“What Is the Security Dilemma and What Factors Exacerbate It?”

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PIED2558 Security Studies
“What is the security dilemma and what factors exacerbate it?”

Word Count: 3,227
S. Raszewski

“The greatest war in history can be produced without the intervention of any great criminals who might be out to do deliberate harm in the world. It could be produced between two powers, both of which were desperately anxious to avoid a conflict of any sort.” (Butterfield, 1951: 19–20) The security dilemma is one of the most important theoretical ideas in international relations and security studies. In this essay I shall attempt to give a brief explanation of the security dilemma, including some of its history and main points, give a summary of factors that exacerbate it and then show some practical examples of those factors. In practical terms I'll look at modern history as well as ways the security dilemma could affect us in the future.

The Security Dilemma is a term coined by John H. Herz (1959), and also refers to a theory put forward around the same time by Herbert Butterfield (1951) which covers the same topic. Though the theories differ in the way fear affects the situation (Wheeler, Booth, 2008; 135) and whether the security dilemma is all pervasive (Tang, 2009; 591), in basic understanding they both describe a "two-level strategic predicament in relations between states and other actors, with each level consisting of two related dilemmas [...] which force decision-makers to choose between them" (Wheeler, Booth, 2008; 133), the first of those dilemmas is one of interpretation of "about the motives, intentions and capabilities of others" (Wheeler, Booth, 2008; 133) the second is one of how to react to the initial interpretation. This is a threat to security because, for instance, the wrong interpretation of an act, which may have been intended as non-aggressive, could result in a violent reaction from another state that is not desired by either side. Jervis states that a security dilemma exists when "many of the means by which a state tries to increase its security decrease the security of others" (Jervis, 1978; 169). This can result in the spiral model coming into effect, which is when "the the interaction between states that are seeking only security can fuel competition and strain political relations" (Glaser, 1997; 171). This has the potential to turn into a vicious cycle that could end up in, for instance, an arms race. One of the most tragic elements of the security dilemma, as noted by Butterfield (1951) and Roe (1999), is that the nations involved are "unaware that they themselves are generating feelings of insecurity in the other. Importantly, this suggests that the parties involved could both be secure if only they could come to see the nature of the situation they are in" (Roe, 1999; 184) a point we will touch on later.

In "The Security Dilemma: A Conceptual Analysis" (2009), Tang notes that there are three essential elements to a security dilemma; anarchy, an initial lack of malign intent and some sort of accumulation of power (Tang, 2009; 597). I believe that the "lack of malign intent" factor must be emphasized first. Many armed conflicts have come about because of the spiral model, some of these are security dilemmas and some of these are not, and what makes one a conflict resulting from security dilemma is an initial lack of malign intent. A spiral model situation is a vicious circle of increasingly strong accumulation of power, for instance an arms race. I will present two scenarios to illustrate how almost identical spiral scenarios are not both security dilemmas. In scenario one; side A buys ten rockets for defensive or scientific purposes, its neighbor side B is fearful of side A's new offensive power and buys fifteen rockets, side A is alarmed by side B's sudden buying of rockets and buys even more rockets, this then causes side B to preemptively attack side A. This situation is a security dilemma as side A's initial rocket purchase was not offensive...
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