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On the Bookshelf: Theories of International Politics and Zombies by Daniel W. Drezner

Theories of International Politics and Zombies

by Daniel W. Drezner

There are three sorts of people who are going to read this book. The first are the kind of people who see the title and aren’t able to resist finding out what zombies have to do with international politics. These may, or may not be very interested but they might actually learn a few things about how the world works. The second type of people are those who already have an interest in international politics, possibly recognize Daniel Drezner’s name, and pick up the book to find out in what context zombies could possibly apply to international politics. They might be mildly amused but depending upon how seriously they take themselves may not get past the first chapter or two. That’s their loss. The third sort of person has an interest in zombies as well as international politics. They probably have been awaiting the opportunity, or have already started, to explore this most interesting of black-swan scenarios and it is likely that they will chuckle their way through the book.

I happen to fall into the third category.

No, this isn’t really the kind of book for a thinker who takes themself too seriously, but it is a pretty short and amusing read for someone who likes to think seriously about the unknown unknowns that can crop up from time to time. Honestly, I didn’t agree with some of the characterizations of the approaches of certain kinds of  thinkers that Drezner presents (The neo-cons in particular, though I think that one was more than a little tongue-in-cheek) but I do think he gets way more right than he gets wrong. Actually I really only have one major quibble with anything that Drezner presented, probably because I went against the crowd and I personally think I had good reason for doing so.

Drezner presents two questions that he asked during his research. I remember answering both of them.

You face the following choice:

Option A)  The certain destruction of 500 zombies.

Option B)  A 50 percent chance of destroying 1,000 zombies and a 50 percent chance of destroying 100 zombies.

According to Drezner’s research 61% of respondents chose option ‘A’.


You face the following choice:

Option A)  A certain increase of 500 zombies.

Option B)  A 50 percent chance of creating only 100 new zombies and a 50 percent chance of creating 1,000 new zombies.

The survey showed that 57% chose option ‘B’


Dezner uses these questions to illustrate prospect theory where the tendency is to be risk-averse (and go for the “sure-thing” in the first question) when you think you are winning, but risk-seeking (or take the gamble of question 2) when you think you are losing. By my recollection I voted opposite the majority in both questions because I viewed the scenarios in the opposite way than Drezner because the zombie apocalypse is pretty zero-sum when it comes to survival. In fact, I think the questions better illustrate the offensive (playing to win) and the defensive (playing not to lose).

In the first question I chose option ‘B’ not because I was risk-averse and afraid of losing, but rather that I am on the offensive against zombies and I am looking to win. Even 100 fewer ghouls walking around is better than none and getting 1,000 of them out of the way is even better. On the offensive against the shambling undead, a risk-seeking attitude is a good thing. Be methodical, yes, but seek every opportunity to remove potential zombie opponents.

The second question is one of those hard choice questions that I think really needed more information to be clear. I would like to know if Drezner had in mind the total number of people the decision-maker was responsible for. It doesn’t change my answer but it would be more important to know, to me, from a game-theory point of view. Regardless, I chose ‘A’ for the reason that it implies that I am on the defensive and I know at least 500 of my group would survive when survival, not losing completely, is the goal. There is no other rational choice especially if the risk of creating 1,000 new zombies means that the entire group is zombified. On the defensive against the undead the group is the asset that must be preserved, but in a triage-like manner. If there is a sacrifice that preserves the group, even if it severly diminishes the group, then it is a sacrifice that must be taken. Of course, I wouldn’t want to be potentially one of the 500 any more than anybody else but I definitely wouldn’t want to be in the 1,000.

 I wish this was out when I was in high-school or college. It would have made a really fun textbook.

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