The Security Dilemma and ISIS


The security dilemma (also known as the spiral model) remains one of the most important concepts in international relations and the school of realism today. The basic premise of the security dilemma is that as one state takes measures to increase it’s security (e.g. increasing its military strength, making alliances), another state might take similar measures to make up for the shortfall in power. This will cause both states to continually takes measures to increase their security. This in turn will create tensions between the two states which can escalate into conflict between the two states, even if conflict wasn’t desired. (For influential article on the subject, read this article by Robert Jervis).

Barry Posen decided to apply the security dilemma to the issue of ethnic conflict. As it was the anarchical condition in international affairs that makes security a primary concern for states, according to Posen, the collapse of a central government in some countries created a similar anarchical situation. Instead of being between states, it will be between groups. As Posen argues, there remains two characteristics that will determine how intense the security dilemma will be: whether offense and defensive forces are distinguishable (if similar, it is much more difficult for a state to signal its defensive intentions) and that offense is more effective than defensive. Because of this latter fact, states will chose offensive capabilities if they want to survive. In the case of ethnic conflict, the insecure group will chose offensive capabilities, thus amplifying the security dilemma. The final important theoretical point of Posen’s article involves the ‘groupness’ of the ethnic groups and how people of different ethnicity assess the offensive implications of another group’s intentions. On the latter point, groups will turn to history to gauge the intentions of other ethnic groups. On the former point, ‘groupness’ is inherently offensive, causing an intense security dilemma. While there are other important points of discussion in the article, the ones I highlighted above are those I will focus on in the discussion of the rise of ISIS (also known as ISIL).

While I’m focusing my analysis between the Sunni and Shia groups in Iraq (which are not specifically ethnic groups), I believe the principles of the security dilemma can be used as an explanation for the rise of ISIS. The Maliki government is primarily Shia and its no secret that Maliki has not made any attempts to form an inclusive government. With accusations from the Sunni community of authoritarianism and sectarianism by members of the Maliki government, this has led some Sunni tribes and cities to ally themselves with ISIS fighters (though whether this alliance will last is another issue). Of course, the Saddam Hussein government was secular albeit Sunni dominated and the rise of the Maliki government has led to fears, both real and imaginary, of marginalization of the Sunni Iraqis. Since the fall of the Hussein government, there has been violence between Sunni and Shia forces. In some cases, this fighting has even resulted in the cleansing of different religious groups from Sunni and Shia dominated areas. Sunnis have also tried to various methods to try and fight this marginalization.

So there is a recent history of sectarian violence between the two groups in Iraq along with some added historical interpretations of conflict between Sunnis and Shias in Islamic history (aided by the influence that Iran and Saudi Arabia have in the country). With the rise of Shias in the government, with Iranian and American support to the central government, the balance of power has changed significantly in favor of the Iraqi Shias.

Posen concludes his paper by examining the policy purposes of using the Security Dilemma in relation to ethnic conflict. By using the security dilemma, policy makers should be able to identify the potential breakout of ethnic conflict and enact policies that would help alleviate the ethnic tension. However, he does not discuss what should be done if ethnic conflict has already began.

Currently, analysts believe that Maliki needs to go and be replaced with a unity government that contains a better representation of all minority groups. At the moment, it does not look like this will happen with Iran providing support to the Iraqi government and with other Gulf States providing support to the Sunni factions; helping to solidify their positions instead of compromising. The U.S. bears a large part of the blame for the situation in Iraq (it all starts back to that fateful decision to invade the country). However, one of the few successes the U.S. had was its ability to bring in the Sunni tribes to fight against Al Qaeda in the Anbar Awakening and take part in the political process. The Maliki government did not really take this further instead preferring to use his Shia base to govern. This is continuing with his recent statements of not bending to pressure to form a more inclusive government.

While this is not a traditional application of the security dilemma, it does fit well into explaining the current situation of Iraq, and should be used to try and prevent violence such as what we’re seeing.


Weekly Linkages

Sorry we haven’t been able to update the blog regularly. Between school and work, we will try our best to regularly update the blog with news and analysis.

Gene Healy on how Obama’s “Don’t do stupid shit” foreign policy makes sense. David Rothkopf has an alternate take.

Here’s a look at Modi’s national security team.

The South Asia Channel at Foreign Policy has several articles about Pakistan’s military operation against the Pakistani Taliban.

How the current terrorism narrative in Sri Lanka is blinding the government to potentially new sources of terrorism.

The role that the Bush administration played in the crisis currently unfolding in Iraq. What should the U.S. do?

The military rivalry between India and China.

Saudi Arabia and its geopolitical game in Iraq.

Finally, some reporting from Gaza on the fate of the unemployed graduates.