Reflecting on the security dilemma

By Qin Lizhi / 01-29-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

International relations Photo: TUCHONG

The “security dilemma” is an important theoretical bridge connecting macro-level, mid-level and micro-level theories of international relations. Research on the security dilemma aims to prevent war and facilitate peacebuilding efforts.

In the post-Cold War era, the intertwining of traditional and non-traditional security issues has led to an excessive number of security objectives with unclear priorities. This situation may lead to poor judgement by decision-makers in pursuit of absolute security, resulting in the overextension of strategic resources and the deterioration of the security environment. Against this background, countries should avoid undue securitization and uncontrolled expansion of security issues. The security dilemma should thus be standardized in terms of issues of concern, and redefined in the temporal and spatial dimensions.

Regarding issues of concern, it is necessary to accurately grasp the major strategic issues around the security dilemma, such as whether the “rising powers syndrome” and the “established power syndrome” can be overcome by emerging powers and hegemonic powers. The interplay between the major and minor issues also deserve consideration, which encompass six specific aspects.

First, issues of arms races and arms control associated with geopolitics or the rapid development of weapons technology comprise an arms-security dilemma. Second, there exists a trade-security dilemma. Considering the complex influence of trade interdependence on the security dilemma, it is advisable to weigh absolute gains against relative gains, and short-term risks against long-term risks. Third, there is an alliance-security dilemma, which involves the security risks facing a non-aligned country in an international system in which alliances prevail, as well as the risks of being implicated or abandoned as a result of alignment. Fourth, security dilemmas could arise at the strategic level when, for instance, the defensive strategy of an adversary is misinterpreted as offensive. Fifth, tension exists between internal and external security dilemmas. That is to say, the combat effectiveness of military forces and the effectiveness of political control may cancel each other out. Sixth, security dilemmas could stem from technological variables. The emergence of nuclear weapons, anti-satellite weapons, and AI weapons may influence strategies, leading to dynamic changes in the offense-defense balance between countries.

In the spatial dimension, analysis of security dilemmas should avoid overemphasizing spatial homogenization. Instead, the geographical distribution of power centers, different attributes of geo-spaces, and countries’ prioritization of security boundary over boundary security should be weighed.

In the temporal dimension, security dilemmas can be further explored in terms of timing, chronological order, duration, and moment. The amount of time a country allocates for mitigating a risk or achieving a strategic goal affects the level of resilience required, and the moments at which critical events occur can also serve as key factors in the assessment of security dilemmas. Researchers should place more emphasis on process tracing when analyzing historical cases of security dilemmas in order to understand the causal mechanisms. Comprehensive studies on the security dilemma can be conducted by integrating the linear, cyclical, and evolutionary perspectives of history.

In the conceptual dimension, the pursuits of absolute security and relative security are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Countries typically act on mixed strategic motives. They can pursue absolute and relative security at the same time, or adopt both offensive and defensive strategic approaches in the same period.

Some studies identify the uncertainty of intention as the root cause of security dilemmas, failing to realize that the consequences of uncertainty can vary significantly according to the type of strategic relationships. For instance, a moderate level of uncertainty may prevent conflict escalation when two countries are neither friend nor foe. A high level of certainty could aggravate security dilemmas when countries turn from friends to enemies or competitive relationships continue to deteriorate.

In addition to standardization and redefinition, scholarship on the security dilemma can benefit from systematic analysis of the interactions between the dimensions of issue, space, time, and concept, as well as greater focus on the differences between security dilemmas confronting emerging powers and hegemonic powers.

While current research on the security dilemma is focused on policy application and practical case study, more effort should be put into theoretical innovation and review of historical cases. The field should also enhance dialogue with other fields such as geopolitics and grand strategy, and undertake comparative analyses of Chinese and Western responses to security dilemmas in light of ancient China’s traditional strategic culture.

Qin Lizhi is an associate professor in the School of International Affairs and Public Administration at the Ocean University of China.