Can the Security Dilemma Explain Actual Conflicts?

By James A. Chisem

The concept of the security dilemma describes how it is possible, given the “existential uncertainty” which the condition of international anarchy produces amongst states, for violent conflict to arise between two or more actors even when neither has malign intentions towards the other.[1] Although the idea appears in text as far back as the fifth century BCE in the writings of the Greek intellectual Thucydides, the term only entered the academic lexicon after John Herz concretised it in his 1950 treatise ‘Idealist Internationalism and the Security Dilemma’.[2] In the decades since then, a number of scholarly works, most notably by Robert Jervis, Ken Booth, and Nicholas Wheeler, have drawn attention to the philosophical significance of the security dilemma.[3] Indeed, Booth and Wheeler argue that it is a foundational concept which “goes right to the heart of the theory and practise of international politics.”[4] Nevertheless, if the security dilemma is now ubiquitous in the contemporary study of the states-system, its implications have certainly not resulted in theoretical or prescriptive parsimony. Whereas offensive-realists such as John Mearsheimer contend that international anarchy and ‘Hobbesian Fear’ predispose states to perpetual confrontation, thinkers from diverse scholastic backgrounds have challenged the fatalistic logic of security-competition models, instead emphasising the ameliorative potential of human agency and inter-state regimes.[5]

So who should we believe? In this short article I will argue that although the occurrence of certain wars can be attributed to the operation of the security dilemma, a number of social and structural factors limit the likelihood of such an extreme outcome.

To this end, I will first examine the theoretical underpinnings of the security dilemma. Then I will look at the Anglo-German naval race in order to assess whether these conceptual abstractions can be applied to actual conflicts. Finally, I will consider the various mitigating factors which moderate the effects of the security dilemma.

      i) Anarchy, Uncertainty, and the Security Dilemma

Different theoretical approaches to international relations produce distinctive scenarios and outcomes. In order to grasp the nature, significance, and context of the security dilemma, it is therefore important to situate the concept in the wider framework of structural (or neo) realism, the school of thought from which the term originated, and which has generated the most literature on the subject.

According to structural realists, the character of the international sphere is determined not by human biology or culture, but rather by the absence of an overarching central authority. “The requirements of state action” observed Kenneth Waltz, “are imposed by the circumstances in which all states exist.”[6] In this anarchical environment, it is impossible for decision-makers to deduce with absolute certainty the intentions of others.[7] As a consequence, each state must rely on its own devices to pursue what it perceives to be in its rational self-interest—generally understood to be the attainment of existential security and the maximisation of power relative to other states.[8] To illustrate the endemic behavioural bias towards rivalry in the international system, Jervis points to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s parable of the stag-hunt, drawing a parallel between the mind-set of the story’s hunters and that of modern-day nation states. If the men cooperate to ensnare and slay the stag, they will all enjoy a hearty meal. But if one leaves his post to go in pursuit of a rabbit—which provides inferior nourishment—the stag will successfully flee and the remaining huntsmen will be left hungry. Since each person is liable to harbour doubts about whether everybody in the entourage will cooperate, collaboration appears to be the least advantageous option.[9] The moral of the story is that political and social differences and similarities are meaningless on a systemic level, meaning that, unless a global hierarchy emerges, international interaction will conform to predictable, conflictual patterns.[10]

It is in the glare of this constellation of anarchy (the condition in which the world exists) and uncertainty (the axis upon which it turns) that the deep logic of the security dilemma becomes apparent. Nonetheless, to fully appreciate how the structure of the international realm can compel two status-quo powers unintentionally towards conflict, two derivative dynamics relating to perception and misperception must be considered. First, actors are perennially and inescapably confronted by what philosophers have commonly referred to as the ‘other minds problem’. In essence, policymakers in one state are never able to entirely ascertain the true motivations and objectives of their counterparts in other states.[11] The mutual anxiety and mistrust which this gives rise to is compounded by a second, material problem—the inherent ambiguity of weaponry. Thomas Schelling points out that the meaning of a weapon is contingent upon a number of factors.[12] In a nomadic community, for instance, a rifle can be a vital means of providing food, yet it can also be used “to spray bullets across a school in a mad killing spree.”[13] As the stakes involved in issues of national security strike at the very core of a state’s raison d’être, the difficulty of distinguishing defensive and offensive capabilities necessarily encourages decision-makers to “prepare for the worst”, even if they themselves bear no aggressive intent.[14] It is worth quoting the English historian Herbert Butterfield at length on this matter:

“…you know yourself that you mean him no harm, and that you want nothing from him save guarantees for your own safety; and it is never possible for you to realise or remember properly that since he cannot see the inside of your mind, he can never have the same assurance of your intentions that you have.”[15]

For students of the security dilemma this predicament—one which is informed by irresolvable uncertainty, the subjective, rather than objective, appraisal of other actors’ capabilities and intentions, and the need to respond in kind—is a precursor to the emergence of what Booth and Wheeler call the ‘security paradox’ and Jervis labels the ‘spiral model’. Because statecraft is impelled by fear under anarchy, two perfectly peaceable governments may still interpret each other’s self-proclaimed defensive postures as being motivated by offensive aspirations. In a hypothetical scenario, if State A procures a new weapons system, the rational-consistency of realism and the security dilemma suggests that State B should counteract such a move, explaining its new stance with reference to State A’s original conduct. Knowing that its initial decision was wholly defensive in nature, State A will become suspicious of State B and thus react accordingly. State B faces the same dilemma of interpretation and response, and so it continues ad-finitum. Whilst each state begins with a non-aggressive desire to increase its own security, the chosen course of action to bring about such an outcome actually leads to mutual insecurity.[16]

In the jargon of strategic studies, this is known as an ‘action-reaction cycle’ and its implications for the explanatory usefulness of the security dilemma, and international relations in general, are significant. For if the potency of the international system to propel peacefully disposed nations into a “vicious circle of security and power accumulation” is so great, then history should be littered with countless examples of security-dilemma inspired wars.[17]

      ii) The Security Dilemma In-Extremis: Anglo-German Relations (1898-1914)

In spite of the existence of a number of inter-state hostilities which fulfil such criteria, one particular case has preoccupied modern scholars of international relations, security, and history, namely the Anglo-German naval race of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

Commonly recognised to have begun with Admiral Tirpitz’s now famous 1897 request for a substantially expanded Kaiserliche-Marine, it is often cited as one of the principal antecedents which brought both countries to loggerheads in 1914.[18] The initial German resolution to augment their comparatively diminutive fleet had little, if anything, to do with Britain. Kaiser Wilhelm II was largely stirred by a self-protective desire to provide insurance against the possibility of a prospective adversary blockading the logistically crucial Hanseatic coastline, and was under no illusions as to the benefits of purposefully upsetting the delicate balance of power which existed in Europe at the time.[19] Nevertheless, due to the existential condition of inexorable uncertainty, the British were utterly incapable of perceiving this. In view of the fact that “economic and military preparedness designed to hold what one has is apt to create the potential for taking territory from others”, policymakers in Whitehall ascribed an array of aggressive intentions to Germany’s shipbuilding programme, ranging from the disruption of British trade to, somewhat ridiculously, a wholesale Teutonic invasion of the British Isles.[20] And thus an arms race was set in motion even though no conflict of interest truly existed in the first place. In classic security dilemma fashion, each subsequent move and countermove—calculated as they were to improve the security situation—was interpreted by the other side as evidence of harmful intent.[21] At no point were politicians in Berlin or London able to put themselves in their opposite number’s shoes. Indeed, the Germans were oblivious to the potential for their defensive policy choices to be unfavourably misconstrued, whilst the British “overlooked what the Germans knew full well; in every quarrel with England, German colonies and trade were…hostages for England to take.”[22]

Watching from across the Atlantic, President Theodore Roosevelt summed up this quandary with a sense of irony only a third party can possess:

“The Kaiser sincerely believes that the English are planning to attack him and smash his fleet. As a matter of fact, the English harbour no such intentions, but are themselves in a condition of panic terror lest the Kaiser form an alliance against them with France or Russia, or both, to destroy their fleet and blot out the British Empire from the map! It is as funny a case as I have seen of mutual distrust and fear bringing two peoples to the verge of chaos.”[23]

Jack Snyder contends that it was the above dilemma more than anything which persuaded German defence-planners to prepare a two-front preventative attack, as they feared it was the “only alternative to encirclement.”[24] Although one must be careful not to treat the Anglo-German naval race in isolation from wider events, it is clear that the whirlpool of reciprocal mistrust which fed and sustained it contributed considerably to the breakdown in relations between two previously disinterested great powers, and consequently to the eruption of war.

      iii) Mitigating Factors: Context and Agency

And yet, if this disconsolate vision of international relations is so compelling, and meaningful inter-state cooperation therefore an elusive mirage, then the question must be asked, why “are we not all dead?”[25]

Although historically evident, instances wherein the security dilemma results in armed conflict appear to be quite rare. Indeed, there is an ongoing debate as to whether the term has been too readily and broadly applied to explain wars which on closer inspection have perceptibly discrete causes. The founding father of the concept, John Herz, made a concerted effort to differentiate between the emergence of hostilities amongst actors with benign temperaments and those wars which flow directly from “policies that go beyond security proper.” Invoking the actions of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, he noted that when a regime has obviously expansionist tendencies, leaders in other nations do not face a dilemma of interpretation or response.[26] More recently, Shipping Tang has criticised Barry Posen’s hypothesis that ethnic-conflict in the Balkans during the early-1990s was inadvertent, charging that both the Croats and Serbs harboured deeply rooted malign intentions towards one another.[27] That is not to say that security dilemmas which produce conflicts of interest are uncommon—there is a preponderance of literature which convincingly demonstrates that inter-state tensions as varied as the early-Cold War, the fall-out over the Strategic Defence initiative, and Argentine-Brazilian nuclear enmity, fit this mould.[28]

As Jervis points out, however, anarchy and uncertainty are not the only variables to take into account when discussing the propensity of states to fall victim to the security dilemma and ‘spiral model’. In an article written for World Politics in 1978, he added nuance to the tragic image of international relations by introducing two critical ideas—a) the relative costs of exploitation and b) the offence-defence balance. First, the geographical, technological, structural, and economic context in which social-units exist fundamentally alters decision-makers attitudes in relation to cooperation and ‘defection’. A participant in the stag-hunt who is starving will undoubtedly view the benefits of staying at their post very differently to a colleague who has already consumed an ample luncheon. Similarly, if a state has defensible borders, a generously proportioned land mass, allies in abundance, and a well-protected military infrastructure, then its capacity to trust others and ignore indefinite and outwardly isolated signs of danger will be greatly enhanced.[29] Academics of a more liberal or classical realist bent go as far as to suggest that this creates a space in which state bureaucracies develop ‘security dilemma sensibility’, gradually coming to understand each other’s counter-fear.[30] In turn, this permits the evolution of a set of integrated international institutions, communities, and regimes which establish the “avoidance of force in the settlement of disputes” as a norm[31]. It is arguable that the longevity of trans-national groupings such as the European Union and NATO, wherein “militarised security competition appears to have been transcended indefinitely”, verifies such thinking.[32] Second, the ever shifting nexus between technical advancement, topography, and strategy plays an important role in determining the incentives states have to act on their shared interests. When defence is widely perceived to have the advantage over offence, most states can inexpensively offset regional arms build-ups, therefore making accommodative settlements much easier to reach. When the converse is true, as it was in the years preceding the Great War, the common “fear of a surprise attack” is high, and the security dilemma is at its “most vicious.”[33]

At this juncture, it is also pertinent to raise a third related issue which a number of thinkers have explored—the impact of the thermonuclear revolution and models of deterrence on the conduct of statecraft. Because defence against a nuclear attack is essentially impossible, if two states acquire invulnerable warhead delivery platforms, they gain the ability to annihilate the other side under any circumstances, thereby leaving neither with an incentive to exacerbate a crisis or launch a pre-emptive strike.[34] Somewhat counter-intuitively, a situation of mutually assured destruction (MAD) opens the door to “policies of mutual accommodation”, with both sides necessarily required to consciously rest “their security on each other’s vulnerability.”[35] The almost primordial fear which the prospect of Armageddon arouses amongst statesmen thus encourages the development of a more cautious and empathetic mindset than ‘kill or perish’ conceptions of the security dilemma allow for.[36]


In light of the anarchical structure of international politics and the corresponding condition of existential uncertainty, it is inevitable that unintended conflicts of interest will emerge amongst security-seeking status-quo states. However, anarchy is not as fatalistically deterministic as structural realists assert. Despite the existence of empirical evidence which confirms that such a state of affairs can indeed result in a spiral of mistrust, arms competition, and violent conflict, as in the case of the Anglo-German naval race, a number of political and material factors limit the frequency of such catastrophic resolutions.

The complex interplay between military technology, the offence-defence balance, subjective context, and international norms curtails the severity of the security dilemma in most circumstances. Crucially, defensively oriented states are by their very nature less susceptible to bouts of paranoia in their relations with one another. This ensures that a) these states are more likely to avoid creating a security paradox in the first place and b) if they do, attempts at signalling reassurance are more prone to be successful.

To a certain extent, then, the security dilemma is—to paraphrase Alexander Wendt—what states make of it.[37] This has far-reaching repercussions, not just for the discipline of International Relations, but for the formulation of foreign policy itself. It is to be hoped that those in the corridors of power grasp this fact and act on it with the utmost urgency, lest this century repeat the bloody tragedy of the previous one.

James A. Chisem is an editor and writer at Atlantic Bulletin.


[1] Mitzen J. ‘Ontological Security in World Politics: State Identity and the Security Dilemma’ pp.341-370 in European Journal of International Relations Vol.12, No.3, 2006 p.341-342

[2] Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War: A New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations translated by Walter Blanco (London: WW Norton & Co, 1998) p.12-15 and Herz J. ‘Idealist Internationalism and the Security Dilemma’ pp.157-180 in World Politics Vol.2, No.2, January 1950

[3] Wiseman G. Concepts of Non-Provocative Defence: Ideas and Practise in International Security (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002) p.14-18

[4] Wheeler N and K Booth. ‘The Security Dilemma’ pp.29-60 in Dilemmas of World Politics: International Issues in a Changing World edited by J Baylis (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992) p.29

[5] See Mearsheimer J. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (London: WW Norton & Co, 2001) p.1-3 and Tang S ‘The Security Dilemma: A Conceptual Analysis’ pp.587-623 in Security Studies Vol.18, No.3, 2009 p.588

[6] Waltz KN. Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001) p.159-165, quote on p.160

[7] Mearsheimer J The Tragedy of Great Power Politics p.31

[8] Waltz KN. Theory of International Politics (London: Mcgraw Hill, 1979) p.124-127

[9] Jervis R. ‘Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma’ pp.167-214 in World Politics Vol30, No.2, January 1978 p.167-168

[10] Waltz KN. ‘Reductionist and Systemic Theories’ pp.47-70 in Neo-Realism and its Critics edited by R Keohane (New York; Columbia University Press, 1986) p.53

[11] Booth K and NJ Wheeler. The Security Dilemma: Fear, Cooperation and Trust in World Politics (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) p.27

[12] Schelling TC. The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960) p.269-271

[13] Booth K and NJ Wheeler. The Security Dilemma p.43

[14] Herz J. ‘Idealist Internationalism’ p.157

[15] Butterfield H. History and Human Relations (London: Collins, 1951) p.21

[16] See Booth K and NJ Wheeler. The Security Dilemma p.5 and p.23-25

[17] Quote at Herz J. ‘Idealist Internationalism’ p.157

[18] Wainstein L. ‘The Dreadnought Gap’ pp.153-169 in The Use of Force: International Politics and Foreign Policy edited by RJ Art and KN Waltz (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1971) p.168-169

[19] This turned out to be an incredibly prescient concern. The Royal Navy effectively cut the Germans off from the North Sea during the First World War. Kennedy PM. The Rise of Anglo-German Antagonism, 1860-1914 (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1980) p.415-418

[20] Jervis R. Perception and Misperception in International Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976) p.64

[21] Ibid p.74

[22] Jervis R. ‘Cooperation’ p.170

[23] Collins A. The Security Dilemma and the End of the Cold War (Edinburgh: Keele University Press, 1997) p.14

[24] Snyder JL. ‘Perceptions of the Security Dilemma in 1914’ pp.153-179 in Psychology and Deterrence edited by R Jervis, N Lebow and JG Stein. (London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1985) p.154

[25] Jervis R. ‘Cooperation’ p.170

[26] Herz J. International Politics in the Atomic Age (London: Columbia University Press, 1959) p.234

[27] See Tang S. ‘The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict: Towards a Dynamic and Integrative Theory of Ethnic Conflict’ pp.511-536 in Review of International Studies Vol.37, No.1, 2011 p.518 and Posen B. ‘The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict’ pp.27-47 Survival Vol.35, No.1, Spring 1993 p.36-38

[28] Jervis R. ‘Was the Cold War a Security Dilemma?’ pp.36-60 in Journal of Cold War Studies Vol.3, No.1, Winter 2001 p.55-56 and Jervis R. The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution: Statecraft and the Prospect of Armageddon (Cornell University Press, London, 1989) p.64-66 and p.116, Hilton S ‘The Argentine Factor in Twentieth-Century Brazilian Foreign Policy’ pp.27-51 in Political Science Quarterly Vol.100, No.1, 1985

[29] Jervis R. ‘Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma’ p.172-174. Taking up this train of thought 26 years earlier, Arnold Wolfers wrote; “Another and even stronger reason why nations must be expected not to act uniformly is that they are not all or constantly faced with the same degree of danger”. See Wolfers A. Discord and Collaboration: Essays on International Politics (Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press,1962) p.152

[30] Wendt A. ‘Anarchy is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics’ pp.391-425 in International Organization Vol.46, No.2, Spring 1992 p.404-407

[31] Collins A. ‘State-Induced Security Dilemma: Maintaining the Tragedy’pp.27-44 in Cooperation and Conflict: Journal of the Nordic International Studies Association Vol.39, No.1, March 2004 p.37

[32] Booth K Wheeler NJ ‘Uncertainty’ pp.133-150 in Security Studies: An Introduction edited by PD Williams (New York: Routledge, 2008) p.142

[33] Jervis R. ‘Cooperation’ p.186-189, quote at p.187

[34] Sagan SD and KN Waltz. The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate (New York: WW Norton and Company, 1995) p.108-110

[35] The desire to preclude one side escaping MAD and gaining a first-strike capability played an integral role in the formulation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Wheeler NJ. ‘To Put Oneself into the Other Fellow’s Place: John Herz, the Security Dilemma, and the Nuclear Age’ pp.493-509 in International Relations Vol.22, No.4, 2008 p.498-499

[36] For an in-depth elaboration of nuclear fear see, Craig C. Glimmer of a New Leviathan: Total War in the Realism of Niebuhr, Morgenthau, and Waltz (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007) p.21-31