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Book Reviews

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The Security Dilemma: Fear, Cooperation and Trust in World Politics

Reviewed by Nicolas Contessi

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The Security Dilemma: Fear, Cooperation and Trust in World Politics
by Ken Booth and Nicolas J. Wheeler
New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, 272 pages
ISBN 978-0-333-58745-4 (trade paperback), $37.95
Reviewed by Nicola P. Contessi

At a time when scholars and analysts worldwide are seeking innovative answers to the new threats of globalization, Booth and Wheeler’s revisitation of this classic concept in International Relations (IR) appears to be telling us that we just ought to reinvent the wheel. For this reason, they dub the Security Dilemma (SD) as an idea whose time has come: more diffuse and operating at multiple levels in this new era of uncertainty than it was during the Cold War. The book then offers up three moves and one argument. Together they represent its four key merits.

The first move is to problematize and unpack the meaning and scope of the SD as a concept, which, the authors argue, has often been misapplied.  The authors take issue with the widely used definition equating the SD to situations where negative externalities result from the reciprocal pursuit of defensive policies by security-seeking actors. Through an etymological reconstruction of the notion of dilemma as a situation requiring the selection of one of two equally plausible options, and a critical analysis of some of the classical authors, they conclude that it is flawed, for it blends or fuses one particular outcome with the essence of the SD. In return, they offer a convincing reformulation of the SD as a “two-level strategic predicament” stemming from the inescapable uncertainty characterizing international anarchy. It consists of a “dilemma of interpretation” about the intentions, preferences and capacities of other states, and a “dilemma of response” over the most rational way of responding. Given such definition, the authors make a distinction between two possible outcomes: “security paradox,” referring to the inability of decision-makers to pierce into each other’s minds and the resulting spiral of insecurity, in keeping with its common sense definition; and “strategic challenge” emerging once states have settled the dilemma of interpretation and see each other as outright enemies, exemplified by the distinguished scholar in International Affairs Robert Jervis’s deterrence model (offensive action).

In their second move, they dispute that a SD must always lead to tragic outcomes. Instead, given the inescapable condition of uncertainty characterizing international anarchy, the resulting security predicament can be lived out according to three different “logics of insecurity”: fatalist, mitigator, and transcender, which form the three main parts of the book. The first part sets out the main elements emphasized by fatalist logic, namely the themes of mistrust among sovereign states; of fear, and of the difficulties of deciphering the symbolic ambiguity of weapons. Mitigator logic comes into play in efforts to temper SDs. Security regimes are one of the theoretical and practical responses. Another is costly signalling and reassurance games. But the authors also refer to the role of shared ideas in deflecting the types of outcomes that make the ‘bread and butter’ of realist views of IR. Transcender logic refers to the possibility of sidestepping the negative consequences of uncertainty, especially the competition of the security paradox. Transcender approaches include collective security and security communities.
The third move is to argue for the centrality of human agency to SD outcomes, and to show the major role it plays in each of the three logics. Regretting human agency’s neglected character in SD theorizing, the authors reserve a specific role to what they call security dilemma sensibility. This factor, which  applies to the way an SD rolls out, amounts to a form of empathy allowing an actor to perceive the motives of another, and, more crucially, the fact that their attitudes may, at times, be motivated by fear. Hence, in fatalist thinking, the authors caution that we must recognize the implications of fear for international politics, and address its neglect in the field of IR.  Equally important is the role of ideology, which often induces leaders to attribute extra hostility to ideological foes. In mitigator logic, such human factors are a mixture of SD sensibility, personalities, and awareness of the signalling potential of military postures. The same factors are said to have been responsible for the end of the Cold War. Lastly, in transcender logic, trust is the crucial ingredient and the ultimate transcender strategy. But, if rationalist understandings of trust overlook its nature as a two-way reflexive relationship, the authors formulate a framework highlighting its emotional base and “leap of hope” dimensions.

The argument holds that in our dire times, IR scholars must develop research and education with respect to the workings of the SD – because, if uncertainty will always characterize world politics, there is nothing inevitable in the outcomes expected by offensive realism. It is their job to foster awareness of SD sensibility, which emerges as the single ‘actionable variable’ available to political leaders, policy advisors, and civil societies to eschew the SD.  If there are risks inherent in building trust, the authors argue, this is the only path to real peace and security.

In spite of its merits, the book suffers from a number of ‘glitches.’ The first is a minor excusable sin: despite the repeated pledge to classifying ideas and not people, the authors end up doing just that. Secondly, aside from various interesting ‘cameos,’ the argumentation occasionally indulges in some unnecessary digressions that can make the reader lose sight of the main topic. Next, while the proposed two-level definition of the SD is persuasive, this reviewer found that a more elaborate study of its outcomes would have lent richness to the argument.  This could have laid out under what conditions we can expect one of the three logics to prevail, giving more coherence to the final product.

Concomitantly, the book would have benefited if, especially with respect to Parts 2 and 3, it had been more tightly pivoted around the SD concept. For example, how exactly do costly signalling or security regimes intervene on the two levels of the strategic predicament in mitigator logic? Lastly, for a book advocating the reintegration of the human dimension, it largely neglects the whole literature on psychological approaches to conflict and perceptions.

All being said, this is a valuable product that rescues some of the classic but largely forgotten writers such as Sir Herbert Butterfield and Charles Egerton Osgood, and it skilfully shifts between these and more contemporary literature. The result is an excellent reference manual for anyone wanting to get a grip on a key leitmotif in IR literature.

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Nicola P. Contessi is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Université Laval, and a research assistant for the Programme Paix et Sécurité Internationales.



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