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The Security Dilemma and Its Causes Essay

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Updated: May 5th, 2020


When faced with different conditions, various countries and even states have difficulties in defining security and insecurity due to the complexity behind these concepts. Due to security dilemma, these countries find it difficult to recognise an enemy and come up with a suitable technique to determine the magnitude of destruction likely to be caused by the enemy in case of an attack.

Any country, irrespective of the defence mechanisms, can be subject to security dilemma; for instance, after the event that occurred on 11 September 2001, the United States faced a security dilemma that originated from the enemy and it could not be linked to a particular nation (Christensen 7-21). This aspect even made it quite difficult for the United States to identify the enemy, which created a new face by which various studies have been conducted about the concept of security dilemma and this paper seeks to define various ways through which a strong and a weak government can face security dilemma.

The concept of security

The concept of security depicts several factors that include economic, social, political, and environmental aspects. Currently, these ideologies form part of concerns of a particular country in this new century. When dealing with the subject of international relations, the concept of a country or a state’s security is quite significant (Cerny 117). However, the study of a state’s aspects of security and insecurity is quite crucial for it forms the basis through which sovereignty of states is ensured and evaluated.

With security being the state at which different countries are at a position to maintain their identity and integrity with independence, safety of a nation against internal or external attacks should be a valuable issue (Jackson, Murphy, and Poynting 25). For a country or a state to be secure, it should be at a position to deal with fears and threats against it in an appropriate way. However, the concept of insecurity can be defined in different dimensions by different countries. The difference in interpreting the concept of security brings about security dilemma. Moreover, this aspect brings about a feeling of distrust and insecurity among countries.

The concept of security dilemma

Security dilemma depicts conditions under which increment in the powers vested upon one state or country can be interpreted as insecurity upon other countries. This assertion means that the systems implemented on international politics may be in favour of some states where such states benefit from the creation of more security at the expense of other countries. A strive to attain security after an attack through an increment of powers by one attack to defend itself against other countries depict some form of insecurity.

This move is followed by a counter reaction from other states that also tend to increase their powers. Additionally, the aspect of competition in terms of units of power and the vicious cycle of the accumulation of power causes security dilemma that can easily spark wars among countries. However, there would be likelihood that none of the countries going into the war was willing to begin the war. According to Christensen, security dilemma will always occur where there are deterrence relationships (7-21).

Although many countries perceive the concept of security dilemma as non-existent, the concept still counts in the East Asia (Christensen 7-21), due to the increment in the difficulty to balance threats and assurances all at the same time. This paper shall address the three main reasons that lead to the increment of security dilemma among countries.

Causes of security dilemma among countries

Uncertainties due to implementation of some systems

Security dilemma can arise from uncertainties induced by the implementation of some systems due to the existence of anarchy among different countries around the globe. Under this cause of security dilemma, a country tends to attack the other in order to maintain its status quo. However, the attacking country is at the same time afraid of changes being implemented within a system (Jackson, Murphy, and Poynting 29).

Due to a lack of common government that is hard to implement to cater for all countries globally, different states tend to depict the concept of survival as the main motive due to distrust that exists among states and there is always a doubt on actions taken by one state. This aspect leads to each of the countries adopting measures that would maximise their own security, hence security dilemma. For instance, in the East Asia, the United States’ superiority is highly felt in maintaining regional stability and deterring all potential conflicts between Taiwan and Beijing.

The United States contemplates implementation of various measures although in favour of Taiwan (Christensen 7-21). For example, the United States government was determined to transfer its defensive capabilities to Taiwan, which could be some of the defensive tactics that the US employed during the First World War, hence its success.

The United States’ support of the Taiwan government, although with a motive of not hurting Beijing through promotion of the independence of Taiwan, is likely to spark a state of security dilemma for Beijing. Beijing, being in conflict with Taiwan due to potential of threats depicted by weapon in possession of Taiwan, is likely to come up with stringent measures to ensure strong defence mechanisms. These aspects are likely to spark distrust between the two states, hence causing wars. However, it is clear that a system-induced form of security dilemma exists between the two countries, viz. Taiwan and Beijing (Christensen 7-21).

From literature, Taiwan was not interested with territorial conquest; rather, it was interested in political identity. In addition, the support lend to Taiwan and its defensive capabilities appeared to be provoking Beijing. The United States move to implement measures such as the establishment of military superiority is likely to depict a mischief to Beijing due tom the prevalence of the military superiority (Christensen 7-21).

Factors induced by the state

Security dilemma can also be induced by factors related to the state itself. Due to affirmations depicted by different researchers, it is crucial to know the type of leadership by which a person exercises authority and runs day-to-day affairs of the government. In this case, uncertainties arise due to enforcement of some requirements that induce insecurity among other states (Cerny 121). However, a state’s status quo cannot change due to the stringent requirements implemented, and thus these measures and requirements set conditions to define the status quo.

For instance, Beijing was sure of the change of Taiwan’s change of status due to overwhelming support from the government of the United States (Christensen 7-21). This move was against the Taipei declaration of independence that existed between the two states, hence causing war across the Taiwan Strait. This move amounts to interference of system existing between countries by other powerful countries. Disruption of systems of government and leadership may call for tension on the part of the other part state involved.


The imperialist system that can cause security dilemma arises from different perceptions harboured by revisionists on aggressors of a nation’s security. However, of all causes of security dilemma, uncertainty is appreciably the key issue. Countries are not sure of the intentions by other countries; therefore, they always prefer to perceive that any step taken is likely to result to hostility (Cerny 115). In contrast, countries are usually aware of intentions from other states. Lack of knowledge on the purpose of the intentions is the key issue behind attacks as a defence mechanism.

Lack of trust is one of the factors that strengthen insecurity among countries also contributing to the promotion of lack of cooperation among states (Jackson, Murphy, and Poynting 35). Other concepts have been added to the concept of security dilemma. Security dilemma can be experienced by both weak and strong countries. This assertion does not put into consideration of defence mechanisms or the strength of a country’s military base.

Insecurity dilemma depicts the influence on the weak states by strong countries, where strong countries tend to coerce weak countries to work with them as their allies; therefore, deterring their rivals from having more supporters. This strategy grants security to weak countries through the influence of powers depicted as stronger allies against rival countries. Due to this protection, weak countries are usually not in a position to defend themselves from threats. In case of an attack, they end up losing the battle.


Of all causes of security dilemma, terrorism is the leading factor. However, countries should come together in order for them to combat the problem of terrorism. Unlike violence, which strikes a country from political ideologies, terrorism can be a complicated affair as it deals with perpetrators that can hardly be identified. However, the twist of events is that, through terrorism, politicians are in a position to achieve various political and ideological goals. However, terrorism can only be recognised from careful scrutiny of its characteristics and those of the resulting violence.

Terrorism and political violence are closely related for all forms of terrorism are political although not all forms of political violence are forms of terrorism. Different targets and goals by terrorists are the main causes of security dilemma among different states. For instance, functional attacks underscore the attacks that terrorists aim at an organisation to paralyse the organisation’s functionality (Cerny 116).

Logical attacks may be carried out for the terrorists to obtain finances to fund their activities. This form includes abductions and demanding for payments in ransom. When such type of attacks occur countries tend to be in a dilemma as they are unaware of what might follow (Cerny 118). In a bid to deter these activities, countries end up implementing very strict measures, which leads to strains in relations amongst different countries. However, with emerging new forms of terrorism, countries tend to come up with new measures to curb this menace.

For instance, the prevalence of security dilemma was manifested in the September 11 attack (Christensen 7-21). This attack depicted an emerging trend in terror attacks due to use of a nuclear bomb, a move that forced the US government to devise and implement new strategies to counter this problem.

The event of this attack caused changes in the state’s nature of security in the US. There is a prevalence of uncertainty on the strategies the state is likely to implement to strengthen its security and this move is vital, as there lays unpredictability on future patterns that terrorists are likely to use in attacks; therefore, countries should be prepared to face an unpredictable event in the future. In addition, there were some arguments that the attack on the US was a threat to the global security, owing to the fact that the United States is regarded the global super power in almost all aspects.

Alliances and ammunitions

Formation of alliances causes security dilemma especially to the less advantaged and weak countries. The security dilemma causes countries to form an alliance for stronger defence. Moreover, new alliances may be formed in order to strengthen the existing ones. Under security dilemma, countries tend to form an alliance due to dissatisfaction derived from security measures already in existence (Cerny 120). With the emergence of arms race, security dilemma arises among other countries leading to building of strong military capabilities and strengthening the existing military base due to uncertainty that surrounds different decisions taken by other countries. Some states may perceive such defensive moves as offensive, hence taking aggressive actions. For instance, during the First World War, the application of technology by Britain and Germany sparked an element of security dilemma among other rival countries (Cerny 122).

Responses to criticisms on the security dilemma

Various researchers have tabled different views that tend to serve as criticisms on the concept of security dilemma. The question on the balance depicted by the offense- defence theory remains unanswered, since weapons used by the two groups were similar. Critics have also come out to question the value of the theory in offering a concrete explanation in relation to conflicts experienced globally.

Supporters of the theory stipulate, “Parties in conflict will utilise whatever weapons available as long as they suit their goals and needs” (Jackson, Murphy, and Poynting 37). In addition, it is stipulated that critics should concentrate on establishing the impact of these weapons utilised in resolving conflicts. However, arguably, security dilemma was adopted by the defensive countries, who asserted that it is advantageous for countries to foster cooperation during certain conditions.


Security dilemma is a condition experienced by any country regardless of its military strength. Various causes of security range from imperialism, state, and system induced factors among other aspects. However, weak countries are likely to react to the formation of alliances and manufacture of arms by some powerful countries, whereas all countries react to the problem of terrorism. However, interfering with the affairs of countries by other powerful countries can spark security dilemma.

This scenario happened when the US government ended up assisting Taiwan in gaining independence over Beijing even after being in possession of harmful weapons. This move sparked some form of conflict between the two countries, which forced the US to establish a strong military base in the region to calm the situation, hence creating more tension for Beijing for it terms the military support as suspicious.

Works Cited

Cerny, Phillip. Rethinking World Politics: A theory of Transnational Neopluralism, Oxford: Oxford Publishers, 2010. Print.

Christensen, Thomas. “The Contemporary Security Dilemma: Deterring a Taiwan Conflict.” The Washington Quarterly 25.4 (2002): 7-21. Print.

Jackson, Richard, Eamon Murphy, and Scott Poynting. Introduction: Terrorism, the state and the study of political terror. Contemporary State Terrorism: Theory and practice, New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.

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