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The Security Dilemma and Its Solutions

December 5, 2014

The security problem is a great threat to peace, and solving it is key to a lasting, durable peace.

Step back. Most of my readers have no idea what the security dilemma is. Let’s outline it, noting that the dilemma applies to international relations. To keep it simple, lets consider just 2 nations. The outline:

  1. Assume that both sides are defensive, NOT, offensive
  2. Assume that the intention of the outline is unknown.

Lets consider these assumptions for a second. Many of you will disagree with the first one, arguing that many regimes are aggressive (Eg. Nazis) . Perhaps regimes are aggressive. Today, it doesn’t matter. The frightening aspect of the security dilemma is that even if we are extremely charitable and say all nations are inherently defensive and happy to maintain the status quo and not invade anybody else, that peace is threatened. More on the below. The second assumption is fair I think. Nations can’t read minds.

What happens next?

  1. To minimise the possibility of defeat, the rational actor will work under the assumption that the adversary is offensive

To give you an idea of the problems this poses, let me talk about some examples of the security dilemma in practice.

Anglo-German naval arms race

The argument with the security dilemma is that defensive based arms spending causes fear in others because they can’t read intentions. This causes instability. The nation that felt threatened responds with an escalation of arms. This turns into an arms race spiral.

Take the Anglo-German naval arms race pre-WWI. Both sides engaged in a massive spending campaign. But did either side want war? Britain did not want war on the continent, and whether Germany did is also quite questionable. Germany perceived the Triple Entente as ‘encircling’ it – it perceived defence spending as not being defensive, but being subtly offensive against it. Furthermore, we can argue that Germany did not want war and was dragged into war by the alliance system.

The point here is that both Britain and Germany perceived their actions and spending as defensive. However, they perceived each other’s actions as offensive. This caused an arms race that contributed to tensions pre-WWI, and was one cause of WWI.

The security dilemma in East Asia

Here’s a contemporary example – tensions in the South East China Sea between China and its neighbours, or more specifically for our purposes, the dispute over the Senkaku Islands between Japan and China. What are the origins of this conflict?

Undoubtedly, ambiguous international agreements contribute to instability. Also, fishing rights and natural resources contribute to dispute. But, Professor Fujiwara (my Coursera instructor) ‘doubts’ that these are the primary causes. (For good reason, the dispute simmered quietly for decades) The primary causes are the naval arms race beginning in the region, and the security dilemma. As China’s power increases, other nations are unsure of its intentions, and hedge against it.

A classic case of security dilemma.

Take the Senkaku Islands. Japan nationalised some islands a while back. The government believed this as a protective action to block the provocative plan of the ultranationalist Governor of Tokyo. It also saw the territories as its own. China, by contrast, saw this as an aggressive attempt to nationalise disputed territory. Responding, China created a new air-defence identification zone, and ventured into (highly disputed) territorial waters around the islands. A quick summary of some events for readers.

Here is the security dilemma in action. Both sides saw their actions as defensive, and that they were simply defending their own territory. Yet we saw (and are still seeing) frayed relations between Japan and China and instability in the region. Why? As Professor Fujiwara argued “[I] understand the Chinese viewpoint, yet these defensive actions can be perceived as aggressive” . Perceived as aggressive.

So, again, defensive actions cause arms escalation and rising tensions. Let alone aggressive powers! So, how can we forge peace? Lets look at solutions to the dilemma.

Arms Control

Professor Fujiwara’s preferred solution is to pursue arms control. (NB: ‘Arms control is not disarmement’.) His argument is that arms control:

  1. Builds confidence and reassures each side of each other’s defensive intentions
  2. Decreases mutual suspicions of offensive actions
  3. Increases the possibility of institutional building internationally

The idea is simple here. By declaring that you wish to prevent arms escalation, you send a signal that you don’t want war. Enough strong signals and the problem of unknown intentions which plagues the security dilemma is solved.

Its an interesting argument by the Professor, and I think arms control can help minimise the impact of the dilemma. Yet its not my favoured solution. Firstly, I highly doubt premise 3 above. Secondly, the problem with arms control is that it can reduce deterrence and – on a separate point – I’d argue that by ‘equalising’ the arms playing field you can create a dangerous international situation. When the field is so unequal as to prevent one side from winning (eg. A hegemon) , war doesn’t occur. Overwhelming force is a deterrent. When levels of force are extremely close, disarmament or arms control means “having just a bit more than my neighbour” .

The third problem is practical challenges in getting arms control to work.

Think of South East Asia again and China’s rise. Now, lets try arms control as a solution. We quickly see that there are big problems.

Any attempt to ‘control’ China’s rise is perceived as a policy of ‘containment’. The US strategy of the ‘pivot’ towards Asia is seen by China as in part ‘hedging’ against it, trying to control it. Arms control, to China, would be seen as part of such a strategy. Arms control for China while it is weaker than the US militarily (by maybe up to 25 years of development) is akin to saying “I’m weaker than you, and I want to weaken myself further”. Its a very tough sell.

In contrast, however, its likely that the Allies of the US would not welcome arms control into the region either. What a different view! The argument here is that any attempt at arms control by the US could be seen as a pre-emptive move to its leaving the region. American allies, dependent on military support, are fearfyl of an American pull-out, and don’t want to ‘go it alone’. Arms control as a precursor to this would be threatened.

All this is to say that while arms control can minimise the security dilemma, its not my solution. I prefer…

Espionage – A Solution to the Security Dilemma!

I’d just like to say that Australian National University Professr Michael Wesley’s excellent article “Spying Scandal – a little snooping is actually a good thing” and John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (from hereon, The Spy; also, Le Carre was a spy) are the basis for some ideas here. I’d suggest you stop and read Professor Wesley’s article right here, right now.

Lets get something straight first. Espionage is not James Bond glamour. Its a dreary, dangerous world. People get killed. You can’t trust anyone. I want to be clear that the methods of spy agencies aren’t benevolent. As Control says in The Spy “You can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent… That would never do”. And forget the moral righteousness of espionage. “It depends. It depends on the need” says Leamas (the protagonist) , and Control argues “You’ve got to compare method with method, and ideal with ideal” . In short, us spouting democracy and liberty and then juxtaposing against Stalin’s purge of the red army is stupid. You’ve got to compare ‘liberty’ against ‘equality’ as ideals, and methods like Stalin’s purge with the US support of strongman dictators like Syngman Rhee. This may make spying sound horrible, and perhaps it is. But it is nothing in comparison to a major war, or another world war.

Keep that in mind as we move forward. So, why spying as a solution to the dilemma?

The security dilemma causes arms escalation because the intention of the enemy is unknown. Arms control attempts to signal the intention. Espionage, however, does much more. It finds out what the other side’s intention is. And this is much better than other ‘signal’ which you could interpret a number of ways, or question the motives behind. As Wesley says:

“trust is a dangerous attitude in international affairs. Or to be more specific, naive trust is. To blithely trust another country’s good nature is to invite them to exploit one’s naivety.

There is only one genuine source of trust in our world, and that is intelligence. That is why each of the current aggrieved parties spends billions spying on other countries. It is only when one genuinely knows the intentions and capabilities of others that one can genuinely trust that they aren’t up to no good. And it is only when they are similarly informed about us that they can properly trust us.”

Hard intelligence is the most powerful way to find out the other sides’ intentions. This is a powerful driver of peace. With information as to intention, one knows whether to re-arm or not. You can stop being paranoid about an arms build-up – you know the reason for it. You don’t miscalculate. Nations don’t go to war on false premises. Professor Wesley: [emphasis mine]

we all need to acknowledge that spying makes the world a safer, more stable place. Take away intelligence gathering, and the risks of misunderstanding, paranoia and sheer miscalculation rise rapidly – and so consequently do the risks of conflict…

The two things governments worry most about are their neighbours’ capabilities and intentions: is there a secret arms build-up occurring, and is it accompanied by an intention to attack? History is replete with wars caused by poor information and paranoia among neighbours. Effective eavesdropping tells states about each other’s capabilities and intentions. Not only do Australia’s intelligence agencies spy on their neighbours, they also engage in regular talks – called “intelligence exchanges” – with agencies from the other side. The result? A no-surprises world in which the dangers of miscalculation are vastly reduced….

A world in which everyone watches everyone else is a world of fewer surprises, where exploitation and predation are harder to perpetrate and get away with…

And as Professor Wesley correctly concludes:

We live in an age of espionage. It is also a world in which wars between countries have become very rare. That is no coincidence.”

Simply put, I see espionage as a solution that has avoided war, and a powerful way to deter future wars. Espionage resolves the unknown intentions that trigger the security dilemma. Now, I don’t think that espionage ever gets 100% knowledge of a countries intentions – wars still occur – but it can greatly reduce war, and greatly inform us.

The Changing Nature of the Security Dilemma

One thing about the security dilemma is that the “intensity” of the problem changes over time. That is, how big a problem that dilemma poses to peace changes over time. There are a few categories of notes. Based on Robert Jarvis’ work:

  1. Are offensive and defensive capabilities distinguishable?

This is the most important factor. Regardless of other factors, if offence and defence aren’t distinguishable, the security dilemma is a big threat. Chances of cooperation are low is they can’t be distinguished. This also poses a threat to spying as an effective solution. Obviously, spying extends beyond just military intelligence, but military intelligence is a key part of war… To give an example of an easily distinguished weapon, anti-aircraft guns are seen as a defensive capability. Bombers as offensive. Fighter jets are tougher to categorises.

Obviously, the nature of weapons changes over time, so whether weapons are distinguishable changes. Being indistinguishable (or less distinguishable more likely) exacerbates the problem.

  1. Does defence or offence have the advantage?

Its easy here – if offense has the advantage then the security dilemma is more intense. I’d like to note that this is partially a product of technology – a changing variable – and geography – a constant. Eg. Switzerland’s mountainous borders act to make defence favourable and attack expensive etc.

In summation, here’s the most intense to least intense

Indistinguishable + offence adv. = Very Dangerous (“Doubly dangerous” says Robert Jarvis)

Indistinguishable + defence adv. = Dangerous

Distinguishable + offence adv. = Not intense, yet security issues exist

Distinguishable + defence adv. = Very safe environment; minimal security dilemma.


Even under charitable assumptions such as every nation does not care about invasion and simply wants the status quo, the security dilemma poses a big threat to peace. My proposed solution is espionage, with arms control a more secondary, complementary tool to mitigate the dilemma’s impact. However, since the intensity and nature of the dilemma is always changing, we must always reconsider our solutions to this threat to peace.


From → Foundations

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