Space the Nation is about my personal interest in the intersection of politics and science fiction. But I’m not the only political junkie who spends time wondering how Chrisjen Avasarala would handle Chuck Todd (I think she’d wipe the floor with him, to be honest). Far from it. Washington and policy-minded folks have a higher-than-average nerd factor that whose wonkiness is often expressed in a parallel fascination for the rule-tweaking of genre fiction. I’ll be interviewing those folks on a semi-regular basis.
Dan Drezner was an obvious choice for my first subject. He’s a foreign policy specialist and professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His column for the Washington Post called “Spoiler Alerts,” while usually about analyzing the week’s news, truly earns its title from his occasional forays into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (see “The foreign policy of ‘Black Panther’”) and favorite streaming sci-fi shows. Most recently, he’s made the argument that “the best show about international relations on television right now” is The Expanse.
He is also the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies, published by the Princeton University Press and now available in a “Revived Edition.”
Here’s our discussion about how Resident Evil and the Star Wars prequels explain America today.
So what zombie stories should we be reading to understand international relations?
The one zombie novel that I actually recommend that everyone should read is Max Brooks' World War Z. It includes at least one instance of a buffoonish foreign leader thinking that they can cope with the living dead and discovering that it doesn't quite work out. But my favorite vignette in there is how the North Koreans ostensibly cope with the living dead, which is they just disappear, they go dark. In the book, North Koreans basically all automate their defenses and suddenly, like, they all just disappear. You don't know what happens to them. Which is so perfectly in keeping with the idea of North Korea as an opaque state and us not knowing what they are doing, that I think that does encapsulate how we should think about dealings with North Korea. But that said, if I had to analogize the Trump administration's foreign policy with a zombie movie, or the zombie genre, I would say it's the Resident Evil franchise.
Wow, that’s a commentary on who’s in the White House right there in the title.
Here's my favorite part about the Resident Evil franchise: you really have to stand back and admire the breathless incompetence of the Umbrella Corporation. If you think of the Umbrella Corporation as really being like the Trump organization, it works remarkably well. Because think about it, the normal problem in most of the zombie genre is that you introduce the living dead, there is no cure to the living dead, and because, you know, zombies have a 100% infection rate, eventually they go global and the world as we know it ends. What I love about the Umbrella Corporation is that it is this ostensibly all-powerful, all-seeing, omnipresent, omniscient, multinational corporation that actually has a cure to the zombie virus and yet, nonetheless, still manages to screw up enough to allow the world as we know it to end. And, you know, can't defeat either the living dead without Milla Jovovich and her rag-tag group of resistors.
If we had to choose an avatar for the resistance, Milla Jovovich is not a bad one. But what about on an international relations stage? Who are the zombies there?
This is where things get problematic, because in the genre, when we think about zombies we don't necessarily think of them as other actors, we think of them as pathogens. So one of the fascinating things about the zombie genre over time is that what zombies represent changes. In the original Night of the Living Dead, zombies represent the horrors of thermonuclear war, because it's radiation that causes the living dead to emerge. But, beginning with 28 Days Later, and pretty much ever since then, zombies have been thought of mostly as a result of sort of biological experiment gone wrong or what have you.
And there's also the question what makes someone human.
The interesting thing about zombie movies is never the zombies; it's how do humans react in the wake of this threat and to what extent do humans end up basically being very little, you know, little different from the zombies? The defining line in the comic book of The Walking Dead is Rick at some point just saying, "'We are the walking dead.'"
Have you read The Girl with All the Gifts?
Yes. I have. Oh, that was a great one. Writing the zombie book, I was in part satirizing, frankly, my own profession as well as the zombie genre. But I wrote a semi-serious article about the ways in which the zombie metaphor is used in actual civil discourse and in policy discourse. That groups like the National Rifle Association, basically, sort of paint a world that's almost like the zombie apocalypse. One of the arguments I made is that in order to combat this way of looking at the world, you need different zombie narratives, and The Girl with All the Gifts is definitely a different zombie narrative. It doesn't end the way you're going to expect and it alters who you identify with. Traditionally, you identify with the humans — you're like, “’The zombies are just this faceless void.’” By introducing intelligent zombies and coming with a rather twisty ending, that book sort of upends your conventions.
Beyond zombies, what other science fiction or horror or fantasy texts would you look to for helping to explain American politics right now?
Ender's Game. Particularly from a political science perspective, the best thing by far about Ender's Game was what happens here on Earth while Ender is fighting the bugs, which is Valentine and Peter sort of setting up these avatars online, one was called Locke and one was called Demosthenes, I think. With Demosthenes being a neo-con, radical, kill-them-all way of thinking about the world. Peter was setting it up consciously so that when it was time to create a grand compromise, at least on Earth, because again this also works because Earth was united against the bugs but as they were prosecuting the war it became very clear that there was a danger that the Earth was going to fall into civil war again. Locke essentially proposes a sort of grand compromise and that's the moment when Demosthenes essentially sides with Locke and it was clear that Peter Wiggin had set it all up to basically use control of the mob for that moment when he could potentially broker peace. And so, it's a great — it's a remarkably prescient book when it comes to online discourse.
Does that get us to Trump, though?
No. In some ways, when dealing with Trump is what you want are the elements of the genre that show essentially how you got here. This isn’t necessarily a popular part of the genre but I think it’s relevant here: the prequels for Star Wars. What I mean is that the politics of the prequels in Star Wars are much more interesting than the politics of the original trilogy or definitely the politics of the current trilogy that we're under. That doesn't mean that they're good movies, just to be very, very clear. I'm not endorsing the movies. But told from a straight political perspective, the idea of an opportunistic politician exploiting external threats to seize more and more power for himself and sort of watching a slow degradation of a Republic that has lasted for a long, long time, and then saying, “Well, this Republic is corrupt and they can't make decisions quickly and therefore we need, you know, a take charge kind of guy” ….That's where we are now.