Book Review: Theories of International Politics and Zombies

IMG_20140503_024656This is a variation of the book review I wrote for my Graduate Course in International Politics. The work I submitted is similar to this but is way more formal. I originally wrote this to submit but then realized it may back fire big times.  So, instead of getting rid of this, I am posting it here for all of you to enjoy. 

* The book is available online at Princeton University Press and at Amazon*

 Every now and then there is a book that plays on fantasy to makes you question reality. Daniel Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies is that book. Easily one of the most creative books written on politics in the recent past, IP & Zombies takes serious theories and mixes them with pop culture references to build an argument that is fun to read and easy to understand. Taking on the recent obsession with everything undead, Drezner makes zombies the basis for an intriguing discussion on political theories in the times of the undead.

The premise of the book is simple; if the world was attacked by Zombies, how would the humans react to it? On the face of it, it sounds simple enough. Human would obviously go after the undead and return them to their … ultimate end. But the real question is, how will humans do that? Drezner tries to answer this question by building scenarios using all major international political theories. In a way what he attempts is truly genius; to operationalize the approaches that dictate state’s behavior, so the reader can understand the practical implications instead of impressing them with technical jargon. A simple question, an interesting premise and unpretentious language to explain something in 120 pages that normally takes a whole semester.

I pondered for a while on how to approach a review of this book that would do it justice and eventually reached the conclusion that I should approach it like Drezner would i.e. using pop culture references. Think of this book as music festival à la Coachella or Glastonbury. There is one main attraction, the headline artist, along with many smaller attractions that are designed to complement that the star attraction. Behind all this fun in the sun is the serious business of managing it all and making it financially viable. Thus there are layers to all this, the front end and the back-end. The front end works with the Zombie and Me narrative while the back-end operates on the why this and not that notion.

Image Courtesy of AMC - The Walking Dead
Image Courtesy of AMC – The Walking Dead

For IP & Zombies the star attraction is the super metaphor that explains anything and everything. Zombies are the headliners, the star attraction and even the complementing entertainment courtesy the metaphorical mastery of Drezner. The author uses Zombies for different purposes throughout the book. The core metaphor is Zombies representing Anarchy (P 12, 13). At later stages zombies are used as a minority (in terms of domestic politics), potential social issue (in terms of NGO advocacy) and even painted as occupiers.

Like every music festival needs headliners, reaction to Anarchy (in this case zombies) is what makes a headliner in the field of political science. For realism it is a core assumption i.e. the world is anarchic and states are trying to make sense out of it by looking out for themselves. So in a way the realists have always assumed that zombies are there. For liberals the assumption is that there is no anarchy and that states would cooperate with each other to maximize their gains. Institutionalism and constructivism to a certain extent consider anarchy to be an issue as well. So when Drezner talks about the Zombie Apocalypse, he is painting a world that is anarchic in nature and the states have to deal with the menace in the best way possible. But because this is the star attraction i.e. how do we deal with zombies, we have to wait till the end to hear it. Till then, as readers we have to make do with complimenting entertainment which in this case is listening to all other theories.

Realism is the first to play its set. One would assume given Realism’s familiarity with the main stage as the IR rock star of yesteryear, it would have no issues playing a killer set. But as we go along, Drezner makes us realize that while Realism still may be the Beatles but John Lennon is long gone and Ringo isn’t really pulling his weight. For them zombies are a major threat to national security so the states with capacity would deal with them better. Weaker states, it is assumed would get ravaged and eventually taken over by the undead. For realists, it would be the same with or without the zombies, as bottom line is that all states are looking out for their interests. So irrespective of their audience, realists like the Beatles stick to the basics and choose to think inside the yellow submarine.

humans_vs_zombies_2Next up is the Liberal theory that takes a chop at Zombies. Much like Pitbull, liberalism relies heavily on the power of collaboration. The idea is that as long as the states were to work together and form alliances things would be addressed in a much better way. This is where Drezner could have done a better job. Instead of giving us Liberalism’s greatest hits, he focuses on one element that is more close to liberal institutionalism rather than proper liberalism. The argument is, in order to deal with zombies, states would sit together and form institutions like World Zombie Organization (P. 54). The purpose of these institutions would be deal with the undead so as to stop them from chomping away on humanity. But as with most institutions the issue is effectiveness and ability to operate across border with same kind of effectiveness. The author points out that the possibility of this happening is similar to Pitbull getting a solo hit i.e. very low. Drezner goes on to explain that the non-state actors play a role in diminishing the potency of these institutions by giving the example of NGOs that would potentially oppose any attempts at complete zombie eradication. The eventual result, much like Pitbull’s last song, is going to be a situation where a lot could have been done but hardly anything was achieved. The undead problem would join other worldwide issues like aids and cancer i.e. it would be acceptably unacceptable.

The author makes an effort to argue the Constructivist and Neo Conservative approaches. As a reader I felt that he painted them as exact opposites of each other. While one is fairly hippie and works off the mantra of ‘why can’t we all just get along?’ like Taylor Swift, the other approach is more like Aretha Franklin and demands for R.E.S.P.E.C.T from Zombies. Drezner does Constructivist theory a favor by laying out a better case than any of the other approaches. He argues that once zombies become a fact of life, humans will try to socialize them (P 74). This would change the social norms that would adapt to the new (hopefully) minority undead. Much like Taylor Swift’s music, constructivist approach albeit annoying is not as bad as it initially sounds.

Neo Conservative approach however is a different story. From the get go, much like Aretha Franklin it is crystal clear about what needs to be done i.e. Zombies need to be put in their place. That would mean a full blown attack on zombies. But like real life, steps to getting respect sound easy but getting actual respect is a whole different story. Drezner points out, while taking several shots at the US foreign policy in Afghanistan and Iraq, that the idea on paper would sound right but in practice would be a quagmire. Without clear end point, this would be a disaster.

4536922Next up, is that unknown artist that captures your attention and your imagination as the next big thing, think Florence + The Machine, Drezner presents his arguments on Bureaucracy and its dealing with zombie problem. Most of the literature on International Politics tends to ignore the importance bureaucracy plays in managing basically everything. He starts by calling bureaucracies as ‘organized anarchies’ that look for problems to crate solutions for (P. 87). Using puns and deep digs like ‘the bureaucratic turf wars would be bloody in every sense of the word’ (P. 88), Drezner points out a crucial factor that it comes down to how effectively bureaucracy is able to adapt to the changing scenarios brought about the looming zombie wars. He argues that it would take time for the bureaucracies to get it right but by the time they get it right the political support may no longer be there for their upgraded strategy. Kind of like what used to happen to Florence + The Machine earlier in their career when they would open with lesser known songs and by the time they got to their good stuff, half the crowd had already gone home. For humanity to take a headshot, our bureaucracies need to adapt quickly.

Drezner saves the best for last. Think Mumford and Sons playing a surprise show you just stumble upon. The psychological responses to zombies sound simple and boring. But once they start going they have this genius of simplicity and rudiment working in its favor. We get to hear about the issues of confirmation biases the humans will have when deciding about the undead menace, the human spirit of hoping against all hope much like the song ‘I will wait’ where the protagonist is willing to wait even though the person they are waiting for is long gone. But it would take an effort, a change in narrative to get humanity in to the ‘little lion man’ mindset much like a counter insurgency narrative. The idea that the new normal requires a constant struggle and adaptation to a changing environment. And the only way to do that is to come out of the metaphorical ‘Cave’ humanity is stuck in and copy the zombie flat management structure to deal with the imminent threat.

The nature of the zombie changes so must the technique to fight it. In political terms, scenarios change so must the approaches to address them. That is essentially what this book is all about i.e. need for an evolution in state structures that are more efficient and faster to adapt to the problems at hand. Like the music festival that is this book, the one key fact remains that whosoever is able to read the crowd and play their set according to that will walk out as the rock star, be it the legends of yesteryears or the unknown hippies who play ukuleles, the bottom line in the ability to adapt. It is like Nirvana coming out to play the last set, they know what the crowd wants i.e. the greatest hits and they give it to them while being mellow about the prospect of life and just focusing on the now. And while they go out there and start with ‘smells like teen spirit’ the ultimate rebel anthem, they end with ‘you know you are right’ a reflective song that makes peace with the situation.

As mentioned earlier, behind every music festival is a serious business; the business of feasibility i.e. does it even make sense to go on with it all? Is it even worth it? Throughout this book we get to see different approaches play their sets, present their greatest hits for what they feel will work best with the crowd. The hope is that there will be at least one or at best a few sets that would attract people to show up. And while each set may not be perfect and has shortcomings, put together they make a pretty good experience. In terms of international politics, that means while all our theories on their own may not be perfect, put together they give humanity a fighting chance and keep us in business.

On a broader level the book does have a few shortcomings and while it make a great set of cases, like everything else it could be improved. Starting from the premature dismissal of realism and liberalism to overplay of constructivism, Drezner limits himself with the Zombie metaphors. In a way it is Coachella all over again, where its awesome commercial success is what limits its originality. Instead of digging deep within a theoretical framework, Drezner’s overemphasis on keeping everything zombie-isque takes away from what could have been excellent discussions on real issues in favor of sarcastic digs at the obvious. I realize that this is nitpicking, but then again I am a political scientist and much like the music critic attending a festival, my focus is not the hipster feel good vibe in the air but what is being played on the main stage and by now even the Beatles do not cut it anymore.

That being said, there are a few issues that warrant serious research in the future. Evolving structure of the state (P 106, 107), as Drezner points out, need to be researched further. Stating that we need evolution is one thing, outlining how we will go about it is another. For his part, the author has done all he could to put on a great show, it is now up to researchers to glean the important bits of the whole experience to put together a show reel. Additionally the role and importance of bureaucracies in the international political arena needs to be brought center stage. Most theories of international politics lack clarity on this subject and it remains a grey area. There is also potential for a serious discussion on the potential of transnationals and their role in international politics, particularly security.qmeme_1399264145139_287

Much like Coachella, this book is hip, cool and fashionable. It has everything any one could ask for in a zombie/political science book but in small quantities. And while the experience is enjoyable one does realize the more serious issues at play. The theories that we still assume to be the Beatles of their field are barely keeping it together and surviving mostly on past glories. The theories that we keep dismissing are the ones that have serious potential but much like Florence + The Machine, we only want to consider them when they are willing to give us what we want rather than evolving our sense of music to accept their brilliance from the start.  And though there are theories that look glamorous on the face of it i.e. liberalism, because they play on our hopefulness in the goodness of this world. Most of them, much like Pitbull, tend to fizzle out fairly quickly the moment we realize we are not being sold what we were promised. The promise was to fix the zombie problem not make peace with it. Point is, like Coachella, this book is unique in its take on a complex and often pretentious subject.

Daniel Drezner took a risk much like Michael Eavis. While Eavis gambled on people’s thirst for music and camping, Drezner bet on political scientists having a sense of humor and average readers having some level of political sense. And just like Glastonbury is now the benchmark for music festivals, Theories of International Politics and Zombies will become the benchmark for social scientists trying to write a book on serious issues using pop culture references. What this book does is much more than just explain politics of zombies, it makes politics fun. It is no longer a task, it becomes an experience. For the field of IR/IP this book serves as a great primer for new students especially undergraduates. It does the basics right while giving a crash course in writing simple yet effective language.

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