In his courageous attempt to bring rigor to our understanding of the zombie threat, Daniel Drezner commits the common error of reducing realism to its balance-of-power variant ("Night of the Living Wonks," July/August 2010). He thus pays inadequate attention to the most likely result of a zombie apocalypse: the re-emergence of empires as the dominant form of global organization.
A zombie apocalypse would most certainly lead to profound transformations in the current order, but in ways consistent with hegemonic-order theory, which sees the rise and fall of dominant powers as the most common pattern in world politics. In the case of a zombie plague, the most likely outcome, for several reasons, is the reassertion of U.S. power.
As Drezner suggests, "the strong will do what they can and the weak must suffer devouring by reanimated, ravenous corpses." Those (re)emerging powers with relatively low state capacity -- such as Brazil, Russia, and India -- will soon succumb to the flesh-eating horde. The United States and the other remaining major powers will protect themselves through indiscriminate force -- quite possibly including nuclear strikes -- to prevent undead mass migration from overrun regions into their territories. America's unmatched global-strike capabilities will lead most other remaining states to acquiesce to U.S. leadership over the zone of the living.
The result will not, unfortunately, be Liberal Order 3.0, but a global Pax Americana supported by regional client-empires tasked with controlling and eradicating local zombie eruptions. In time, we will see efforts to actively settle zombie-controlled wastelands. In other words, the world will experience a macabre replay of 19th-century imperial expansion, but as imagined in the dreams of the most virulently racist advocates of European imperialism -- those who saw indigenous populations as subhuman monsters fit only for exploitation and destruction.
Daniel Drezner replies:
I greatly value Daniel Nexon's penetrating insights into the realist response to the specter of the undead. I must, nevertheless, dispute his prediction of U.S. hegemonic revival and nuclear-weapons use. First, even if weaker developing countries are overrun by zombie hordes, it is unlikely that the great powers -- particularly China -- will face a similar fate. Although the United States will remain first among equals in terms of power projection, the presence of ghouls would not tip the balance of power so far in the U.S. direction so as to support revanchist policies. Concluding that other great powers would simply "acquiesce" to U.S. hegemony seems contrary to the logic of realpolitik. Acting in concert, powerful states would reassert control over nettlesome border adversaries (Cuba, Taiwan, etc.). In a world in which the dead come back to life, however, further territorial expansion would pose greater security risks than gains.
Furthermore, the use of nuclear weapons would be a catastrophic mistake in a zombie-infested world. Zombies cannot be deterred, stripping nukes of their one useful trait. In the event of their use, a nuclear blast would no doubt kill massive numbers of zombies. Unlike human beings, however, the undead would survive any radioactive fallout that comes from such weapons use. Indeed, zombies carrying lethal doses of radiation would pose a double threat to humans as they stumbled around -- death by radiation or reanimation by zombie bite.
If any government were so foolhardy as to launch a first strike, it would create the only thing worse than an army of the living dead -- a radioactive army of the living dead. We can only hope that when faced with a zombie horde, cooler heads than Nexon's will be in the Situation Room.