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Apocalyptic Thinking in IR

February 19, 2011

I do not see the discussions about zombies as a type of new or out-of-the-box thinking. If anything, the discussions of zombies that I have noted so far are completely “in-the-box” thinking, except with a touch of geeky humor, parody, and wit that is usually lacking in the discipline. In fact, the discourse seems to consist mainly of exercises in applying existing theoretical tools to an impossible scenario for pedagogical purposes or to lampoon the generally stale pedagogy of IR theory. From my perspective, the question is not how well or fairly does this exercise treat particular theoretical paradigms, but why this apocalyptic theoretical exercise presents itself at all.

Apocalyptic thinking has been a feature of IR theorizing for over a hundred years.  In fact, I would contend that the zombie fad is at least the fourth wave of apocalyptic thinking.  The four waves are:

  1. Theories of Race War
  2. Theories of Nuclear War and Deterrence
  3. Clash of Civilizations
  4. Zombie Apocalypse

The origins of IR as a discipline, is not in Ancient Greece or Renaissance Italy, but in the US at the dawn of the 20th century. Although the discipline has effectively purged its collective memory, the origins of the discipline were in concerns about race theory, race war, and colonial administration or “racial uplift” theories.  In some cases, these origins have been obscured through rebranding, as when the Journal of Race Development adopted its new name, Foreign Affairs. As Robert Vitalis (2002) has carefully documented, the first generation of American IR theorists expressed alarm over emerging challenges to the principle of White Supremacy. Concerns about “The War of the Color Line” became intense, particularly after the Japanese victory over Russia in 1905.  These concerns, coupled with racialism and outright racism, led to fearful imaginings of yellow, black, and brown hordes invading and overwhelming the white nations (only Europeans were considered to be divided into nations in these early formulations; the rest of the world was grouped by race).

The second wave of apocalyptic thinking begins with the end of World War II and the use/accumulation of nuclear weapons. This line of thinking became obsessed with pragmatic theories of deterrence, compellance, etc. While American society added ideological panics to racial panics, the discipline of IR generally moved toward a more sober posture. Although the obsession with horizontal nuclear proliferation remained tinged with racism/paternalism, particularly given the manifest contradiction with neo-Realist theories of deterrence, the overall paradigm was pragmatic and technical. Nevertheless, the field shifted a great deal of attention and resources toward issues of security between superpowers.

[One might add another apocalyptic wave related to over population (e.g. environmental collapse), but these neo-Malthusian concerns have actually been remarkably consistent throughout the 19th and 20th centuries up to the present.]

In the third wave, Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis represented a remarkable (if unconscious) return to and re-statement of the prior alarmist concern with race war, now neatly repackaged as a meta-theory of civilizational war. That such a crude and unsophisticated world view ever made it to publication is astounding and an abiding stain on the discipline. It is not surprising that this theory was thoroughly discredited to the point of ridicule within and outside of the discipline. The real question is why a previously reputable scholar would have formulated such a completely flimsy argument.

The fourth wave then is the hypothetical obsession with zombies.  There is an interesting moment in the blogging heads video below where Dan Drezner discusses an encounter where a commentator asks him point-blank whether the zombies are just a crude metaphor for Muslims. Drezner appears to be genuinely shocked by this reductive reading, which speaks to how effectively IR has purged its own disciplinary history and genealogy. This is not to argue in any way that Drezner was re-articulating a covert racial theory.  Rather it is to argue that apocalyptic thinking in the discipline follows familiar modes of articulation that are easily conflated, and that the zombie discourse facilitates this conflation.

What interests me is not a search for hidden racial themes is discussions of zombies, but rather to inquire into the function of apocalyptic scenarios in the discipline. I would hypothesize that apocalyptic thinking functions to reassert the relevance of dominant modes of theorizing; apocalyptic thinking disciplines the discipline. Apocalyptic thinking is deeply conservative; it reasserts the relevance of theories which protect the status quo. These waves become particularly prominent at those points in which the discipline and Western society is being challenged by intellectual movements to broaden the areas of theoretical inquiry, and/or by social movements to overturn privilege. So it is not surprising to me that feminist and critical theories are given short shrift in the zombie discourse.

But what harm can it do to talk playfully about zombies? Isn’t it just a delicious send up of the discipline? Isn’t this a great way to get students and non-academics interested in International Relations?

At the end of blogging heads video, Drezner talks about how soldiers stationed in a forward operating base in Afghanistan sent him a photo of their unit reading his book. More than anything else, this makes evident the danger of such theorizing. IR as a discipline already deals in high levels of abstraction above the lives of ordinary people. More than any other discipline, IR is concerned with rationalizing or tempering an often de-humanizing raison d’etat and realpolitik. Is it wise, in that case, to promote a discourse which conceptualizes the enemy as zombies? Is this kind of alienation not precisely what should be countered and resisted through academic dialog and debate? Instead of imagining a zombie horde, would it not be better for our soldiers to try to understand the history and culture of the people whose land and lives they are occupying?

Of course, to offer a relevant alternative to soldiers on the front line would involve real out-of-the-box thinking — one that speaks to the culture and organizational structure of militants and civilians in Afghanistan. A discipline that is really relevant would need to build theories inductively rather than seeking to dig through a set of established abstract theories to see what can be forced to fit the situation at hand.

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Vikash is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. His main areas of academic interest are (post-) globalization, economic development, and economic freedom, with a regional focus on South Asia