In International relations the concept of Security Dilemma is generally a escape or an defensive strategy which often visible in IR, where a state tries to uphold it sovereignty by avoiding any possibility of external threat from the other state. A security dilemma in International Relations occurs when there is a situation where one state feels comparatively less safer than its counter state, this kind of situation creates security dilemma in international relations. It can be well understood by Hobbesian concept of security dilemma.

Thomas Hobbes is the key thinker in developing the concept of security dilemma and always thinks that we can also be a political intellectual if we imagine men and women living in a ‘natural’ condition before the institution of the sovereign state.

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.


Thus, we can conclude the discussions by briefly stating a few common things among Classical Realists –

  1. They agree that the human condition is a condition of insecurity and conflict that must be addressed and dealt with consciously.
  2. They agreed that there is a body of intellectuals in the world. They think the problem of security is a major concern before every state and could only be solved by collective efforts of the state by creating an International Organization, supreme authority over the state which supervises, regulate and resolve the conflicts between the states without hampering their sovereignty Like; United Nations (UN) in Modern State. Although the United Nations, the predecessor of the League of Nations, which was formed around 1919, has failed to stop World War I and World War II, we cannot deny its several efforts toward conflict resolution between the countries.
  3. Finally, they agree that there is no final escape from this human condition “state of nature,” which is a permanent feature of human life.

In other words, a body of political wisdom can be identified and stated in the form of political maxims. There are no permanent or final solutions to the problems of politics, including international politics. There can be no enduring peace between states. This pessimistic and unhopeful view is at the heart of the International Relations theory of the leading classical realist of the twentieth century, Hans J. Morgenthau.

Must Read – Six Principles of Realism

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