The Security Dilemma in International Relations: Understanding its Implications and Dynamics

The security dilemma is a fundamental concept in the field of international relations, which explores the challenges and complexities that arise when states pursue their security interests in an anarchic world. This article aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the security dilemma, examining its implications and dynamics within the realm of international relations.

Understanding the Security Dilemma:

The security dilemma refers to a situation in which the actions taken by one state to enhance its security are perceived as threatening by other states, thereby leading to a spiral of mistrust and conflict. It arises from the inherent uncertainty and lack of central authority in the international system, where states must rely on their own means to ensure their survival.

Implications of the Security Dilemma:

    Arms Races and Military Build-Up: The security dilemma often triggers arms races, as states engage in the acquisition and development of military capabilities to deter potential threats or counter perceived vulnerabilities. This competition for security can escalate tensions and increase the risk of conflict.

    Alliances and Balancing Behavior: States may form alliances and seek security through collective defense arrangements to mitigate the security dilemma. By aligning with other states, they aim to enhance their security and deter potential aggressors, creating a balance of power.

    Lack of Trust and Cooperation: The security dilemma erodes trust among states as they interpret defensive measures as offensive in nature. This lack of trust hampers cooperation, making it difficult to build mutual confidence and engage in diplomatic efforts to resolve conflicts peacefully.

    Potential for Miscommunication and Crisis: Misinterpretation of intentions and miscommunication exacerbate the security dilemma. Unclear signals or actions may be perceived as hostile, leading to heightened tensions, misunderstandings, and even crises that could escalate into armed conflict.

Dynamics of the Security Dilemma:

    Perception and Misperception: The security dilemma is driven by how states perceive the actions and intentions of other actors. Misperceptions, biased interpretations, or misjudgments of intentions can intensify the security dilemma and create a cycle of suspicion and reaction.

    Self-Help and Self-Defense: The anarchic nature of the international system compels states to prioritize their own security. They resort to self-help measures, such as military modernization or alliances, to ensure their survival and protect their interests in the absence of a central authority.

    Dilemma Mitigation Strategies: Scholars and policymakers have proposed various strategies to mitigate the security dilemma. These include confidence-building measures, transparency initiatives, arms control agreements, and diplomatic efforts to enhance mutual understanding and reduce uncertainty among states.

    Role of International Institutions: International institutions and organizations, such as the United Nations and regional bodies, play a role in managing the security dilemma by providing platforms for dialogue, dispute resolution, and coordination among states. They can facilitate trust-building measures and promote cooperative security arrangements.

Stages in Security Dilemma

There are generally three stages in security dilemma to reach its climax which are as follows –

  1. State of Nature
  2. Formation of a sovereign state
  3. Formalisation of Security Dilemma

First Stage: State of Nature or Individual Stage

In the early stage of security dilemma at the individual level. According to Hobbes, before reaching to second stage as a formation of the state, men and women lived in a condition of a stateless society with no governing authority to regulate the activities of the people. This situation was named by Hobbes a “state of nature.”

Since then, there has been no regulating or sovereign authority over the people. There was a widely prevalent situation of Anarchy; every individual works only for their self-interest and, if necessary, can go to every possible extent to maintain their interests and security.

For Hobbes, the “state of nature” is an extremely adverse human circumstance in which there is a permanent ‘state of war of every man against every man in their natural condition. Every man, woman, and child is endangered by everybody present in a particular circumstance, life is constantly at risk, and nobody can be confident about their security and survival for any reasonable length of time. In these circumstances, peoples always have a constant fear of death.

Hobbes characterizes that pro-civil condition. It is desirable and extremely urgent to escape those intolerable circumstances at the earliest moment if that is possible.

Hobbes believes there is an escape route from the state of nature into a civilized human condition, and that is via the creation and maintenance of a sovereign state. The means of escape is by men and women turning their fear of each other into a rational collaboration to form a Security pact that can guarantee each other’s safety.

Second Stage: Formation of a Sovereign State

In the second stage of security dilemma in international relations, Men and women paradoxically cooperate politically because they fear being hurt or killed by their neighbors. They are ‘civilized by fear of death. Their mutual fear and insecurity drive them away from their natural condition, the war of all against all.

In other words, they are driven to institute a sovereign state not by their reason (intelligence) but by their passion (emotion). Their intelligence alone is not sufficient to propel such action. We must have the value of peace and order firmly in mind. So they will willingly and jointly collaborate to create a state with a sovereign government that possesses absolute authority and credible power to protect all humankind in society, who constantly fear death from internal disorders or problems and foreign enemies or external threats.

In this prevailing situation of war against everyone. No state in this situation wants to lose its sovereignty before foreign enemies, and this state always seeks to maintain the status quo.

In the civil condition, the peace and order under the protection of the state, men and women have an opportunity to flourish in relative safety. They no longer live under the constant threat of injury and fear of death. Being secure and at peace, they are now free to prosper. As Hobbes puts it, they can pursue and enjoy ‘felicity,’ i.e., happiness and well-being.

However, that statist solution to the problem of the natural condition of humankind automatically poses a serious political problem. A peaceful and civilized life can only be enjoyed within a state and cannot extend beyond the state or exist between states.

Third Stage: Formalization of Security Dilemma

The third and final stage of security dilemma. Before every act of instituting a sovereign state, to escape from the fearful state of nature among individual people simultaneously creates another state of nature between states. That is usually called ‘the security dilemma’ in International Relations or World Politics.

The achievement of personal and domestic security through the creation of a state is necessarily accompanied by the condition of national and international insecurity rooted in the state system’s Anarchy.

There is no escape from the international security dilemma in the way that there is an escape from the personal security dilemma because there is no possibility of forming a global state or world government.

The main point about the international state of nature is that it is a condition of the actual or potential war; there can be no permanent or guaranteed peace between sovereign states, no international peace. But there can be domestic peace within the framework of the sovereign state and the opportunities that only civil peace can provide for men and women to enjoy felicity.

Classical Realists described that “the state is formed or organized and equipped for war to provide peace to its subjects or citizens.”

International peace is an unrealizable dream and dangerous illusion.

Example of security dilemma in the context of nuclear proliferation

The security dilemma in international relations in the context of nuclear proliferation refers to the situation where states feel the need to acquire nuclear weapons in order to protect themselves from potential threats. This need arises from the fear that other states may acquire nuclear weapons and use them to attack, leading to a situation of mutual destruction.

The example of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union is a perfect example of this security dilemma. Both countries possessed nuclear weapons and were in a constant state of tension, with each country seeing the other as a potential threat. This led to an arms race, with both countries seeking to acquire more nuclear weapons to ensure their own security.

The security dilemma in the context of nuclear proliferation also extends to other countries, particularly those that are not allied with either of the major powers. These countries may feel the need to acquire nuclear weapons in order to deter potential threats from either of the major powers. This can lead to an increase in the number of nuclear-armed states, which in turn can increase the likelihood of nuclear war.

One way to address the security dilemma in the context of nuclear proliferation is through disarmament agreements, such as the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) between the United States and Russia. Such agreements seek to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world and promote trust between nuclear-armed states.

Another way to address the security dilemma is through the use of diplomacy and conflict resolution mechanisms, such as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), to address potential threats and prevent conflicts from escalating into nuclear war.


The security dilemma presents a significant challenge in international relations, as states navigate the complexities of pursuing their security interests in an anarchic global system. Understanding the implications and dynamics of the security dilemma is crucial for policymakers, diplomats, and scholars aiming to promote peace, manage conflicts, and foster cooperation among nations. By recognizing the underlying causes and exploring strategies to mitigate the security dilemma, it becomes possible to foster a more stable and secure international order based on trust, dialogue, and collective security.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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