ECFR book club: Zombies & foreign policy


Sometimes the intelligent need not be the enemy of the interesting. If it was, then we would never end up with a book like Dan Drezner’s ‘Theories of international politics and zombies’. Yes, you read that right. Zombies – undead creatures that populate rickety horror films while feasting on the brains of their human victims.

I have known about Dan Drezner (a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University) and his work for a while now, thanks to his excellent and provocative blog on the Foreign Policy site. Unfortunately I’d never had time to pick up this strange book of his, mixing up political theory and the flesh-eating undead, so was delighted to get hold of this podcast interview that he did with the New Books Network, explaining the thinking behind that strange title.

The idea is that many of the key theories of international relations can be explained, accurately and engagingly (but with tongue firmly in cheek), by looking at how world governments would react to an attack by waves of zombies that have no other aim than wanting to eat the brains of as many humans as possible.

International theorists like to game out every possible scenario. What would happen if you applied their methodology to dealing with the fictional public policy challenge of a zombie infestation?

It’s an odd idea, but if the NBN interview with Drezner is anything to go by, he carries it off with wit, intelligence and ingenuity. He even finds time to explain why he writes about zombies rather than – for instance – vampires. Drezner analyses policy responses through the lens of different theories – from the neoconservatists to the realists – and tries to work out which ones are the most successful in dealing with the zombie infestation.

As an interesting aside, Drezner is an advocate of setting up gaming/betting markets between experts as a way of planning policy responses in various scenarios – he suggests using this to formulate policies to combat the attack of the flesh-eating undead. This technique was, if I remember correctly, set up to analyse probabilities of future terrorist attacks in the real (non-zombie) world, but was quashed after press reports left its advocates looking rather cold-blooded as they set up games that seemed to toy with the lives of citizens. This struck me as a shame at the time – and maybe a zombie invasion would give us the excuse to resuscitate an interesting idea.

Finally, an obvious point: it’s refreshing to see somebody take on something so serious with a sense of humour and a bit of imagination. I was once advised to see whether we could release ECFR reports as Japanese-style manga comic-books. Maybe it’s time to revisit the idea…

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