Review: Theories of International Politics and Zombies by Daniel W. Drezner

By Michael Davies, MA –  Research Assistant, Australia National University, AU

Daniel W. Drezner, Theories of International Politics and Zombies, (Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ), 2011

Dan Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies is the latest example of the increasing fascination with zombies within the pop-culture arena. It is the first book to address the issue in a formal theoretical sense however. The genesis for the book began with a blog poston Drezner’s Foreign Policy blog in 2009. Drezner was one of the first academics and public intellectuals to enter the blogosphere, and since then his site has become one of the staples of the foreign affairs arena. As Professor in International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Drezner commands a certain expectation with his work. Nevertheless, while the book is enjoyable and a quick read, I was left with a single question in my mind after finishing it: why did I pay $15.00 for this?

Drezner begins by describing exactly why he decided to write the book. Simply, “the international relations community needs to digest the problem posed by flesh-eating ghouls in a more urgent manner.” The zombie apocalypse preparedness guidefrom the U.S. Center for Disease Control would suggest Drezner is not alone in this concern.

From this, a description of the various forms of zombies is provided – an essentially contested idea apparently – and a definition emerges: a “biologically definable, animated being occupying a human host, with a desire to eat human flesh.” The definition is referenced from the Zombie Research Society. (Yes, it actually exists.)

Drezner fully admits this book is part-prank, but it also serves as a platform to gain a greater understanding of international politics, and in particular, international relations theory. The fun side of the book comes from all the pop-culture references and evidence he uses come from books and movies. And obviously from the fact Zombies don’t actually exist – yet…. Videogames are mentioned, but as they are more activity driven than anything else, they struggle to provide the empirical analysis necessary.

The serious side resides in the notion that as cultural knowledge of zombies and zombie-related references increase so should the theory of the phenomena that surrounds it, and us. Regardless of the topic, certainly no policy wonk can argue against that reasoning.

The book traces through four specific international relations theories and how each of them would deal with a zombie apocalypse: Realpolitik; liberalism, of all varieties; Neoconservatism; and Constructivism. Max Brooks’ World War Z provides the core observations to these theories in action as the story narrates how the various states of the world deal with a zombie apocalypse originating in China. Other examples from the Resident Evil and 28 Days/Weeks franchises are repeatedly used as well.

The major problem with Drezner’s work is that the theoretical construct used is a basic caricature of the theories themselves. The descriptions of the theories are the bare-bones, un-nuanced versions. Even when variances are mentioned, they remain crudely drawn ones. Realism/Realpolitik will rely on the misinterpretations of Thucydides, and play Zombie and non-Zombie states off of one another. Liberalism would focus on creating an international consensus based on international law before acting. Neoconservatism is an insular, Manichean theory whose only purpose is to serve American interest. (Ok, that caricature is pretty close to reality.) While Constructivism would focus on preserving the social identity of zombies and might even embrace zombie “soft power.” International relations theory is a complex matrix of ideas, counter-ideas and historical examples, and any theorist would feel a little cheated by these parodies.

Nevertheless, Drezner makes excellent use of the literature to give the reader a swath of hilarious comments and one-liners. When Drezner wrote in a footnote as to why he left out Marxism and Feminism – “To Marxists, the undead symbolize the oppressed proletariat. Unless the zombies were all undead white males, feminists would likely welcome the posthuman smashing of existing patriarchal structures.” – I actually laughed out loud on the Metro, much to my embarrassment. Poking fun at Alexander Wendt’s famous quote, Drezner writes that, “Zombies are what humans make of them.” Robert Kagan is rewritten as “humans are from Earth, Zombies are from hell.” When Drezner notes that the use of nuclear weapons would be a catastrophic mistake because it would create a race of super-zombies, you cannot help but smile at the fact he actually spent time thinking about that.

For all the enjoyment the book offers, for the quick and easy read that it was, the book was underwhelming. It left me wondering why I spent $15 for it. That $15 could have been spent on another, more valuable and inherently more useful book. The theories were presented as basic caricatures of themselves. The lack of nuance makes the book read like an undergraduate essay. At an intellectual level I doubt many graduates would look back upon this as an example of strong scholarship.

But in the end, that’s who should purchase this book: Undergrads. It presents complex theories in a basic format, with references that are easily accessible and understandable to them. It will be far more useful than most international relations theory textbooks, initially at least. It is a quick primer that isn’t dry or boring. But that’s as far as this book should be used.

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