Night of the Living Wonks

Toward an international relations theory of zombies.

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.

KAKO 2010, Levy Creative Management, NYC


Hapless Doesn't Mean Harmless

Burma has a nuclear program. It's a mess, but it's still a nuclear program.

If you're interested in international security, I strongly recommend that you check out a new documentary titled Burma's Nuclear Ambitions. The film comes from the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), an Oslo-based nongovernmental organization that has made a name for itself as a source of good independent reporting on events inside that benighted country. The reporters at DVB spent the past five years collecting the material for this project, which makes a persuasive case that the generals who run Burma (aka Myanmar) have spent vast sums on a program to develop weapons of mass destruction. Robert Kelley, an ex-U.S. nuclear scientist and former U.N. nuclear inspector who collaborated with the filmmakers, told me that their effort offers a unique opportunity to blow the whistle on a rogue state's nuclear plans earlier rather than later. "This is a small program at early stages," he says. "I hope that by releasing this information we're letting the cat of the bag, and that no one can put it back now. There should be a public debate."

There will be -- though so far a lot of major media outlets (including the New York Times and CNN) have notably failed to pick up on the story. And that's a pity -- not only because this scoop has broad ramifications for Southeast Asia and the future of the long-suffering Burmese people in particular, but also because it will almost certainly raise new concerns about the scandalous ineffectiveness of the existing international system to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. (Yep, looks like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been caught asleep at the wheel once again.)

The documentary -- which aired earlier this month on the English-language version of Al Jazeera -- shows how Burma's reigning generals have used their profits from the sale of natural resources to fund the purchase of sophisticated equipment and the training of thousands of Burmese engineers abroad (mostly in Russia). The DVB reporters had been plugging away at the story for years without getting beyond the level of tantalizing hearsay. They'd heard that the government was spending billions on vast underground command centers and an underground fiber-optic communications system to go with them. They'd learned about the attempts to train Burmese engineers in various military-related disciplines outside the country, and they knew -- like the U.S. government -- that the generals in the test-tube capital of Naypyidaw were engaging in various kinds of suspicious cooperation with North Korea.

But they still didn't have hard evidence. So they decided to beam a message back into Burma by satellite, asking for sources to come forward. In February of this year someone finally responded. An army major by the name of Sai Thein Win defected to Thailand, bringing with him a trove of photos and detailed knowledge of a military-run defense plant where he had worked as a manager. Sai, who had spent five years in Russia studying engineering, revealed how he and his colleagues at the factory had used German-made precision machine tools to manufacture rocket parts. At another installation he saw -- and photographed -- equipment that was allegedly intended for uranium enrichment. (Kelley, who served as a consultant to the DVB production, confirmed that it was highly likely that the equipment shown in the photos was being used for nuclear purposes.)

And of course there is the highly incriminating back story of North Korean involvement in Burma. It should be said that, though the DVB documentary includes photos showing purported North Korean advisors giving the Burmese help with large-scale tunneling (one of the few areas in which the North Koreans have world-class expertise), it doesn't provide any solid evidence that Kim Jong Il has shared his nuclear technology with the generals. That isn't to say there isn't good reason to harbor suspicions, though. The film does include photos of the Burmese regime's No. 3 general visiting his jovial counterparts in Pyongyang in November 2008. (The person who passed the photos on has apparently since been shot.) Bertil Lintner, an expert on Burmese politics who also collaborated with the filmmakers, says that Western diplomats have verified the presence of North Korean technicians at a Burmese missile production facility.

And what, for example, was on board the Kang Nam 1, the North Korean ship freighter that was sailing for a Burmese port last year until the U.S. Navy persuaded it to turn around? U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concern about deepening ties between the two pariah states at a meeting of regional leaders last year. In May, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell issued a statement calling on the Burmese leaders to comply with the U.N. sanctions imposed on North Korea after Pyongyang's nuclear test a few years back.

The question that arises from all this, of course, is why Burma would want to get into the WMD business in the first place. The country has no threatening neighbors, no regional rivals that want to take it over. But that, say the experts, would be to underestimate the regime's xenophobia and pathological suspicions of the outside world. The film offers clues. One Burmese ex-diplomat defector interviewed on camera puts it like this: "In 1992, when General Than Shwe came to power, he thought that if we followed the North Korean example, we would not need to take account of America or even need to care about China. In other words, when they have nuclear energy and weapons, others will respect us." Burma analyst Lintner points to the domestic context as well. "According to the people I have talked to, the Burmese generals believe they need a strong deterrent to remain in power, against the outside world as well as their own population." In 2007, it should be recalled, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest against the country's leadership. If having nukes would make it that much harder for outsiders to pressure them, that would, conceivably, make life harder for internal opponents as well.

We could, perhaps, take some consolation from the fact that the Burmese WMD program doesn't seem to be terribly sophisticated. Geoffrey Forden, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology expert who examined the evidence on the Burmese missile program, gives them five to 10 years to get a rocket launched and built -- and much longer to come up with one that would have serious range. Kelley says that, based on the evidence, the nuclear program looks even less serious. The generals don't appear to have any coherent strategy for actually making a functioning nuclear weapon. The only enrichment technique they seem to be using so far is the laser isotope method, which several developed countries have tried and dropped as unduly complicated. Kelley speculates that bureaucrat-scientists might be leading the generals on a bit (something, he says, that's been known to happen in other countries where political leaders are eager to get their hands on powerful weapons). One of the defectors tells a story about the scientists demonstrating a laser to visiting higher-ups by burning a hole in a piece of wood. One of the attending generals was so discomfited by this mysterious device that he immediately asked them to stop.

Yet there is still plenty of cause to worry. For one thing, the generals have plenty of cash. Over the next few years they'll be earning tens of billions of dollars from natural gas sales to the Chinese -- and much of that money is apparently slated for the nascent WMD program. And even though the Russians halted work on a promised reactor project when they started to harbor doubt about Burmese intentions, it's clear that there's little the international community can do to prevent the junta from doing what it wants inside the country. (It turns out that the IAEA basically gave Burma a pass a few years ago when the country essentially declared itself a nonnuclear power, and has little leverage to exert as a result.) Our best bet, it would seem, is that the brutal, paranoid, and astrology-driven generals who run Burma really are just as wasteful and incompetent as they appear to be from the outside. So why doesn't that seem especially comforting?