Academics define the security dilemma from a few different perspectives, but most revolve around realist international security studies theories. Similarly, the consensus is that it is dependent on two separate variables. The first is the offense-defense balance between states, and the second is the offense-defense differential (Levy 2011).
In the first variable, the theory argues that when states have proportionally equal military power, then both can maintain stability and security. In the second case, when there is an imbalance of power, the weaker state may seek out a more powerful ally or increase its military capabilities (Jervis 1978; Walt 1985). Conversely, the more powerful state may see the imbalance as an opportunity to absorb the weaker one through military conquest.
One could argue that Russia’s seizure of Crimea and the current invasion of the rest of Ukraine fall into both categories of the latter variable. Putin views a NATO partner state as a threat and an imbalance of power between entities and sees Ukraine as a weaker state that he should reabsorb into the Russian Federation (Treisman 2016). Glaser (1997) also provides two additional variables – motivations beyond security and the psychology of the actors – that Treisman (2016) also discusses in his assessments of Putin and Russia’s actions toward Ukraine.
These two new variables provide another interesting realist perspective on the security dilemma, which revolves around uncertainty, reassurance, and Jus ad Bellum – justification for war. Arash (2018), Jervis (2011), and Montgomery (2006) all address how the uncertainty of security or power balance, adversary/rival intentions or motivations, and unpredictability of state leaders can create instability and fuel conflict. For example, the Kim Dynasty in the DPRK (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or North Korea) has been unpredictable, impulsive, and challenging to collect timely and accurate intelligence on, resulting in ongoing instability and insecurity throughout the region. Conversely, knowledge of Putin’s background as a “Cold Warrior” for the former Soviet Union makes predicting his actions more reliable and understandable (Treisman 2016).
In closing, it is essential to briefly address the competing international relations theories of liberalism and constructivism and how they may be ill-suited to apply to the security dilemma. Liberalism believes conflicts can be mitigated or reduced through security regimes, mutual understanding, and institutionalization. Similarly, constructivism believes that cultivating shared norms and interests can reduce interstate conflicts. However, several researchers, Jane Goodall specifically, observed chimpanzee communities demonstrating aggression towards one another in battles that more closely resemble realist theoretical models (Wrangham and Glowacki 2012; Sandel and Watts 2021).
The most famous was the “Gombe Chimpanzee War,” where a chimpanzee community split and turned into a multi-year war. The primary cause of the conflict seemed to derive from an imbalance of power and territoriality despite genetic ties and commonality from previous associations (Wrangham and Glowacki 2012). Although human interactions are far more complex than these primates, Wrangham and Glowacki presented some fascinating hypotheses about the “nature of conflict” and whether community ties such as those proposed by liberalism and constructivism would be effective in creating better stability and security globally.
Arash, Heydarian Pashakhanlou. 2018. “Intelligence and Diplomacy in the Security Dilemma: Gauging Capabilities and Intentions.” International Politics 55 (5) (09): 519-536. doi:https://doi.org/10.1057/s41311-017-0119-8.
Glaser, Charles L. 1997. “The Security Dilemma Revisited.” World Politics 50, no. 1 (1997): 171–201. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25054031.
Jervis, Robert. 1978. “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma.” World Politics 30, no. 2 (1978): 167–214. https://doi.org/10.2307/2009958.
Jervis, Robert. 2011. “Dilemmas About Security Dilemmas.” Security Studies 20 (3): 416–23. doi:10.1080/09636412.2011.599189.
Levy, Jack S. 2011. “The Causes of War: A Review of Theories and Evidence.” In Causes of War, 209-233. Hoboken, NY: John Wiley & Sons. http://ebooks.apus.edu.ezproxy2.apus.edu/GLBS745/The%20Causes%20of%20War_Tetlock%20et%20al.%20Ch%204_Week%203.pdf.
Montgomery, Evan Braden. 2006. “Breaking Out of the Security Dilemma: Realism, Reassurance, and the Problem of Uncertainty.” International Security 31 (2): 151–85. doi:10.1162/isec.2006.31.2.151.
Sandel, Aaron A. and David P. Watts. 2021. “Lethal Coalitionary Aggression Associated with a Community Fission in Chimpanzees (Pan Troglodytes) at Ngogo, Kibale National Park, Uganda.” International Journal of Primatology 42 (1) (02): 26-48. doi:https://doi-org.ezproxy2.apus.edu/10.1007/s10764-020-00185-0.
Treisman, Daniel. 2016. “Why Putin Took Crimea: The Gambler in the Kremlin.” Foreign Affairs, May, 47-54.
Walt, Stephen M. 1985. “Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power.” International Security 9, no. 4 (1985): 3–43. https://doi.org/10.2307/2538540.
Wrangham, Richard W., and Luke Glowacki. 2012. “Intergroup Aggression in Chimpanzees and War in Nomadic Hunter-Gatherers.” Human Nature: An Interdisciplinary Biosocial Perspective 23 (1) (03): 5-29. doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-012-9132-1.
Ben Varlese is a former U.S. Army Mountain Infantry Platoon Sergeant and served in domestic and overseas roles from 2001-2018, including, from 2003-2005, as a sniper section leader. Besides his military service, Ben worked on the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq’s protective security detail in various roles, and since 2018, he has also provided security consulting services for public and private sectors, including tactical training, physical and information security, executive protection, protective intelligence, risk management, insider threat mitigation, and anti-terrorism. He earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies from American Military University, a graduate certificate in Cyber Security from Colorado State University and is currently in his second year of AMU’s Doctorate of Global Security program.
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