Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Does Anyone Still Understand the 'Security Dilemma'?

| July 26, 2022

A bit of classic IR theory goes a long way toward explaining vexing global problems.

The "security dilemma" is a central concept in the academic study of international politics and foreign policy. First coined by John Herz in 1950 and subsequently analyzed in detail by such scholars as Robert JervisCharles Glaser, and others, the security dilemma describes how the actions that one state takes to make itself more secure—building armaments, putting military forces on alert, forming new alliances—tend to make other states less secure and lead them to respond in kind. The result is a tightening spiral of hostility that leaves neither side better off than before.

If you've taken a basic international relations class in college and didn't learn about this concept, you may want to contact your registrar and ask for a refund. Yet 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.

Consider this recent propaganda video tweeted out from NATO headquarters, responding to assorted Russian "myths" about the alliance. The video points out that NATO is a purely defensive alliance and says it harbors no aggressive designs against Russia. These assurances might be factually correct, but the security dilemma explains why Russia isn't likely to take them at face value and might have valid reasons to regard NATO's eastward expansion as threatening.

Adding new members to NATO may have made some of these states more secure (which is why they wanted to join), but it should be obvious why Russia might not see it this way and that it might do various objectionable things in response (like seizing Crimea or invading Ukraine). NATO officials might regard Russia's fears as fanciful or as "myths," but that hardly means that they are completely absurd or that Russians don't genuinely believe them. Remarkably, plenty of smart, well-educated Westerners—including some prominent former diplomats—cannot seem to grasp that their benevolent intentions are not transparently obvious to others.

Or consider the deeply suspicious and highly conflictual relationship among Iran, the United States, and the United States' most important Middle East clients. U.S. officials presumably believe that imposing harsh sanctions on Iran, threatening it with regime change, conducting cyberattacks against its nuclear infrastructure, and helping organize regional coalitions against it will make the United States and its local partners more secure. For its part, Israel thinks assassinating Iranian scientists enhances its security, and Saudi Arabia thinks intervening in Yemen makes Riyadh safer....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Walt, Stephen M. "Does Anyone Still Understand the 'Security Dilemma'?" Foreign Policy, July 26, 2022.

The Author

Stephen Walt