What Everyone Should Know About the ‘Security Dilemma’

It’s frighteningly easy for those who want peace to blunder into a war. In the age of nuclear weapons, we need to understand how this happens so that we make sure we are not creating a catastrophe.

 I don’t care for the name of the “security dilemma,” since it’s not very evocative of what it describes, but I wish everyone understood the basic concept. It is, as Chinese political scientist Shiping Tang explains, “one of the most important theoretical ideas in international relations.” It refers to the way that countries can take actions they perceive as defensive, but which are perceived by other countries as aggressive, and which create a spiral of hostility that can end in war. Tang describes two states, neither of which intends to threaten the other and both of whom want to live in a world of peace: 

The two states, however, cannot be sure of each other’s present or future intentions. As a result, each tends to fear that the other may be or may become a predator. Because both believe that power is a means toward security, both seek to accumulate more and more power. Because even primarily defensive capability will inevitably contain some offensive capability, many of the measures adopted by one side for its own security can often threaten, or be perceived as threatening, the security of the other side even if both sides merely want to defend their security. Consequently, the other side is likely to take countermeasures against those defensive measures. The interaction of these measures and countermeasures tends to reinforce their fears and uncertainties about each other’s intentions, leading to a vicious cycle in which each accumulates more power without necessarily making itself more secure, through a self-reinforcing or positive feedback mechanism. This vicious cycle can also lead to unnecessary thus tragic conflicts—threats of war or war.

The reason the “security dilemma” is such an important concept is that it shows how two countries, neither of whom intends to go to war, can end up each perceiving the other as an aggressor and drifting closer to war. The security dilemma makes aspects of the Cold War look absurd and tragic in retrospect. From the historical record, we know that after World War II, the Soviet Union did not intend to attack the United States, and the United States did not intend to attack the Soviet Union. But both ended up pointing thousands of nuclear weapons at each other, on hair-trigger alert, and coming terrifyingly close to outright civilization-ending armageddon, because each perceived the other as a threat. In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan began talking about the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and building up the U.S. military. The Soviets thought Reagan might be preparing to attack them with nuclear weapons, and even mistook a U.S./NATO military exercise for an impending attack, leading to near catastrophe. What Reagan saw as defensive measures against an aggressor, the other party saw as aggressive measures, to which it took defensive measures, interpreted as further offensive measures, etc.

It’s very valuable to think about security dilemmas anytime we hear another country described as being a threat. We know that it’s very easy for countries to misunderstand each other’s intentions, so if we are told that we are under threat, we need to carefully check the evidence to see whether the threat is real or whether it is—as is very plausible—a security dilemma in which actions the other party perceives to be defensive are being portrayed as offensive.

Take Iran. There’s a lot of fretting in the United States over the prospect of Iran producing a nuclear weapon, with allegations it is engaged in “nuclear provocations.” There seems to be a tacit assumption, as intelligence expert Thomas Powers writes, that “the country is run by religious fanatics crazy enough to use a bomb if they had one.” But as Powers notes, it’s quite possible that Iran would want a nuclear bomb for the same reason that other countries do: to deter potential attackers. Powers writes that “as tools of coercive diplomacy nuclear weapons are almost entirely useless, but they are extremely effective in blocking large-scale or regime-threatening attack. There is no evidence that Iran has a different motive, and plenty of reason for Iran to fear that attack is a real possibility.” Indeed, U.S. presidents have frequently said that “all options are on the table” with regard to Iran, and bombing it is discussed seriously in this country’s newspapers. We have launched major cyberattacks against Iran, imposed harsh sanctions, and Israel has assassinated its nuclear scientists. Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld has written that “the world has witnessed how the United States attacked Iraq for, as it turned out, no reason at all. Had the Iranians not tried to build nuclear weapons, they would be crazy.” The United States may treat Iran as an aggressor, but Iran has good reason to regard many U.S. “defensive” actions  as threatening to Iran. When Iran responds rationally to those threats, its actions are seen as further aggression, necessitating a “tough” response. And, as happens with security dilemmas, tensions can spiral out of control even if neither party intended to attack the other and both felt they were just looking out for their national security. 

As I write, Iran has launched drone attacks on Israel, in retaliation for an Israeli attack on Iran’s consulate in the Middle East. Each side believes the other is the aggressor, and believes itself to be pursuing purely defensive “deterrence” measures to maintain its “national security.” Iran probably doesn’t want a war with Israel, but the cycle of violence and counter-violence can easily escalate into conflicts that neither party actually wants to see happen. World War I, a hideous homicidal calamity that nobody wanted to happen, shows the extreme of what can happen when violence, instead of diplomacy, is used to solve global problems, and each side is convinced that it represents purity and justice while its rivals are evil incarnate. 

Security dilemmas can also be useful concepts for evaluating U.S. relations with Russia and China. In the U.S., for instance, the idea that Russia perceived NATO expansion as “threatening” is seen as absurd. After all, NATO is a purely defensive alliance. Nobody in it was thinking of attacking Russia. How could Russia possibly perceive the admittance of Ukraine to NATO as a “threat” to Russia? But that’s precisely how the U.S. would perceive it if, say, China tried to form a “defensive”  military alliance with Canada and Mexico, and started training soldiers in those countries. Russia has actually been invaded twice by NATO member Germany over the last century. Vladimir Putin’s brother starved to death during the Siege of Leningrad. It wouldn’t be surprising if he was paranoid about risk and capable of seeing threats where none existed. As Stephen Walt says in an important (and sadly paywalled) article encouraging people to understand the security dilemma, pointing out that NATO “harbors no aggressive designs against Russia” isn’t likely to reassure Russia, because even if it’s true, Russia “might have valid reasons to regard NATO’s eastward expansion as threatening.” That’s because benign intent today does not necessarily mean benign intent tomorrow, and Russia might regard it as dangerous to have a powerful military alliance on its doorstep indefinitely, even if that military alliance does not currently harbor any aggressive designs. Walt points out that the security dilemma is such a foundational concept to international relations that everyone learns it in a 101 class, but says that “given its simplicity and its importance, I’m frequently struck by how often the people charged with handling foreign and national security policy seem to be unaware of it—not just in the United States, but in lots of other countries too.”

In the case of China, the U.S. can point to China’s “significant expansion” of its nuclear weapons as evidence that there is a greater “China threat.” But China can point to the U.S. flooding the Indo-Pacific region with new weapons, forging alliances against China with neighboring countries, and declaring China an “enemy” that needs to be countered. China might well conclude that, in fact, it faces a significant “U.S. threat.” As Walt says, “China regards America’s long position of regional influence—and especially its network of military bases and its naval and air presence—as a potential threat,” and in doing so it’s acting perfectly consistently with how basic international relations theory predicts a state will act. 

It’s no answer to this to say that U.S. actions are purely defensive, and that it is preposterous to think we would invade China. It’s equally preposterous to think China intends to invade the United States, but that doesn’t stop U.S. politicians from panicking about China posing some kind of threat to the American “way of life.” Donald Trump’s Secretary of the Navy warned that if we do not stop China, “we will not have the freedom to speak our language the way that we do, to live with free and open society, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom to congregate — all those things can be eliminated.” This is madness. How exactly is China going to stop us from speaking our language? It’s no different from the bizarre panic over China sneaking “military-age men” across the U.S. border. But in international relations, it’s not uncommon for one state to be irrationally afraid of another, even when that other state has no actual intention of harming it. (In fact, some might argue that the fear is rational even when it’s wrong, because the unknowability of other countries’ intentions means paranoia is better than complacency.) We also tend to notice the actions of others without noticing our own actions or how they affect the response of other states. I have written before about how U.S. press coverage of Chinese spying has almost totally failed to examine whether U.S. spying against China is just as illegitimate, or how it might affect Chinese perceptions of the U.S. 

I am very, very troubled by the quite real possibility of a war between the U.S. and China/Russia in my lifetime. I see plenty of mainstream commentators encouraging us to plan for just such an eventuality. If it happened, it might be the end of human civilization as we know it, given the power of nuclear weapons and the difficulty of keeping violence from spiraling out of control. To avoid it, we need to get over the culture of fear that is pervasive in the U.S., where instead of treating other countries as rational and human like ourselves, we are constantly seeing terrible looming threats, and Iranians, Chinese people, and Russians are made into monstrous bogeymen. We need to calm down and remember that misunderstandings are pervasive in the international system, with “defense” easily mistaken for aggression. 

That’s not to say that there is no aggression in the international system. The U.S., Russia, and China have all broken international law and all menaced or (in Russia and the U.S.’s case) launched illegal invasions of other countries. But if we are to minimize the chances of a catastrophic global war in our time, we must learn to identify real threats  and try to build trust with other countries, rather than interpreting perfectly rational actions as signs of Hitler-like aggressive ambitions. We need to learn to see our country as others see it, to see how our own actions are interpreted as hostile and aggressive, and to see why others respond as they do. 

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