The Security Dilemma

One of the most fundamental explanations for international conflict is a concept known as the Security Dilemma. It is usually considered a cornerstone of the Realist and Neo-Realist schools of thought.

The notion of the Security Dilemma describes as a situation where misunderstanding of intentions or mistrust lead to an increase in military hardware and capability.
One of the key issues involved with the Security Dilemma is that there is no guarantee that a neighbor, though peaceful in the past, will not become an aggressor after an increase in capability.

For example: Redland and Blueland are neighbors. The Government of Redland mistrusts the intentions of Blueland, and is intimidated, or the very least impressed, by the military capabilities of Blueland. The government of Redland, adopts a defensive posture and decides to increase their own military hardware in order to match or be superior to that of Blueland. Redland after all reserves its right to freedom and self determination and is willing to defend itself and these rights at all costs.
The Government of Blueland, regrets the deterioration in trust and communication with Redland. Because of this it also has certain doubts about the intentions of the government of Redland.
The Government of Blueland receives reports about the build up of military hardware in Redland and responds in kind, relying upon the need to be able to defend oneself. Both sides find themselves in a vicious cycle of increasing insecurity, despite seeking security through nominally non-aggressive means. This defeats the purpose and intention of the original action.

A real world example of the Security Dilemma can be found in the topic of nuclear deterrents and missile defense technology. If, for example, the United States were to develop an effective missile shield, it would render the nuclear deterrent capability of Russia or China obsolete. This could in turn lead to a build up of nuclear weapons in order to brute force the missile shield, or a development of more advanced missile technology with multiple warheads (e.g. Multiple Independently targeted Re-entry Vehicle, known as MIRVs).

Some scholars maintain that the Security Dilemma can be used to describe the origin of most conflict. One of the most important inquiries into the nature of the Security Dilemma is the conceptual analysis by Shiping Tang. Tang begins by reviewing the key tenets of the Security Dilemma as written by its three “fathers”: Herbert Butterfield, John Herz and Robert Jervis. In order to create a more concise definition of the Security Dilemma, Tang boils down the common factors in the definitions presented by Butterfield, Herz and Jervis to the following three essential points: “Anarchy, a lack of malign intentions on both sides, and some accumulation of power.” He states that any situation can only be defined as a Security Dilemma if these three points are present.
It is necessary to elaborate that “Anarchy” in this instance describes the anarchical nature of International relations in as much that there is no governing world order. Tang clarifies that this anarchy is the cause for fear, uncertainty as well as a necessity for self-reliance in matters of self preservation and security. He goes on to underline the importance of the influence of psychological factors upon such situations, highlighting among them fear, nationalism and ethnocentrism.
A critical observation by Tang is that in the current state of the world it is a very real possibility that “two defensive realist states” could be caught up in a Security Dilemma that devolves into a full blown conflict.
Tang ends his work by shining a light on further areas of study and other as of yet un-researched factors that contribute to the Security Dilemma including the above named psychological factors, domestic politics, the influence of allies upon decision making.

Therefore, to properly use the concept of the Security Dilemma in understanding modern conflicts and international politics, one must bear in mind the following:
The anarchy of international relations is the cause of uncertainty of intentions of other nations. Because of this, nations must judge each other on basis of capabilities, which can cause more uncertainty as well as fear. Furthermore, in order to truly be called a Security Dilemma, the intentions of both parties involved must not be malicious as well as an accumulation of power be one or both sides.




Brown, C. and Ainley, K. Understanding International Relations (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

Tang, S. ‘The Security Dilemma: A Conceptual Analysis’, Security Studies, Volume 18, Issue 3 (2009) pp. 587-623. Available at: [Accessed 19 June 2018]

Photo courtesy of Rare Historical Photos:

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