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Security Dilemma

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A security dilemma arises when other states react to a particular state’s increase in security measures, reducing the security the specific country in question was trying to increase. Scholars have spilled a lot of academic ink arguing over the relevance of security dilemmas. They often converge to the conclusion that international conflict spurs most significantly from security dilemmas. These scholars argue that due to the lack of a global system of governance, each state is responsible for maintaining its security which results in international conflict to ensure its sustainability in the world (Raghavan, 2019).

In light of this, every state is obliged to increase its security. Every action is taken to secure one state. For instance, weapons procurement or nuclear weapons testing reduces the safety of the other states, even though there is no intention of harming other states. Here is where the dilemma arises. The anarchic structure is what causes the other states to arm up following the actions of one state. This is because a decrease in a state’s security does not imply an automatic security dilemma. The other states are often left to wonder whether the armed state will use military advancements to orchestrate an attack in the future (Sala, 2018).

Individual Security Obligation of Each State

Therefore, states resort to increasing their military capabilities to restore equilibrium in power or plan a preemptive attack in response to the increase in security of the arming state, thus disrupting the balance initially present when the states choose the former, a security spiral result. This is where each state arm more and more in response to the other state’s defense expenditure and acquisition of weapons leading to an armament race whose goal is to maintain a balance in the military capabilities of the two states. This option often results in a war in the end. If the states resort to the latter option, the conflict will always be impending.

History of Security Dilemma

In 1949, Herbert Butterfield was the first scholar to describe security dilemma concepts, and in 1950, the term social dilemma was first used by John Hertz. Advocators of the term argue about its ties to a particular historic era despite its accurate alignment with security competition between the Soviet Union and the United States in the Cold War era (Sala, 2018). On the contrary, security dilemma seeks to describe the international affairs’ tragic nature where military conflict is always the result despite the state actors’ attempts at maintaining peace and stability within their states. Given the state of anarchy of the international systems, war is bound to occur due to fear and insecurity, even if the states have current state affairs and only aim for peace.

Structural Realism

One can best term this situation as structural realism, where the anarchic structure of the international systems influences the behaviors of certain states. Structural realism suggests that every state should maintain its security and potential sustainability by focusing on its interests since the global system is a self-help system. The principles of security dilemma are the center or basis of defensive realism. Researchers argue that defensive realism is vital since the states maintain their sustenance and security by strengthening their position in the international system and not by expansion (Jie, 2020). Conversely, scholars who employ alternative discussions of theories have suggested ways to move beyond the security dilemma using their insights to create a world full of peace and harmony.

International Relations Scholars and Security Dilemma

International relations scholars have taken to the security dilemma concepts and have made successful attempts at its application and development. Some of these scholars include Charles Glaser, Robert Jervis, and Barry Posen. Furthermore, Ken Booth and Nicholas Wheeler have taken a more critical approach and stance on exploring the principles of the security dilemma. After applying the recent research on security dilemmas in various world regions, they developed accurate distinctions between security dilemmas. This creates a refined view of what a security dilemma entails and the principle behind it.

Convergence of International Relations Scholars

International relations scholars argue that security dilemmas are a frequent aspect of state lives and converge their opinion on the agreement that the intensity is time- and space-influenced. Stephen Van Evera leverages his argument on the security dilemma intensity on ease of conquest. The intensity of security dilemma will increase when the conquest is easy because when a state increases military competencies, the army’s risk of defeat also increases. Conversely, the intensity of the security dilemma remains the same when the conquest is arduous because, despite the increase in military competencies, the country does not pose an offensive threat to other countries.

Irrelevance of Security Dilemma

Some scholars argue about the irrelevance of the security dilemma. They leverage the fact that the security dilemma stems from the revisionist power maximization search and not states with the existing state of affairs seeking to maximize power (Jie, 2020). If there is a current state of affairs among all states, their relationship would be short of military conflict since all the states will be eager to make their benign intentions clear due to the existence of the status quo. But this is far from the truth since states tend to increase military competencies at the expense of other states, spurring military conflict.

How to Overcome the Problem of Security

States can make their intentions clear by deploying defensive weapons, making other states differentiate defense from offense, mitigating security dilemmas. This will make it clear to the other states that the weapons are for defense purposes only. Additionally, the security dilemma is influenced by the regime type in that democracies may go to war but often not against other democracies. Regime type suggests that security spirals go out of hand when a democracy and an autocracy or two autocracies face-off since every move from both sides is interpreted as a threat. This is barely the case when two democracies face off.

Peculiarities of Liberal Democracies

Peculiarities that make this possible include the transparency of the policy-making process of liberal democracies. The televising or publication of parliamentary debates and facilitation of observation from outside the country enables public scrutiny of all government decisions. The scrutiny and general discussions of government decisions are facilitated by political parties outside the government, focus groups, and social media. Similarly, democracies cannot prematurely decide to go to war due to the existing rules and regulations. These policies signal the other states that they can only make war decisions after warning other states. Furthermore, the procedures are binding, thus preventing the policymakers from rushing into war. These two peculiarities mitigate the uncertainty that arises from advancements of other democratic states’ military capabilities and reduces and overcome security dilemmas and overall security.

Jervis and Glaser

International relations scholars, particularly Jervis and Glaser, argue that states that overcome the problem of insecurity if the offense-defense equilibrium tips towards the defense side and the distinction of the offensive and defensive competencies are established. Glaser states that governments can increase certainty if the states take initiatives to understand other states’ domestic processes since they will have insights on the purposes of their military capability advancement (Yoder and Haynes, 2021). With increased certainty, security problems can be ameliorated reducing security dilemmas. Furthermore, states should have a clear estimate of their capabilities to avoid underestimating other states’ security dilemmas. When a state views itself as others see it, it will mind its military advancements, make its intentions clear, and only focus on defensive strategies to eschew the security problems that arise from security dilemmas.

Pluralistic Security Community

Studies indicate that states can overcome security by existing as a pluralistic security community where interactions are intertwined to develop a community-like sense (Yoder and Haynes, 2021). This development creates assurance that they can settle their disagreements without war. Security communities facilitate transcending the security dilemma and eliminate the fear in which the concept is leveraged. Given that state interests are flexible, this concept is feasible and can overcome the problem of insecurity. When the states exist as a security community, they overcome security because their alignment reduces their dilemma of future attacks by other states in their interests.


Jie, D. (2020). The emerging ideological security dilemma between China and the U.S. China Int Strategy Rev. 2, 184–196

Raghavan, S. (2019). The Security Dilemma and India–China Relations, Asian Security, 15:1, 60-72

Sala, V.D. (2018). Narrating Europe: the EU’s ontological security dilemma, European Security, 27:3, 266-279,

Yoder, B. K., & Haynes, K. (2021). Signaling under the Security Dilemma: An Experimental Analysis. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 65(4), 672–700.

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