By: Gerald F. Witherspoon, Sr. 20160511


According to Shiping Tang, Snyder (1985), Wheeler and Booth (1992), Collins (2000), and Glaser (1992, 1997), have collectively tended to “…identify any situation that resembles a spiral or any (unintended and usually self-defeating) outcome that seems to have been produced by a spiral with a security dilemma” (2009, 614-615).

Tang identified seven errors committed by these authors which he referred to as “expansions and extensions” that have predominately “…contributed nothing but confusion” (2009, 615). These expansions and extensions were attempts to better understand or explain Herbert Butterfield, John Herz, and Robert Jervis’s (BHJ) formulation of the security dilemma, which, was not too rigid or vague to be utilized as a tool for understanding international relations, but demanded a clearer understanding.

Tang specifically argued that Jervis caused confusion by not differentiating between the security dilemma and spiral model. The much needed differentiation provides opportunity for more effective levels of analysis and policy recommendations (Tang 2009). He then described the security dilemma and spiral model as a reversible and graduated continuum. That is, defensive state interactions can lead to cycles of action and counteraction perpetuating fear and uncertainty that gradually causes one (malignantly expansionist state) or both (malignantly deadlocked states) to become offensive in their intentions. At this point, the spiral model takes over and the security dilemma has ceased to operate (Tang 2009).

It is important to note that a deadlock caused by two mutually malignant and offensively threatening states is problematic, because reversing the aggression would require a change in mindset by both sides. However, if and when a change occurs, for instance – an expansionist state decides to discontinue its expansion, the security dilemma resumes. Thus it becomes imperative to understand the psychological (e.g., fear, ideological fundamentalism, and enemy imaging), material (e.g., asymmetric distributions of power and mixing of ethnic groups), and other types of factors (e.g., aversion to loss and domestic politics) that regulate and exacerbate the security dilemma and/or the spiral model (Tang 2009).

Tang’s focus on the need to differentiate between the security dilemma and the spiral model and to better understand the factors that regulate and exacerbate both, offers weighty implications for U.S. China relations. Indeed the emerging security dilemma between the United States and China does not have to spiral out of control. The change in mindset needed to reverse aggression between the two superpowers could be facilitated by rigorous attempts to better understand each other’s strategic intentions instead of holding fast to mutual hostility and suspicion (Dong 2013).

The proliferation of mutual understanding and trust through strategic interactions (e.g., joint counterpiracy exercise in the Gulf of Aden) can dismantle the historically hardcore realist mentality and allow the two superpowers to more accurately paint enemy images or discontinue the practice altogether.

Both offensive actions and defensive reactions can be short-sighted, excessive, and lead to self-fulfilled prophecies. As the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense. However, the worst offense is one intended to defend against a perceived enemy who is discovered later to have had no such intentions.

So goes the story of the state that went from being considered a threat to the international community to being viewed by many as a bully. That is, the potential threat posed by any given state at any given time in an anarchic environment, in my opinion, is a reasonable dilemma owing to what Butterfield articulated as the “universal sin of humanity” (Tang 2009, 590). But surely, the uncertainty and anxiety (described by Herz) is intensified in the minds of those actors throughout the international community that do not enjoy an allied partnership. More disturbingly, those who do, must continually ask themselves if the bully is capable of fulfilling its loyalty commitments after witnessing such unreliable behavior.

Historically, victors wrote the history and some won Nobel Peace prizes when they should have been tried and convicted for war crimes and then exterminated. Through globalization and with the advent of real-time communication technologies, the potential to use information and psychological warfare to mask malignant behavior and intentions has become increasingly difficult. Chain ganging and buck-passing has become equally difficult to assess from a strategically advantageous standpoint, because genuine alliances demand transparency in an environment where secrecy is the norm. Thus, the inability to entirely understand offensive or defensive postures allows the prospect of a security dilemma to prevail.

There is most certainly the prospect of a security dilemma emerging from deep seated hatreds and grievances amongst various ethnic groups as evidenced throughout the international community. Many have argued that conflict stems from the divisive proliferation of the ‘other construct.’ This construct obviously applies to both individuals and states.

At the individual level we see difference in skin color, language, economic status, religious and cultural variations, political preferences, etc.. At the international level, what are some of the differences in the form of constitutional designs, forms of government, and more.

Furthermore, the nation-state is being increasingly challenged by non-state actors and mutual recognition between states has become a fleeing norm (Winn 2004). So then, intercommunal violence is clear evidence that the security dilemma can exist at the individual level.

So it follows that we may be approaching times when individual communities will launch ‘wars’ against other individual communities within and across borders leaving the associated states involved incapable or unwilling to intervene to protect their citizens.

More often than not, great points of analysis are omitted because of a narrow focus at the state versus individual levels. Therefore, I prefer to view the so-called competing IR theories, as conjunctive theories as they are oft-times better utilized in conjunction with one another. Likewise, I have found myself better understanding state problems by looking how such behavior plays out at the individual level, and vice versa.

States typically work to avoid wars that derive from uncertainty and fear, yet, more people have been murdered by their own government than all world wars combined.

So then, I ask, if the same state that derives its legitimacy from providing protection against such fears and uncertainty fails to eliminate them, and is found to initiate and exacerbate them, can a security dilemma exist between a state and its domestic citizenry?

As Neil Winn pointed out, “If states are simply more constrained, then international society is still operative; if states are having to actually compete with other entities for loyalty and legitimacy, then things are moving in a different direction and there would be a change of world order” (Winn 2004, 138). Winn furthered claimed that “new actors” and “new social processes” had emerged and had brought about a “more complex pattern of relationships to consider” (2004, 142).



Dong, Wang. Addressing the U.S.-China Security Dilemma. January 17, 2013. (accessed May 11, 2016).

Tang, Shiping. 2009. “The Security Dilemma: A Conceptual Analysis.” Security Studies 18, no. 3: 587-623. International Security & Counter Terrorism Reference Center, EBSCOhost (accessed May 10, 2016).

Winn, Neil. Neo-Medievalism and Civil Wars. Taylor and Francis, 2004.


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