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The Strategic Logic of the Contemporary Security Dilemma

The Strategic Logic of the Contemporary Security Dilemma - Cover

Authored by Dr. Max G. Manwaring.

December 2011

58 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The reality and severity of the threats associated with contemporary transnational security problems indicate that the U.S. and its national and international partners need a new paradigm for the conduct of unconventional asymmetric conflict, and an accompanying new paradigm for strategic leader development. The strategic-level basis of these new paradigms is found in the fact that the global community is redefining security in terms of nothing less than a reconceptualization of sovereignty. In the past, sovereignty was the acknowledged and/or real control of territory and the people in it. Now, sovereignty is the responsibility of governments to protect peoples’ well-being and prevent great harm to those peoples. Thus, the security dilemma becomes, “Why, when, and how to intervene to protect people and prevent egregious human suffering?” We address some of the strategic-level questions and recommendations that arise out of that debate. We probably generate more questions than answers, but it is time to begin the strategic-level discussion.


From the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 to the end of World War II and beyond the Cold War period, the prevailing assumption was that interstate warfare would continue to be the dominant threat to global peace and prosperity. Today’s wars, by contrast, are intrastate conflicts that take place mainly within—not across—national borders. As a consequence, the disease of intrastate conflict has been allowed to rage relatively unchecked across large areas of the world, and has devastated the lives of millions of human beings. At the same time, indirect and implicit unmet needs (e.g., poverty) lead people into greater and greater personal and collective insecurity.

In the past, the traditional security dilemma was: What is defensive, and what is aggressive? This problem has never been sorted out. It depends entirely on one’s interpretation—based on culture, values, external relationships, interests, and concepts of threat to national security. As one contemporary example, China considers the development of a large, modern navy as defensive. Given the interests and vulnerabilities of Japan, that country considers China’s efforts to be offensive—and potentially aggressive. Clearly, the security dilemma of the past retains a certain validity. Nevertheless, contemporary realities have given rise to a new, broad, complicated, and more ambiguous security dilemma. Thus, two new types of threats have been introduced into the contemporary global security arena: 1) hegemonic nonstate actors (e.g., insurgents, transnational criminal organizations, terrorists, private armies, and gangs), which are taking on roles that were once reserved exclusively for traditional nation-states; and, 2) indirect and implicit threats to stability and human well-being (e.g., poverty; social exclusion; environmental degradation; and political, economic, and social expectations).

This monograph provides a brief examination of: 1) the relatively recent evolution of international conventions and declarations that contribute directly to the contemporary diplomatic-legal definition of security; 2) salient scholarly thinking relating to political-diplomatic-legal principles that have become integral parts of the United Nations (and various other international efforts to confront threats to citizen and collective security and human well-being); and, 3) selected post-Cold War military responses to hegemonic non-state actors. The security dilemma, then, is more than a question of determining what aggression is and what aggression is not. Rather, it is now a question of: Why, when, and how to intervene to protect people and prevent egregious human suffering. This question, in turn, encompasses more than a redefinition of security. It is nothing less than a redefinition of sovereignty. Sovereignty was, in the past, the control of territory and the people in it. Sovereignty is now the responsibility to protect peoples’ well-being in a given territory.

Accordingly, we must adapt our approach to security and organize our institutions to address the concept of unconventional intrastate war (e.g., Fourth Generation War), and the overwhelming reality that, just as the world has evolved from an industrial society to an information-based society, so has warfare. The reality of this evolution demonstrates the need for a new paradigm of conflict based on the fact that information—not firepower—is the currency upon which war is now conducted. The new primary center of gravity is public opinion and political leadership. The “new” instruments of power are intelligence, public diplomacy, media, time, and flexibility.

The next and probably most important effort in the process of developing a new strategic-level paradigm for conflict is educational (cognitive). The effort must be directed at civilian and military leaders to help them understand and use appropriate combinations of national and international power in institutionalizing a shift in the contemporary strategic leadership development paradigm. In the context of new paradigms of conflict and leader development, we will address conceptual and organizational questions and recommendations that arise out of that elaboration. In Clausewitzian terms, all these questions and recommendations are designed to help decisionmakers, policymakers, opinion makers, and operators understand precisely the kind of conflict they are thinking about, what it is not, and what they must understand to conduct it successfully.

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