The Security Dilemma 

The security dilemma is a complex situation in international relations where actions taken by a state to improve its own security can unintentionally endanger the security of others. This creates a paradox: efforts to be safer can actually make everyone worse off.

The concept aligns closely with the “security dilemma,” coined by political scientist John Herz in 1950. This dilemma refers to a situation where states, in pursuit of enhancing their security, inadvertently contribute to a cycle of mutual distrust and insecurity.

In an anarchic international system, as highlighted by political historian Herbert Butterfield in 1949, states prioritize their survival. Actions to bolster security, like increasing military capabilities, may be misinterpreted by other states as potential threats. This misinterpretation prompts countermeasures, fueling a spiral of insecurity.

The security dilemma, crucially introduced by Herz, helps understand how the absence of a central authority in an anarchic system perpetuates a cycle of actions and reactions, leaving all parties involved feeling more threatened.

World War I serves as a classic example of the security dilemma. Germany’s rise led France and Britain to build up their militaries, triggering an arms race and alliance systems. Misunderstandings and fear of being unprepared escalated to war in 1914.

Key points:

  1. The security dilemma is not inevitable, mitigatable through diplomacy, arms control, and trust-building.
  2. Severity depends on factors like offensive/defensive capabilities balance and clarity of intentions.
  3. Understanding the security dilemma is crucial for analyzing international relations and preventing future conflicts.

In conclusion, the security dilemma illuminates a profound paradox in international relations, where individual efforts by states to enhance their security inadvertently contribute to a cycle of escalating tensions and mutual distrust. Coined by John Herz and closely connected with the anarchic nature of the international system highlighted by Herbert Butterfield, this concept sheds light on the intricate dynamics that can lead to a self-perpetuating spiral of insecurity among nations.

Examining historical examples, such as World War I, underscores the real-world impact of the security dilemma, where the pursuit of national security, when misinterpreted, can lead to devastating consequences. However, it is essential to recognize that the security dilemma is not an inevitable fate. Diplomacy, arms control agreements, and trust-building initiatives offer viable avenues to mitigate its effects.


  1. Butterfield, Herbert. (1949). Christianity and History. London: Collins.
  2. Fearon, James D. (1995). Rationalist Explanations for War. International Organization, 49(3), 379-414.
  3. Herz, John. (1950). Idealist Internationalism and the Security Dilemma. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  4. Walt, Stephen M. (1991). The Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
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