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The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict: Some New Hypothese


This is a summary of an article by William Rose on the security dilemma and ethnic conflict on the role that security dilemma plays in ethnic conflicts. What he has done is putting the theory on security dilemma into perspective. Building upon the hypotheses already presented by Posen, Rose goes on to propose an additional five more hypotheses and endeavours to demonstrate their workability to the support of this theory. He has taken Croatia and Ukraine as a case study however his findings should not be uniquely limited to these two as they can be applicable elsewhere.

The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict

The post cold war world is among other issues characterized by the ethnic civil wars. These civil wars have painted the contemporary world with ugly images ranging from the genocide in Rwanda, the destruction of cities in Chechnya, to desperate cases of massive numbers of refugees fleeing terror in Kosovo, and Bosnia among others. Unfortunately these wars have witnessed some dreadful occurrences such as ethnic cleansing and the use of rape as a weapon of war.

Departing from the fact that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, some states such as Arzebaijan entered into ethnic warfare, the concern here is on what happens upon the collapse of multinational powers or empires and how perceptions of individual and group security inform ethnic war or peace. Particularly how intense security dilemma causes ethnic wars and of course prescription as to how the occurrence of such wars can be prevented. This is build upon the security dilemma which is one of the most basic concepts of neo-realism.

When and empire or a multinational power collapses there arises serious security issues which are mainly based on a possible power vacuum whether really or perceived. What normally faces the different groups is an urgent need to ensure their security and survival in a situation which is characterized by this condition of arising anarchy. The problem which often arises is that the measures which a certain group may take to address and enhance its own security may jeopardize another group’s security thus leading to suspicion, threats and anxiety. The greater the perception of the security threats and opportunities, the more intense the security dilemma, unfortunately, the more intense the security dilemma means more dangerous group actions and reactions. This could explain the phenomenon of ethnic wars experienced during the period immediately following the collapse of multinational power or empire because ethnic war is more likely when security dilemma is intense. Peace and war become dependent variables and intensity of the security dilemma becomes their determining variable. There are five other variables identified by Posen but they all build upon this pioneer variable. These five interact at different levels and makes ethnic war more likely because they intensify the security dilemma. Due to scarcity of security, arms race ensues and when groups see their neighbours reinforcing cohesion, they also do the same leading to preventive war and defensive expansionist and each group gets obsessed with the urge to attack first due to the uncertainty with which this security dilemma is engulfed.  

Security dilemma and ethnic conflict

Ethnic civil war is more likely when the security dilemma is perceived to be intense. There are ten hypotheses drawn from the intense security dilemma and which make ethnic civil war more likely; five of them have been proposed by Posen and the other five have been added by Rose. Posen’s hypotheses emphasize military issues while those of Rose bend towards political and diplomatic relations between the groups. On the one hand there are perceptions of intense security dilemma as an independent variable and on the other, ethnic civil war as a dependent variable. All the ten hypotheses are therefore intervening variables.

Hypotheses for Security

According to Posen the emphasis is on military issues and the hypotheses are: more intense arms racing, competitive political mobilizations, large windows due to  relative power shifts, increasing incentives for preventive war, defensive expansion incentives and lastly moving first becomes more rewarding.

According to Rose, however, the focus shifts to diplomacy having the following emphasis: fait accompli and blame shifting are more common and more dangerous, fewer negotiations and agreements, excess secrecy of political strategies and military plans and formation of unconditional alliances in peacetime.

Stages of Ethnic Conflict

Three main stages have been examined by the scholarly work in security dilemma; an early stage of instability, the conduct of war and the ending of war. The initial stage is always very important because in it there are possibilities to prevent mass violence and to minimize causalities and hardships (avoid escalation). When violence ensues ethnic identities harden and populations often increasingly view the other group as an enemy to be annihilated. Hardliners   seize such an opportunity to perpetuate their interests through political mobilizations often with a tag that conciliation is dangerous or traitorous. At this stage handling the situation is much more complicated than if it were to be done at an early stage with preventive measures.


There have been competing explanations as well as possible criticisms focusing on different levels of analysis, also on the presence or absence of ancient hatred. But also domestic politics and processes play a key role for instance Gagnon argues that ethnic violence is caused not by external security concerns but by the dynamics of conflicts within the group.

Arfi holds that identities and interests should be considered as variables. In this case reconstruction of social identities is important because the consequences of such reconstructions sometimes include ethnic violence. He therefore puts more causal impact on domestic structures and politics than Rose does through identification of the fact that security dilemma causes an aggressive social identity.

Hostile reactions are directly proportional to the level of security dilemma. We realize that in this perspective, Rose concurs with Posen on the fact that the various sources of an intense security dilemma have a great influence on prospects for conflict regardless of the politics inherited from old empires.

Security Dilemma: Its Intensity and Ethnic Conflict

What we realize is that civil wars are the most common and perhaps the prevalent kinds of wars fought in latter days and the security dilemma continue to be the major cause of such wars which are characterizing the contemporary world. In order to respond to these wars and to seek redress, there is need to understand the security dilemma and how it makes war more likely.

Following the realist philosophy, one of the major concerns of any group is self help. This meets with Rose’s argument that the result of a theory of foreign policy applies to ethnic groups experiencing self help conditions leading to probabilistic predictions based on the uncertainty surrounding security dilemma. The essence is that one ethnic group’s measure to ensure its security becomes a threat to another thus causing the anxiety experienced in the security dilemma. The security dilemma is intense when defensive and offensive military forces are indistinguishable and when offence has the advantage over defence. Since cohesion can be used in either way (defensive or offensive) the purposes of political cohesion are actually indistinguishable thus one group’s efforts towards political mobilization endangers the other group the same way as military might does.

The major theoretical assumptions here are that adapting ideas about capabilities to ethnic conflict lead to conclusions about military technology, political capacity and mobilization forms of military organization, the role of the collapsing state or empire, access to external allies and political geography. For example the findings of Monica Toft on the relationship between settlement and rebellion are exciting. According to her, there are three implications; with stronger ties to land (autochthony) rural residents react to possible threats with more fear than urbanites, they have a tendency to opt to stay rather than exit and thirdly rural residents are more likely to react to potential threats in a hostile manner, All these are based on the geographical factor mentioned earlier and it perhaps helps to shed more light on the reason as to why most of the ethnic civil wars are in the rural areas as opposed to urban centres.
History has a great bearing on the security dilemma. For instance new historical revelations could inform interpretations of past events and shifts in the level or content of the other group’s rhetoric could affect assessments of intentions. This was applicable in the Serbia and Croatia cases. The history of ethnic blood shedding between the two groups during the World War II creates an impression that the other group has hostile intentions therefore Serbian perception of history and Croatian rhetoric contributed to fears of Croatia intentions. This is basically how the interplay between history and rhetoric bears on the security dilemma because the involved groups are locked in bitter memories and suspicion which intensifies the security dilemma.

Consequences of the Security Dilemma

We have already seen the consequences under the hypotheses as presented by Posen and added by Rose. However, we will here highlight them with particular emphasis on new ones as presented by Rose. Posen already identified that an intense security dilemma leads to intensified arms racing, competitive political mobilizations, enlargement of windows of vulnerability and opportunity and incentives for defensive expansion and for attacking first. 

From the hypotheses envisioned and added by Rose to those of Posen, we are again presented with other five more consequences of security dilemma. It causes itches in diplomacy between groups for instance in international relations, intense security dilemma causes an aggressive style of diplomacy. In a security dilemma therefore the fait accompli of Rose are more common and dangerous ranging up to and including unhealthy competition trading on zero sum rates and winner take it all modes. This worked in Ukraine and Croatia. Upon the collapse of Yugoslavia ethnic groups in Croatia used fait accompli tactics that the other side perceived as threatening to its vital interests.

Blame shifting becomes more common and precarious in cases of intense security dilemma. A group can provoke another into moving first because the target group will feel more insecure. This is related to the offence-dominance proposed by Van Evera which makes it easier for states to obscure blame for wars they catalyse for instance the US incursion of Iraq. This is very common in ethnic groups. One group provokes the other and due to the security dilemma and the urge for survival, the other group moves into defensive attacks often motivated by the need to be the first to strike before being stricken and these states of affair may lead into a series of shifting blames which often become vicious.

Due to security dilemma, groups negotiate less and reach fewer agreements. We know the way towards understanding and resolution of most of the conflicts if not all, lies in dialogue. Anything that derails the efforts of dialogue is a factor party to exacerbation of conflict. The security dilemma shakes the foundations of dialogue thus depriving the groups an opportunity to reach agreements. Intense security dilemma makes the situation even worse because as Rose argues an intense security dilemma involves fewer negotiations. With fewer negotiations, opportunities for cooperation are scaled down leading to constraints in reaching agreements. When the security dilemma is intense, parties in an ethnic conflict negotiate less, reach fewer agreements and honour fewer agreements that are reached if any. Cooperation becomes elusive and as such there are more hard demands and actions leading to escalation of the conflict situation and war becomes more likely.
With intense security dilemma groups become more secretive about their political and military plans. This one is more common place than any of the foregoing consequences. To grasp it better we look at how states behave with their security agencies for instance the military remains the most secretive departments of governments and states. One strategy in war is to know the arms and capability of the enemy and given such a situation and with what realists term the looming possibility of war at all times, states are never ready to disclose their armament and military capability to other states even their own allies because issues such as polarity also changes alignments in the system.
However, in a case study on Croatia and Ukraine this could, be quite the opposite because, there was no much secrecy in both political and even military advancement among the two parties. Both made their plans very clear and they pursued them in straight lines. The last but not least consequence of intense security dilemma is the fact that alliances form during the time of peace and they become unconditional. This is especially true because when the security dilemma is intense, groups need allies. Thus the intense security dilemma stirs the need for alignment with friendly groups to ensure collective security. This is so much experienced in international relations with formation of blocs and spheres of cooperation for instance NATO in the Western powers and in our region there is the EAC standby force. Military interdependency is more likely to be high between allies under these circumstances. Again this was not the case in the situation of Croatia and Ukraine.

Implications for Theory

The tests of hypotheses that we have looked at as both presented by Posen and Rose have demonstrated workability of theory. The prediction dimension of this theory is very powerful because it is supported by historical evidence. Whenever there have been intensive security dilemma war has been more imminent and mostly intense security dilemma has led into war. The case study presented here on Croatia and Ukraine has pointed at this fact. There have been few exceptions for instance in the hypotheses on secrecy and cooperation but the other hypotheses lead to plausible predictions. It is not surprising because it is in keeping with the nature of any science. So the implication is that this theory is supported and it is still tenable.
For instance more likely as it was expected when the Serbian security dilemma was intense fait accompli were common, blame shifting prominently featured and in 1991, parties rarely negotiated, few agreements were reached, and some of the agreements reached were not honoured. On the contrary in Ukraine which did not perceive an intense security dilemma, most expected opposite outcomes occurred. This is prove for the workability and indeed the predictive power of the theory that intense security dilemma increases the possibility of war.

Implication for Policy

Finally we look at the implication of this theory on policy. Can it help in formulation of policy and how? This is all about prescriptive role of theory. It is not enough to hold the claim that when security dilemma is intense there is more possibility. There is need to look at the possibility to avert confrontations and possibly war. This as well is a prerogative of theory given its prescriptive role.
Whenever the security dilemma is perceived to be intense, there can be taken measures to lessen perceptions of that intensity thereby reducing chances of confrontations. Policy makers having been informed by this theory should devise policy such that hostile groups live in arrangements that are more defensive. Geographically groups can also be separated (shifting of population) to reduce the chances of direct contact which through the geographical hypothesis could increase security dilemma. Also we saw that rural dwellers are more likely to engage in hostile responses than their counterparts in urban set up. There can be created cities in between antagonistic groups and transform their lives into urban set up however this needs long term plans and more resources but it is a possibility as well.
This theory can therefore help to inform the direction of policy making. Governments for instance may read the mood of the ethnic groups and ascertain their perceptions of security dilemma and take measures to avoid its further intensification and possible escalation beforehand. This way most of the conflicts would be checked and may be most of the civil wars in Africa and elsewhere in the world could be averted.


It is undeniably factual that security dilemma plays a key role in ethnic conflicts and even most of the civil wars in the world today.  If we take for instance the historical colonialism which was a stamping of European imperialism, we will realize that most of the conflicts in Africa has colonial legacy partly to blame for the conflicts in the continent. During the partitioning of Africa through the Berlin boundaries, most ethnic groups were put together with others which had incompatible interests and when colonialism ended these groups entered into conflicts most of which can be clearly demonstrated in the framework of security dilemma that we have already seen. After the colonizers left (collapse) most ethnic groups sensed danger and had no otherwise but to come up with ways to ensure their own security. According to security dilemma theory, one group’s quest to arm itself for defence purpose becomes a threat to another and this could give an explanation for the local militias for instance witnessed in Kenya.

The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict: Some New Hypothese The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict: Some New Hypothese Reviewed by Ibrahim Magara on December 28, 2015 Rating: 5

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