The Security Dilemma

Written by Jae Hyun Jung

Security issues are among the most contested and profound in the study of political science. At the centre of this problem lies on how to save people from a possible danger and threat in the international system and increase the well-being of citizens. Although the solution of the question can be pursued from different political theories, the realistic point of view, in which a state has to protect its citizens from external threats, is the most reliable and also reasonable approach to security dilemma (Nilsson, 2012: 470). This essay, therefore, will mainly deal with the realistic ideas on security dilemma coping with those of liberalistic views. Firstly, it will briefly explain about realist perspective on security dilemma, and the example of Cuban Missile Crisis to support the needlessness of treaties of different nations followed by the inappropriateness of liberal views on collective security (Morgenthau, 2006: 435).

Furthermore, it deals with how the 9/11 made realistic ideas become more firm (Heywood, 2014: 19-20).

Although there are many theories regarding security dilemma, realism is the most applicable theory among them as states need more power (Taliaferro, 2000-2001: 128). International order is more insecure than that of national as there is no supreme or higher authority than states (Taliaferro, 2000-2001: 128). Realists think the security is the same as national security because the most important actor in international system is state and most states have to take more comprehensive measures to safeguard their own security from the other states potential threats (Nilsson, 2012: 470). Therefore, states place importance on their military power to ensure their safety and pursuit their national interest. Realist perspective on security cause security dilemma in other words, when one country tried to promote state security growth for defence purpose, other countries accept that it was aggressive action and make them to respond military action like actual war or try to enhance military strength (Taliaferro, 2000-2001: 140). Also, self-help states tend to prevent any one state from becoming hegemonic to pursue balance of power (Waltz, 1979: 102-105). Therefore, realist view on security dilemma is more suitable since each state especially self-help states make an efforts to keep balance of power to prevent danger in international order and international security.

It is crucial for states to ultimately hold other states in check as there is aggressor of the international treaty such as North Korea. Cuban missile crisis is one of the best examples to explain security dilemma by far. Cuban missile crisis was a threatening conflict that could have easily broke into a nuclear cataclysm and drove to sudden happening of possible World War III (Gibson, 2011: 361-363). When the United States discovered the Soviet Union was building nuclear missile bases on Cuba, the United States believed it is a major danger to national security and their own interests. Therefore, it can be interpreted with the realistic ideas that the United States and the Soviet Union had a tendency to show off their power and position to inform that they are secure under the bipolar anarchic international system and the United States did not want to suffer a great loss because Cuba was largely dominated by the United States in terms of resources (Allison, 1972: 77). Therefore, nuclear weapons were symbolic importance of strategic position of strength and this is the reason the two states sought to gain power for their security and it caused the security dilemma. However, Cuban missile crisis lead to mutual compromise such as nuclear test ban treaty and agreements on nuclear arms reduction (Allison, 1972: 77). This agreements can be interpreted that collective security in liberalist perspective but this cannot be accomplished by some states like North Korea. Besides, North Korea made nuclear weapons even though these treaty and international organisation that they want to keep democratic peace. Therefore, security dilemma can clarify realist view because states pursue their national interests and power so as to counteract the effects of the strengthening other states power.

Whilst liberal theory believes the idea of protecting nations’ security by cooperation of various actors, collective security is not an ideal solution to the security dilemma. According to Morgenthau (2006: 435), the concept of collective security is impeccable in principle. In his view, if three premises are met, collective security would prevent the war (Morgenthau, 2006: 435). The three premises are the immense strength of collective system compared to possible aggressors or alliance of such, with the same purpose of defending from those aggressors, and the will of collective nations to give way their interests in the hopes of achieving the common good (Morgenthau, 2006: 435). Nevertheless, this conception of collective security is simply improbable as it not only happened in the past but it does not seem to be in harmony with the nature of international politics (Morgenthau, 2006: 435). Furthermore, the experience of Korean War corroborates this improbability since only sixteen members of the United Nations sent armed forces to restrain the attack of North Korea against South Korea, consisting of 90 percent of US armed forces to boot (Morgenthau, 2006: 441). Therefore, the notion of collective security is just an utopia that cannot be achieved where there still is an existence of nation-states, which strives to gain more power to survive in the anarchic international system.

The declaration of ‘war on terror’ by President George W. Bush in 2001 was a great turning point in terms of global security and it reflected how the international system is changing its policy direction towards state-based power politics through September 11 terror attack. The attack reinforced the significance of the state pursue to protect its citizens from other actors such as terrorists (Heywood, 2014: 19-20). For instance, the United States have escalated the level of national power by intensifying the national security and increasing the military budget (Heywood, 2014: 19-20). Since the US has paid less attention to the cooperation with the various other international organisations, the US foreign policy seems to display the unilateral tendency (Heywood, 2014:19-20). In addition, as Bush announced “you are either with us or with them,” it demonstrates that the US still has the most authority in collective security, which means that it is the hegemonic power that guides the direction of member states. Therefore, as it can be seen from what happened after 9/11, the importance of states are again becoming overwhelming in international system with the help of political realism.

The essay has looked at political realism on security dilemma, and the needlessness of treaties of different nations with the inappropriateness of liberal views on collective security. Finally, Cuban missile crisis and  9/11 made realistic ideas become more solid.


Allison. G and Zelikow. P (1999). ‘Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis’. New York: Longman. pp.77-142.

Gibson. D. R. (2011). ‘Avoiding Catastrophe: The interactional production of possibility during the Cuban missile crisis’. American Journal of Sociology. 117(2). pp.361-363.

Heywood. A (2104). ‘Global politics’. London: Palgrave Macmillan. pp.19-20

Marco Nilsson. (2012). ‘Offense–Defense Balance, War Duration, and the Security Dilemma’. Journal of Conflict Resolution. 56 (3). pp.467-472.

Morgenthau. H. J. (2006). ‘Politics among Nations’. New York: McGraw Hill Higher Education. pp. 435, 441.

Taliaferro. W. J. (2000-2001). ‘Security Seeking under Anarchy: Defensive Realism Revisited’. International Security. 25(3). pp.128,140.

Waltz. K. N. (2010). ‘Theory of international politics’. New York: Waveland Press. pp.102-105.

By Jae Hyun Jung – a guest writer under our “Bamboo Shoots Scheme” which endeavours to help young IR students make their appearance in academia.

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