What Is Security Dilemma?


The history of conflicts is as old as that of man. As society developed, so did the scale of conflicts, until the time came when nations fought each other to consolidate their powers. With the formation of international organizations and the enactment of treaties, conventions, and international laws, acts of aggression and political domination have reduced.

However, this does not mean the world is free from threats. Countries usually improve their military powers to deal with probable dangers and protect their territorial integrity. But this action does not always achieve its purpose as other countries could misinterpret it as a sign of potential aggression. An occurrence of this is called the security dilemma.

This concept has been defined as the State of affairs that arises when a country’s decision to arm itself for its security is viewed by other countries as an act of aggression, thus making it more insecure. When a State’s diplomatic or military action, is taken to protect its territorial integrity and national interest, makes other countries feel vulnerable, even though that is not the goal. The other countries, too, feel forced to react, thereby creating international tensions (Wivel, 2011).

Since the term was first used in 1950 by John Herz in his treatise Idealist Internationalism and the Security Dilemma, many scholars have attempted to define the concept and expand on the topic. According to Herbert Butterfield, this dilemma is the root cause of all human conflicts and can push states into avoidable and unintentional wars (Tang, 2009).

It was explained in the treatise that when individuals and groups of people live together without being organized into a higher unity, the human nature of self-preservation compels them to seek means to protect themselves as they are concerned about the aggression of others. This concern leads to a quest for power to escape from the effects of others’ powers, creating a vicious cycle of mutual fear on all sides and a world where no one feels truly secure (Tang, 2009).

It has also been explained as the unintentional and undesired results of actions that were intended to be defensive. This definition implies that when the powers of one state increase, other states automatically feel insecure and view such States with mistrust regardless of whether they are aware of the State’s current intentions or not. The reason for such suspicions is believed to be the fact that no state can guarantee that another country will not be aggressive in the future, or conflict would not occur between the two countries (Tang, 2009).

Furthermore, scholars state that this dilemma happens, not because states wish to harm each other, but because both strive for power, believing it is the way to achieve security. By default, any action taken to acquire power and achieve security will appear threatening to the other State, which fears that its counterpart might become a predator. Thus, taking measures to protect itself as well. These actions and reactions are eventually self-defeating as neither States achieves its ultimate goal – security.

Realism in International Relations and Security Dilemma

This concept focuses on the absence of central power at the international level. This vacuum is believed to have given way to an anarchical society where nation-states are the core players. Each country is, however, guided by national interests to make rational decisions in its aim to achieve power.

According to Realists, the balance of power among states effectively manages this dilemma. The balance of power will exist when a country or group of states is powerful enough to resist the domination of another. In other words, no nation is strong enough to impose itself on another. This concept is, however, a problematic one for many reasons. First, there is no precise way to measure the balance, and war is the only way of testing it. Also, it favours the existing powerful states and maintains the status quo with the smaller ones forced to pitch their tents with the big players, usually in the roles of spectators or victims.

How significant is the conflict of interests?

While it can be agreed that conflict of interests is fundamental to its existence, it is a different thing entirely whether the conflict is real or imagined. In most cases, the conflict of interest is subjective rather than objective. This subjectivity means that it is the reacting State that perceives a divergence of interest, even where none may exist. This was the case with Britain, in 1897 when it viewed Germany’s attempt to expand its fleet as an aggressive act, which led to a breakdown in the relationship between the two countries and the subsequent World War. It is noteworthy that the difference in government systems contributes significantly to the dilemma’s intensity in most instances.

Traditionally, the security dilemma exists between states as a result of another state’s actions. Examples of this include; the Cold War between the United States of America and the Soviet Union, the various nuclear armaments by countries worldwide, and the trade war between China and the United States of America. However, this changed with the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack in the United States of America. With the advent of international terrorism, the dilemma is no more about state actors alone or the quest for power by states aiming to achieve security.

Given that a government has to protect its people, the dilemma is not without advantages. However, these advantages are only realizable when countries can balance their defence/offence strategies. When the emphasis is placed on the defence rather than offence, each country will benefit by increasing security and protecting itself against emerging threats. Today, most states, even the weak ones, adopt an offensive posture as they acquire nuclear weapons stockpiles. These actions lead to more distrust as every nation sees the other as a potential aggressor.

Determining what constitutes an offence is essential. Without mincing words, it is pertinent to point out that eliminating the dilemma is impossible as long as states continue to interact. But it is possible to reduce its influence when states can distinguish between offence and defence acts, and each strives to steer clear of actions that will be deemed offensive by their counterparts.

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