Last month Stephen Walt urged his readers to see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a clear-cut case of the security dilemma. In this view, the West bears the lion’s share of the responsibility as Russian fears over Ukraine “slipping rapidly into the Western orbit” pushed Russia to invade. John Mearsheimer doesn’t explicitly refer to the security dilemma but his argument closely parallels Walt’s and he places the concept at the core of his own offensive realism. In presenting Russia’s war in Ukraine as a clear example of this ‘classic’ concept, they tap into the recurring trope that realism possesses timeless wisdom that everyone else tragically ignores.
Any time someone claims that current events can be explained with a “bit of classic IR theory” we need to take those claims with a grain of salt. IR theories and concepts can be powerful tools in explaining international events but they are always vulnerable to selective appropriations and convenient amputations. What we often get is not some timeless nugget of wisdom, but a highly stylized version of a concept fitted to the explainer’s own priors.
Walt and Mearsheimer certainly present a version of the security dilemma, but it is hardly the version. Instead, their version suggests an overly restrictive understanding of the concept, one that departs in key ways from its origins in John Herz’s classical realism. When we bring these differences into focus not only does Herz’s security dilemma look different, it offers a very different perspective on the war in Ukraine.
The Security Dilemma and Interpretation
For Walt the definition of the dilemma is simple:
“[It] describes how the actions that one state takes to make itself more secure—building armaments, putting military forces on alert, forming new alliances—tend to make other states less secure and lead them to respond in kind. The result is a tightening spiral of hostility that leaves neither side better off than before.”
There is just one problem with this definition: the range of actions that states can take to make themselves secure is very, very large.
It can mean investing in higher education to produce a more advanced technology base. It can entail acts of cultural diplomacy which may, one day, log-roll into defense cooperation. It may involve a national youth fitness program to fight rising obesity rates which threaten military recruitment. Yet it would be a stretch to suggest that all of these security-seeking behaviours trigger dilemma dynamics. Do foreign powers really look at the US military using Esports teams as a recruitment tool and then feel less secure as a result? Probably not.
But if not all security-seeking behaviours triggers dilemma dynamics, then why do some? The answer is interpretation. States interpret some behaviours as threatening, and others as benign. Walt’s version of the dilemma hinges not only on State A taking actions which makes itself more secure, but on State B interpreting those actions as making itself less secure. The role of interpretation can be so powerful that it can lead states to see threats in the most benign behaviours. Most people don’t see western advocacy for LGBTQ rights as threatening, but Russian lawmakers certainly do.
Highlighting the role of interpretation here points to a key problem in Walt (and Mearsheimer’s) version of the dilemma: states don’t mechanically react to security-seeking behaviours, they interpret behaviour and those interpretations always reflect history, context and political choices. Appreciating this argument is important because it helps us understand what John Herz—the figure who first coined the concept—meant when he referred to the security dilemma as a “social constellation”.
As Sylvest writes, Herz was critical of the growing “abstraction, quantification and mathematisation of US IR”. Instead, Herz’s political analysis stressed the cultural dimensions of political action—history, context, and ideas shaped the flow of events by influencing how situations were interpreted. This emphasis on ideas and social context is what separates him from the human nature realism of figures like Morgenthau. If the security dilemma is rooted in a human nature of animus domandi then there is little hope of resolving it. But, if it is rooted in a social context comprised of ideas and practices then social learning offers a hope of transforming the situation.
This is why, and contrary to what Walt seems to suggest, Herz explicitly supported policies of accommodation. Together, accommodation and social learning held the potential to dissolve the security dilemma by transforming it into a different kind of social constellation.
Realist Liberalism and a Logic of Self-Limitation
What then, did Herz want people to learn from the security dilemma? The short answer is that he wanted political leaders to be more aware of their limitations. For Herz the security dilemma was part of a broader program of “Realist Liberalism” which was constructed with a keen sensitivity of the failures of utopian liberalism and the dangers of an unrestrained realism. Central to this program is that:
“Realist Liberalism must, above all, be conscious of the limits which the ‘gladiatorial’ facts put to its endeavors. Realist Liberalism is the theory and practice of the realizable ideal. As Koestler once put it, ‘the difference between utopia and a working concern is to know one’s limits.’”
The emphasis on limits is not intended to promote cynicism or inaction. Herz, for example, strongly believed in the importance of international law, he merely argued for greater sensitivity to its limitations.
Here Herz’s thinking tracks with a broader concern in classical realism over “the relationship between knowledge and politics . . . [and] the need for a politics both informed and suitably chastened by an understanding of the limits of knowledge.” Herz, like his fellow classical realists, was deeply sensitive to the underlying “opacity” of the world, and urged mindfulness over the limits of knowledge and rationalism.
This is why I argue that the security dilemma is better understood as a logic of self-limitation:
“Confronted by an anarchic environment, political actors make choices about how to best ensure survival. Yet, the shadow of uncertainty makes these choices difficult as the effects of actions can never be fully predetermined. When the uncertainty of social life is ignored, actors make reckless choices that incur tragic consequences… By threading together choice, uncertainty, and tragedy, the security dilemma yields a distinctive logic of self-limitation that councils a practical ethics of prudence and restraint.”
Russia’s Invasion Revisited
Taken from this vantage point Russia’s invasion of Ukraine appears strikingly different. Western countries, and the United States especially, are by no means paragons of prudence and restraint.
NATO signalling in 2008 that Georgia and Ukraine would become members was a mistake (though for Ukraine the real mistake was in not following through). The choice of many European countries—and Germany in particular—to become so dependent on Russian energy was foolish.
Yet at the same time there were important flashes of restraint. Obama and other western leaders were extremely cautious about sending lethal aid out of fear provoking conflict—a point that even Walt himself concedes.
But can the same be said of Russia? In the last decade Russia was responsible for the shooting down of flight MH17, the Skripal poisonings, the annexation of Crimea, the war in Donbas, interfering in foreign elections, repeatedly threatening its neighbors, launching the largest military invasion Europe has seen in 70 years, and what can conservatively be described as some of the worst war crimes of the 21st Century.
What the last decade illustrates is that for Russia ‘survival’ does not simply mean preserving sovereignty and territorial integrity, but rather the creation of a revanchist empire which routinely subjugates its neighbors. In what sense have these actions embodied the prudence and restraint counselled by Herz’s security dilemma?
Walt and Mearsheimer can say that none of this matters and that Russia felt threatened and acted accordingly. But this fundamentally misses the point: states make choices about how to interpret the behaviour of other states. If there is no possibility for choice, there is no dilemma. Herz warns both parties of the security dilemma over the limits of their interpretations and the need for openness to different perspectives.
When Walt and Mearsheimer pretend Russia had no choice in interpreting Western and Ukrainian behaviour, they treat Russia’s genocidal invasion as a natural and necessary response. But if any response to insecurity can be justified as natural and necessary, then the bottom falls out of a great deal foreign policy critique. What sense could there be in criticizing America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 as reckless and irresponsible if the United States were simply responding to its own ‘insecurity’ and had no choice in the matter?
Ultimately, Walt and Mearsheimer are right about one thing: the security dilemma does tell us something important about the war in Ukraine. But it is not the story of western obtuseness that they want to tell. Instead, what the war in Ukraine exemplifies is the tragic cost of ignoring uncertainty and shirking any sense of limits.
From the doomed attempt to take Hostomel, to the failure to capture Kyiv, to the underestimation of the impact of sanctions, to the radical miscalculation of Ukrainian resilience, Russian efforts are characterized by misplaced certainty and hubris more than anything else. In this context Putin does not appear as a “first-class strategist who should be feared and respected”, as Mearsheimer once described him, but rather as someone who is deeply hostile to any sense of self-limitation.
The resulting recklessness has produced a cascade of perverse and unintended consequences: NATO is now larger and likely more unified; Europe is remilitarizing; the image of Russia as a near-invincible military force is shattered; and Russia risks becoming an international pariah for at least a generation. In short, the invasion is a tragically perfect encapsulation of the dangers the Herzian security dilemma warns us about in seeking security without a healthy dose of self-limitation.
 This is also what leads Sylvest to conclude that Herz can be appreciated as an early constructivist in IR theory.