In his new book, Daniel Drezner, renowned political commentator and Professor of Political Science at University of Chicago, applies contemporary theoretical approaches of IR to an interesting, although imaginative, case study: the threatening rise of zombies.
According to the author, each theory of IR provides different possible outcomes: realism would suggest an eventual “live-and-let-live” arrangement between the humans and zombies; liberalism would build a counter-zombie regime and a system of collective security centred upon long-term state interests, while constructivism, with its emphasis on identity and the social construction of reality, would focus on shaping a pluralistic security community in order to prevent further zombies outbreak and, concurrently, socializing existing undead into human society.
Testing the practical utility of realism, liberalism and constructivism against a worldwide zombie infestation has been, cleverly, the first attempt at theorizing a suitable model for making this complex set of different paradigms useful even in a political global environment characterized by the sociological concept of risk society. As a matter of fact, the possibility of a zombie invasion falls within the famous “unknown unknowns” paradigm of international security. As former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described it, “there are risks we know about, and risks we don’t know we are running, and finally there are things we don’t know we don’t know“: in this last case, the first concern for policy-makers and government officials should be to prevent and to adopt proactive policies against hypothesised future harm. The conclusion drawn by Drezner over the usefulness of contemporary IR theories in a risk society context is rather disappointing: for him, the ability of these approaches in explaining current global threats and challenges is literally circumscribed.
To remain in the realm of uncertainty and risk as identified by Rumsfeld, another potential though unreal example that could be used in order to value and assess the rightness of Drezner’s final statements, is related to the UFOs world. Surprisingly, and differently from the zombies’ category, a journal article about UFOs and international relations has already been released four years ago, and precisely on Political Theory. In this very well-known piece of paper Alexander Wendt and Robert Duvall state that the UFOs issue challenges directly the concept of sovereignty as devised so far. As a result, the sole existence of extraterrestrial aliens, and not their aggressive intentions or behaviours that characterize creatures intrinsically hostile to humans like zombies, could cast serious and dangerous doubts on the current system of states.
At this point, a question arises: if aliens threaten the concept of state sovereignty, upon which current IR theories are rooted, then could realism, liberalism and constructivism pose a solution to that? Put it simpler, can IR theory as conceived so far still be useful within a risky world repleted with “unknown unknowns”? In order to address a satisfactory response, three steps are needed: first of all, presenting the argument put forward by Wendt and Duvall; secondly, advancing hypothesis on IR response to the aliens threat and understand which common point they share against an existential menace; finally, drawing a conclusion about war as an effective counter-measure and risk management tool.
The most important argument posited by Wendt and Duvall, developed from the thinking of Jacques Deridda, Giorgio Agamben and Michel Foucault, claimed that “UFO ignorance is political rather than scientific“: namely, both scholars sustain that official denials of extra-terrestrial aliens are grounded on the notion that these aliens own superior technology to humans. Therefore, such superiority could undermine the anthropocentric nature of human worldviews, just like their existence undermines some physical laws. Accordingly, in the absence of any scientific evidence of extraterrestrial life, political sovereignty remains an exclusively human concept. This is the reason why modern states have not devoted sufficient scientific resources to the UFO problem:
… since 1947 over 100,000 UFOs have been reported worldwide, many by militaries. However, neither the scientific community nor states have made serious efforts to identify them, the vast majority remaining uninvestigated… For both science and the state, it seems, the UFO is not an “object” at all, but a non-object, something not just unidentified but unseen and thus ignored (p. 610).
This led Wendt and Duvall to remark that states are deliberately promoting an “epistemology of ignorance”, according to which UFOs must remain a taboo, not just a knowledge gap: in conclusion, the authors look at this epilogue as functional to the integrity of sovereignty as conceived of by humans. As a matter of fact, UFOs would aim at a different conception of government, neither human-like nor ex-human, in which states could not be taken into account at all.
Departing from this substantial difference with zombies, that for Drezner are subjected to containment processes or socialization into humans life, IR theory, firmly grounded on the conception of state, can play a crucial role in this dilemma. Indeed, considering an alien invasion as a potential risk, realism, liberalism and constructivism respectively offer different recipes to face the likely threat.
Realism, as previously seen, would stress the usefulness of balance-of-power mechanisms in order to create alliances against the common enemy. In addition, a clash against aliens could render classical and Hobbesian realism more than relevant, by reflecting on international scale the coercive but protective power of a bigger Leviathan in case of war, with the side effect of reducing anarchy in the international system. Conversely, balance of threat theory could provide a very effective tool to understand intentions of the extraterrestrial ontological enemy once the planet Earth should be divided into a bipolar system.
Liberalism, for its part, is the reign of cooperation between states: metaphorically, a proposal for a “galactic diplomacy” has been already made by Hillary Clinton, in order to preserve the world and their democracies from an alien invasion. From a theoretical point of view, the institutional approach of this branch could fit very well for preserving security, just NATO and UN have shown so far. Finally, constructivism, with its focus on ideas (in this case affecting sovereignty) and identities (literally non-terrestrial and, for this reason, apparently not suitable for socializing encirclements into human habits), would be the theoretical approach more prone to suspicion and war.
War, in conclusion, seems to be the most likely outcome in the case of an alien appearance, even if with peaceful intentions. In fact, each of these theories would sustain the status quo and international stability. Even in an age of risk, the current complex of IR theories shows to be effective against entities that could menace the concept of sovereignty, in contrast with Drezner’s final remarks. Furthermore, war as the classical instrument of human reaction, can be better understand through the Clausewitzian precept that “every age [has] its own kind of war, its own limiting conditions and its own peculiar preconceptions”, with a special attention to the kind of weapons developed in a given historical period (On War, 2008, p.593). So, despite aliens officially does not exist and the economic crisis has forced governments to cut military expenditures, new British aircraft Taranis represents the most interesting (and expensive) strategic and military development in the last years.
Too much for common threats or just right to face the “unknown unknowns“?
Photo Credit: Steve Snodgrass