The Cold War as Security Dilemma


Currently, despite the tensions in the international arena, one can confidently say that the world is not about to explode into a mass war as seen in the First and the Second World Wars. The reason is that in 1991, the world witnessed the end of the Cold War, a title that had been neologized to describe the war without the use of arms that began at the end of the Second World War and ended with the collapse and disintegration of the Soviet Union. During this era, the world was on the brink of a catastrophic nuclear war several times that could have erupted between the capitalist West, led by the USA, and the Communist East, led by the Soviet Union. This period witnessed the unprecedented development of nuclear weapons and other dangerous weapons, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles and the hydrogen bomb, capable of destroying large parts of the human population of the planet. Fearing the invasions of their neighbors, countries in both the West and the East also entered various military and political alliances. Diverse propositions have been recommended to explain the situation that existed during one of the extremely vulnerable eras in human history and to make sense of the reasons that had caused the Cold War. Therefore, an examination of the Cold War discloses that the situation was a consequence of a security dilemma and it even advanced it further.

What Is a Security Dilemma?

Being secure in the sense of international relations refers to being safe from risks that come from outside the border of a nation. In this case, insecurity and war are similar; thus, nations try to ensure their security by making sure that they can repeal external attacks, mainly from other states, that threaten the stability of their state (Magagna, “Lecture 4 April 2017”). However, because of the suspicion on the international scene, miscommunication between states might occur, thus leading to insecurity and war (Doyle 383). Therefore, in international relations, war studies, and diplomacy, the term security dilemma refers to the situation, in which under anarchic conditions, actions, that states take to keep themselves safe from other states by increasing their security, lead to greater tensions (Magagna, “Lecture 4 April 2017”). Such actions lead to a conflict even in the case where none of the parties wants a confrontation.

The security dilemma is also comprehended as the spiral model as under these conditions, the actionsь such as increasing the strength of the army, joining other alliances, or even developing more effective weapons, lead to a spiraling security situation, where other states feel threatened. As the states compete over security measures, each of them realizes that they do not feel secure anymore (Magagna, “Lecture 4 April 2017”). If one state is more developed regarding defense than others are, the rest of the competing countries begin increasing their security measures in a never-ending spiral (Magagna, “Lecture 4 April 2017”). Even such issues as joining an alliance that will help its members in the case of an attack can be interpreted as an offensive act by neighboring countries and others will consider any military operations as those that threaten their security.

The security dilemma is propagated by several elements. The first of them is alliance-building which occurs when countries that have convinced themselves that they face the same security situation come together and join their military might to defend themselves better (Magagna, “Lecture 4 April 2017”). Such a situation comes from the need for the countries to know that in a situation where an enemy state attacks them, other states in the alliance could come to the rescue (Magagna, “Lecture 4 April 2017”). Such alliances develop as a way of serving as a deterrent to the enemy states by projecting the military might of several nations against their perceived enemy. Such alliances included the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that the USA and its allies formed during the Cold War.

The second element in the security dilemma is the existence of an arms race. The race for arms comes when one country develops or buys weapons with greater destructive power. Thus, other countries might feel threatened by the existence of such weapons. Consequently, even in the case where these armaments are meant to be innocently self-protective and not aggressive, the advance and the acquisition of even more deadly weapons by one government might result in other nations attempting to develop or buy similar or even better weapons. This leads to a situation where each of the states enters a race to develop or buy weapons that have higher destructive power than in other states.

The third element of the security dilemma is the increase in military strength. In such a case, a country’s army might increase the number of forces that it has or announce a general mobilization. What transpires in such a situation is that other countries feel threatened, and in this case, they also want to increase the might of their military to counter the new military might of other nations (Magagna, “Lecture 26 April 2017”). This occurs because other countries might fail to see the military might serve as a deterrent, instead of considering it as a threat to their security and their very existence.

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The above-mentioned factors affect and lead to a tense security situation because essentially, the international system is anarchic. While there are international rules that govern states, most of these rules depend on agreements rather than coercion for their enforcement. Consequently, other states perceive both defensive and offensive measures as a threat to their survival or well-being and seek to enforce their measures themselves to avoid facing the demise of their statehood and nationhood.

How Was the Cold War a Security Dilemma?

The Cold War was a state of tension that increased after the end of the Second World War. Astonishingly, the USA and the USSR, which were allies during the war and that had helped to defeat the Germans and the Japanese, were the chief protagonists, buttressed by numerous nations that fell within their sphere of influence. While there are no definite historical dates on when the Cold War began, some might agree that its beginning dates could be after the end of the initial optimism that had gripped the world after the end of the Second World War.

One can blame several issues for the start of the Cold War. In the late 1940s, the USA accepted the Truman Doctrine. In this doctrine, the USA took it as a duty for itself to help protect the countries that were under a threat of what the US government saw as expansionism from the Soviets both militarily and politically. This idea can be explained by the fact that in the international arena, countries are likely to synchronize their actions with other states they agree with politically, socially, and economically (Doyle 383). For the USA, the increase in the number of states that the Soviets had controlled, either directly by military subjugation or by the use of other ways, such as military assistance and financial help, was a threat to the existence of the USA and its allies. While the USSR did this to ensure its survival and security as well as that of its allies, the USA did not take the expansion of the communist ideas well (Magagna, “Lecture 2 April 2017”). For instance, the installment of a Communist regime in Cuba, an island just a few miles from the US coast, was a sign to the USA that the Soviet and Communist expansion was an existential problem for it and its allies. Consequently, the USA had to react in a manner that was commensurate to what it saw as the Soviet threat. Therefore, the United States doubled its military and financial help to the states that it saw as threatened and those that the USA considered essential to its security and other interests (Magagna, “Lecture 4 April 2017”). This help was apparent in the US involvement in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and numerous other minor conflicts that would almost lead to a war between the East and the West several times.

However, the major issue to become the spark of the Cold War and spiraled almost out of control was the US development of a nuclear bomb. One should remind that during the Second World War, the USA and the USSR were allies, and thus, the nuclear bombardment of two Japanese cities did not cause any great worry among the Soviets. However, the Soviets soon realized that in the event of a confrontation with the USA, the latter might use the same devastating weapon against them. As such, the Soviets themselves tried to develop the nuclear bomb, and they would succeed in doing so in a few years. Then, the USA would start developing more and more such weapons, while the USSR would respond in the same way until both countries had so many nuclear weapons that a nuclear war would have decimated the planet. Later, to stay ahead of the Soviets in this race, the USA would develop a hydrogen bomb that was even more devastating than the nuclear one. In this competition, the Soviets, which did not want to be outdone by Americans, did the same a few years later (Magagna “Lecture 26 April 2017”). This race for arms also manifested in the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles that both countries developed in very high numbers to keep themselves safe, without succeeding in doing so.

France and the United Kingdom, the American allies in Europe, also stockpiled nuclear weapons while the Chinese, by then allied with the Soviets, would detonate their bomb a few years later. As such, what started as the USA’s attempt to secure the end of the Second World War would unravel into a situation that had a war occurred, the entire West and the East spectrum was at risk of decimation, including the rest of the world (Magagna, “Lecture 26 April 17). Thus, in this case, there was a spiral in the security situation as the acquisition of nuclear weapons made all nations more insecure rather than more secure.

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The Cold War was also a security dilemma as the existence of military alliances illustrated it. Military alliances are meant to assist the nations that belong to them to resist the aggression of external enemies by offering a deterrence effect. By the 1950s, countries in both the communist East and the capitalist liberal West felt that the other was a threat to their security and even existence (Magagna, “Lecture 4 April 2017”). The West, led by the USA and keeping the capitalist model of economy and democracy in its governance, would form the North Atlantic Treaty Union. The fifth article of its constituting act made it clear that if one of the members came under attack from the Soviets, the other members of NATO would respond as a collective action. NATO was intended to be more of a preventive war machine than an aggressive one, but the USSR did not understand it as so. Accordingly, the Soviets would form a comparable association with some of its client states known as the Warsaw Pact and the COMMITEM (Magagna, “Lecture 26 April 2017”). The existence of both organizations, led by nuclear-armed military and ideological foes, would pose a big threat to the security of the world until the end of the Cold War in 1991. The fact that the USSR, for instance, attacking Turkey would have drawn the USA, the UK, and several other NATO states as well as states in the Warsaw Pact into the war ensured that the security of Europe was in danger every single day during the Cold War. A single conflagration in any of the members of both military organizations in Europe would have led to another full-scale war, especially in Europe. As such, while the two organizations were meant to ensure the security of their members, these alliances only made those countries significantly more at risk of war.


A scrutiny of the Cold War discloses that the state of affairs of that time was a clear security dilemma and it proliferated the latter. While in the Cold War era there was no direct military confrontation between the USA and USSR, most of the time, each of the two nations and the blocks they led would feel to be a threat to the other. Therefore, they started taking measures that they hoped would make their countries and their allies secure from each other’s aggression. These measures included the development of weapons, such as nuclear weapons, by the USA, which would make the Soviets and the Chinese, which were their allies, do the same. The arms race was also manifested in the increased development of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Moreover, the creation of military and political alliances such as the Warsaw Pact and COMECON as well as NATO was another example of a spiraling political situation, in which both organizations put Europe at risk of war. The Truman Doctrine was also responsible for the rising tensions as well as a manifestation of security dilemma as it attempted to match Soviet expansionism with the American one.

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