In the Long Run, Are We All Undead?

When the zombies come, the neocons will be ready.


Watching an episode of The Walking Dead inevitably leads to passing thoughts about which room of your house would be easiest to defend when zombies finally overrun the neighborhood. But unless you're an international relations theorist, you may not have given much thought to what happens to global politics once the undead are upon us. Luckily, the Tufts University political scientist Daniel W. Drezner has stepped up with a bite-sized book on the subject, Theories of International Politics and Zombies (Princeton). In addition to wargaming various zombie scenarios, Drezner's book serves as an entertaining primer on the distinctions between several theories of international politics.

Start with the theorists known as realists. In Drezner's telling, zombies won't faze them. From their ivory towers—which will, incidentally, become excellent defensive positions when the brain munching begins—realists see the interplay between nations as a power struggle in which national interests and security are the primary concerns. For the realist, the shuffling undead hordes will simply become part of the existing equation in which global actors live in a fundamental condition of anarchy with respect to one another.

So zombies will pursue their own interests—brrraaaiiinns—while states pursue theirs. To illustrate the fundamentally self-interested power dynamics that drive this theory, Drezner points to the drama within a house under attack in the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead: "Despite the common external threat posed by zombies, the individuals inside the house are barely able to cooperate."

Then again, if the portrait of zombie psychology in Land of the Dead (2005) is correct, and zombies retain some minimally human attributes, realists will see a possibility for a deal in which human-dominated states and zombie-dominated states agree to leave each other alone. Sure, the realist says, zombies are devouring human populations in the territory they occupy, but as John Quincy Adams so presciently noted, perhaps it isn't the role of the United States to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.

The 2009 film Zombieland suggests that survival is only possible through clearly articulated rules and a credible commitment to cooperation by individuals with disparate interests. This premise parallels the foreign policy view known as liberalism, which focuses on how cultural factors influence relations between states and peoples, giving more weight to the role of commerce, international institutions, and diverse preferences within the state. Liberals tend to favor cooperative global bodies. But Drezner is skeptical that such a group—say, a World Zombie Organization—will be efficacious, and he sees only slightly greater hope in a North American Counter-Zombie Agreement.

Neoconservatism, with its default high alert setting for existential threats, will have no trouble reacting to the zombie onslaught. As Max Brooks notes in his 2006 book World War Z, it isn't clear that zombies can be either shocked or awed. Still, neocons would favor responding rapidly, unilaterally if necessary, and with as much force as possible. Winning hearts and minds will be out of the question, as neither function well in the undead, and zombies are also unlikely to accept soccer balls and infrastructure projects in lieu of yummy gray matter.

Yet the long-term outlook for the neocon approach is problematic. After an initial strike, humanity could find itself in a worldwide Iraq-style occupation scenario, stuck in an ongoing retail-level battle with a seemingly endless supply of zombie insurgents combating inadequately supplied and spiritually depleted military forces.

In a crisis, governments tend to seize new powers—war and zombies are the health of the state. And as zombies will quickly become a worldwide concern, global coordination of some kind will be central under any theory of international relations. But neither governments nor international organizations are structured to respond well to the rise of the undead. Instead, they will continue to pursue their respective missions, seizing opportunities as they emerge in a suddenly fluid political landscape.

So instead of international bodies banding together and refocusing their efforts on the zombie threat, you can expect British beef and genetically modified organisms of all kinds to be banned from the European mainland, on the grounds of possible biological contagion. Poor countries will demand aid and sacrifices from rich countries, while resisting accountability and transparency measures, as they have done at recent climate change conferences in Copenhagen and Cancun. Military contractors will swing into action, commissioning quickie studies on the efficacy of various weapon systems in anti-zombie defense. Some human rights groups will decide to include zombies in their mandates, reaping the rewards of press attention as spokesmen for a constituency unable to speak—although it can inarticulately moan—for itself.

A 2001 paper by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies tallied the number of domestic agencies potentially involved in a bioterror response. He found 44 separate entities. The number of players in an anti-zombie campaign would likely be greater, which suggests massive coordination problems. Even within agencies, the appropriate course of action may not be clear. Drezner relates an episode in Brian Keene's novel The Rising. The president has become a zombie and is eating the secretary of state: "One Secret Service agent drew his weapon on the undead Commander-in-Chief, and a second agent immediately shot the first."

In her 2009 book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, Rebecca Solnit wrote that "the problem with bureaucrats during crises may be the only thing that disaster movies get right." That goes double for the zombie genre. Most of these movies open after civilization has already fallen apart, the massive apparatus of government having proven powerless to stop the plague of unhinged jawbones. When the zombie apocalypse comes, expect the bureaucrats to fiddle while Rome is chomped. 

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at reason.