living, what thinking would — or should — guide the human response? How would all those theories hold up under the pressure of a zombie assault? When should humans decide that hiding and hoarding is the right idea?

Serious readers might dismiss these questions as fanciful, but concern about flesh-eating ghouls is manifestly evident in today’s popular culture. Whether one looks at films, video games, or books, the genre is clearly on the rise. According to conservative estimates, more than a third of all zombie films ever made were released in the past decade. Zombies are clearly a global phenomenon: Beyond the United States, there have been Australian, British, Chinese, Czech, German, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mexican, and Norwegian zombie flicks.

Zombie video games, including the Resident Evil and Left 4 Dead franchises, have also proliferated, attracting huge followings globally. And zombies have clawed their way to the top of book best-seller lists in the last decade with literature ranging from how-to survival manuals to reinterpretations of early Victorian fiction. “In the world of traditional horror, nothing is more popular right now than zombies,” one book editor gleefully told USA Today last year. “The living dead are here to stay.”

This zombie boom is — and should be — taken seriously. For some international relations thinkers, the interest in all things ghoulish might represent an indirect attempt to get a cognitive grip on what former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once referred to as the “unknown unknowns” in international security. Or perhaps there exists a genuine if publicly unacknowledged fear of the dead rising from their graves and feasting upon our entrails. Major universities have developed mock contingency plans for a zombie outbreak, and an increasing number of college students have been found to be playing “Humans vs. Zombies” on their campuses, whether to relieve stress or prepare for the invasion of the undead. The Haitian government takes the threat seriously enough to have a law on the books to prevent outbreaks of zombiism. No great power has done the same publicly, but one can only speculate on what plans are being hatched behind closed doors.

From a public-policy perspective, zombies surely merit greater interest than other paranormal phenomena such as aliens, vampires, wizards, hobbits, mummies, werewolves, and superheroes. Zombie stories end in one of two ways — the elimination/subjugation of all zombies, or the eradication of humanity from the face of the Earth. If popular culture is to be believed, the peaceful coexistence of ghouls and humans is but a remote possibility — outside of Shaun of the Dead, at least. Such extreme all-or-nothing outcomes are far less common in the vampire and wizard canons. Indeed, recent literary tropes suggest that vampires can peacefully coexist with ordinary teens in many of the world’s high schools, provided they are sufficiently hunky. Zombies, not so much. If it is true that “popular culture makes world politics what it currently is,” as a recent article in Politics argued, then the international relations community needs to think about armies of the undead in a more urgent manner.

What follows is an attempt to satiate the ever-growing hunger for knowledge about how zombies will influence the future shape of the world. But this is a difficult exercise: Looking at the state of international relations theory, one quickly realizes the absence of consensus about the best way to think about global politics. There are multiple paradigms that attempt to explain international relations, and each has a different take on how political actors can be expected to respond to the living dead.

I. The No-Drama School of Zombie Realpolitik

There are many varieties of realism, but all realists start with a common assumption: that anarchy is the overarching constraint of world politics. Anarchy does not necessarily mean chaos or disorder, but rather the absence of a centralized, legitimate authority.

No matter what ardent cosmopolitans or crazed conspiracy theorists believe, there is no world government. With no monopoly on the use of force in world politics, actors must take their own “self-help” measures to ensure their continued existence.

In a world of anarchy, the only currency that matters is power — the material capability to ward off pressure or coercion, while being able to influence others. The anarchic global structure also makes it impossible for governments to fully trust each other, forcing states to be guided solely by their own national interests.

As this summary might suggest, realism has a rather dystopian and jaundiced view of the world. In other words, it is perfectly comfortable in the zombie universe — particularly the world of George Romero’s films.

How would the introduction of flesh-eating ghouls affect world politics? The realist answer is simple if surprising: International relations would be largely unaffected. Although some would see in a zombie invasion a new existential threat to the human condition, realists would be unimpressed by the claim that the zombies’ arrival would lead to any radical change in human behavior. To them, a plague of the undead would merely echo older plagues, from the Black Death of the 14th century to the 1918 influenza pandemic. To paraphrase Thucydides, the realpolitik of zombies is that the strong will do what they can and the weak must suffer devouring by reanimated, ravenous corpses.

Realists also predict balance-of-power politics, so wouldn’t the specter of the undead create a balancing coalition of humans against ghouls? This possibility cannot be ruled out. If zombies emerged from central Eurasia, for example, their capacity to spread quickly could trigger an alliance designed to prevent zombie hordes from taking over the continent. However, buck-passing would be an equally likely outcome. In a buck-passing situation, states would refrain from taking an active stance against the zombies in the hopes that other countries would do the dirty work of uniting to slay the demon hordes.

States could also exploit the threat from the living dead to acquire new territory, squelch irredentist movements, settle old scores, or subdue enduring rivals. The People’s Republic of China could use the zombie threat to justify an occupation of Taiwan. Russia could use the same excuse to justify intervention in its near abroad. The United States would not be immune from the temptation to exploit the zombie threat as a strategic opportunity. How large would the army of the Cuban undead need to be to justify the deployment of the 82nd Airborne?

But in the end, realists, particularly American realists, would no doubt evoke the cautionary words of U.S. President John Quincy Adams and warn against going abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.”

II. Unite-to-Fight-Zombie Liberals

Like realism, there are many varieties of liberalism. All liberals nevertheless share a belief that cooperation is still possible in a world of anarchy. Liberals look at world politics as a non-zero-sum game. Working together, whether on international trade, nuclear nonproliferation, or disease prevention, can yield global public goods on a massive scale. Major actors in world politics have an incentive to realize the gains that come from long-term mutual cooperation and avoid the costs that come with mutual defection.

At first glance, the liberal paradigm appears to be pretty incompatible with a zombie canon that tends more to undead apocalypses. Indeed, the tragedy of liberalism in a universe with zombies is that some of its central tenets would likely accelerate the rise of zombiism. Open borders, for instance, would surely facilitate the cross-border spread of both the undead and infected human carriers.

A second glance reveals that the liberal paradigm offers some significant analytical bite. Romantic zombie comedies — rom-zom-coms for short — contain both implicit and explicit elements of liberalism. The 2009 film Zombieland is about the articulation of and adherence to well-defined rules for surviving in a zombie-infested landscape. Its central message — beyond the need for cardio workouts — is the need for disparate individuals to credibly commit to each other.

At the climax of Shaun of the Dead, Shaun rallies his friends and relations with a stirring paean to liberalism: “As Bertrand Russell once said, ‘The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.’ I think we can all appreciate the relevance of that now.”

And what would liberals do after a ghoul invasion? Provided that the initial spread of zombies did not completely wipe out governments, the liberal expectation would be that an international counterzombie regime could make significant inroads into the problem. Given the considerable public-good benefits of wiping the undead from the face of the Earth, significant policy coordination seems a likely response.

The liberal paradigm would predict an outcome that would not be perfect and would be quite vulnerable to political criticism over time — much like the European Union. That said, the system would also be expected to function well enough to ward off a total zombie apocalypse. Zombie flare-ups would no doubt take place. Quasi-permanent humanitarian counterzombie missions, perhaps under United Nations auspices, would likely be necessary in failed states. Liberals would acknowledge that the permanent eradication of flesh-eating ghouls is unlikely. The reduction of the zombie problem to one of many manageable threats, however, is quite likely. Most countries would kill most zombies most of the time.

III. Neoconservatism and the Axis of Evil Dead

The neoconservative policy response to an undead uprising would be simple and direct. To paraphrase Robert Kagan, humans are from Earth, and zombies are from hell. Neither accommodation nor recognition would be sustainable options in the face of the zombie threat. Instead, neocons would recommend an aggressive and militarized response to ensure human hegemony. Rather than wait for the ghouls to come to them, they would pursue offensive policy options that take the fight to the undead. A pre-emptive strike against zombies would, surely, be a war against evil itself.

It is to neoconservatism’s credit that this doctrine is consistent with extant work on how best to respond to the zombie menace. Indeed, one recent simulation by researchers at Canada’s Carleton University and the University of Ottawa offered just such a finding: “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.”

However, other elements of neoconservatism might undercut the long-term viability of proponents’ initial policy pronouncements. For example, neoconservatives frequently assume that all adversaries are part of a single axis or alliance of evil enemies. To be sure, that assumption works when confined to zombies, but it is unlikely that neoconservatives would stop there. They would inevitably lump reanimated corpses with other human threats as part of a bigger World War III against authoritarian despots and zombies — an “Axis of Evil Dead.” This would sabotage any attempt at broad-based coalition warfare, hindering military effectiveness in a Global War on Zombies (GWOZ).

IV. On Managing the Zombie Threat

This quick review of the theoretical paradigms reveals some interesting findings about the world in the age of zombies. There is some continuity across the different theories.

For example, most approaches predict that the living dead would have an unequal effect on different governments. Powerful states would be more likely to withstand an army of flesh-eating ghouls. The plague of the undead would join the roster of threats that disproportionately affect the poorest and weakest countries.

The different international relations theories also provide a much greater variety of possible outcomes than the Hollywood zombie canon. Traditional zombie narratives in film and fiction are quick to get to the apocalypse. The theoretical approaches presented here, however, suggest that in the real world there would be a vigorous policy response to the menace of the living dead. Realism predicts an eventual live-and-let-live arrangement between the undead and everyone else. Liberals predict an imperfect but nevertheless useful counterzombie regime. Neoconservatives see the defeat of the zombie threat after a long, existential struggle. These scenarios suggest that maybe, just maybe, the zombie canon’s dominant narrative of human extinction is overstated.

To be sure, disastrous outcomes are still possible. Bureaucratic dysfunction could trigger a total collapse in state authority. Public opinion and interest-group pressure could make multilateral cooperation more difficult. A societal breakdown could also trigger a world in which the biological distinctions between humans and zombies would be immaterial — they would both act like traditional zombies. Still, these are possible outcomes; whether they are the likely outcomes is another question altogether.

In the end, what I am suggesting is that with careful planning and a consistent approach, the zombie threat can be managed. The purpose of this essay is not to make a policy recommendation or suggest that one approach is superior to another. It is up to the reader to exercise his or her own judgment in determining what to do with this information. Indeed, interested and intelligent students of world politics should use their own brains — before the zombies do.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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