Taming the security dilemma | interest.co.nz

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – a flagrant violation of international law that resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe – nailed the coffin of the post-1989 “liberal” international order. dead, having been mortally wounded by the geopolitical conflict between China and the United States and the backlash against hyper-globalization. All hopes of his resuscitation have now received a final and decisive blow.

The global order we are leaving behind was based on the principle that the world could rely on economic interests – primarily big business, banks and investors based in the United States and Western Europe – to spread prosperity and mitigate hardship. Conflicts. As middle and emerging powers such as Russia and China grow wealthier, they would become more like “the West,” and the imperatives of geopolitical competition would give way to the pursuit of commercial gains.

While free-market economists provided the founding narrative of the old order, geopolitical “realists” will most shape the coming order. And the picture they paint is not a pretty one: a world of zero-sum great-power competition where the quest for national security, the inevitable uncertainty about adversaries’ motives, and the absence of a global body enforcers mainly lead to conflict rather than cooperation.

In such a world, the overriding question facing the West is how to contain Russia and China. Is it possible to drive a wedge between them? Or should the West accept Russia’s aims in Europe in order to form a common front with it against the more powerful economic and technological challenge posed by China? All other issues, including trade, investment, climate change, global poverty and public health, become subordinate to these issues.

It would be terrible if this were the only alternative to the unmet expectations of the “liberal international order”. Fortunately, this is not the case. It is possible to create a prosperous and stable world order while remaining realistic about the nature of great power competition. But whether such an arrangement can be reached depends on how countries pursue their national security goals and the stories they tell about themselves and their adversaries.

The central conceptual framework that informs realist thinkers is the “security dilemma.” The idea explains why a system in which major powers emphasize their national security can be fundamentally fragile. Because it is impossible to distinguish defensive from offensive measures, attempts by either side to become more secure only add to the other’s insecurity, triggering countermeasures that keep the vicious cycle going.

Realists would say that something akin to the security dilemma was at play in the build-up to Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Ukraine, and the West in general, viewed the country’s incorporation into a Western economic sphere and eventually a Western military alliance as greatly enhancing its economy and security. Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, viewed the moves as contrary to Russia’s security interests. If that sounds weird, according to the argument, consider the reaction of the United States if, for example, Mexico were considering a military alliance with Russia.

But much of this realistic explanation, and as part of the security dilemma more generally, hinges on how countries view their national security goals and the effectiveness of alternative mechanisms to achieve them. A country that invested all its resources in military capabilities and neglected to develop its economy and strengthen its institutions would not be very secure in the long run – even if it started out as a world power.

South Korea provides an instructive example. In the aftermath of the Korean War, the country focused on its military buildup against North Korea. But as the United States began to cut military and economic aid in the early 1960s, South Korean leaders changed course, believing that economic might through export-oriented industrialization would provide a better bulwark against a potentially belligerent northern neighbour.

Likewise, it is by no means clear that Russia will be safer if it achieves its immediate military objectives in Ukraine, but emerges from the conflict as an economic weakling cut off from Western technology and markets.

Equally important are the stories the great powers tell each other about their intentions and how others perceive them. American and European policymakers see themselves on the international stage as benign, well-meaning actors. But when they speak of a “rules-based international order”, they forget how this order was built to serve the interests of their own country and overlook their various transgressions. They don’t realize – or are baffled by the fact – that ordinary people in many non-Western countries see Western powers as opportunistic, hypocritical and driven only by selfishness.

This sense of exception exacerbates the security dilemma, as it leaves little room for the legitimate security concerns of other powers when Western countries expand their military presence and exert their economic influence. While nothing could have protected him against Putin’s military adventurism, he thrives on the hostile views of many Russians about the West. Similarly, US attempts to exclude Chinese companies such as Huawei from global markets and deny them access to key inputs, ostensibly for national security reasons, are fueling Chinese concerns that America wants undermine its economy.

The security dilemma comes into its own when a great power seeks hegemony rather than accommodation. The United States is often guilty of this, defining its foreign policy goals in terms of global supremacy. Likewise, when countries like Putin’s Russia question the legitimacy of another country’s existence or aim to remake it in their own image, it becomes difficult to imagine a path of compromise.

But there’s no reason why the security dilemma can’t be tamed. It is possible that major powers have national security objectives that are not overtly offensive. They are also able to communicate better their intentions and concerns, thus reducing misunderstandings and achieving a degree of cooperation. There’s plenty of wiggle room to escape the cruel realist world.


Dani Rodrik, professor of international political economy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is president of the International Economic Association and author of Straight Talk on Trade: Ideas for a Healthy Global Economy (Princeton University Press, 2017). Copyright: Project union2022, published here with permission.

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