Night of the Living Wonks: Toward an International Relations Theory of Zombies

By Drezner, Daniel W. | Foreign Policy, July-August 2010 | Go to article overview

Night of the Living Wonks: Toward an International Relations Theory of Zombies


Drezner, Daniel W., Foreign Policy


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.

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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. …

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