‘I Wish We Had One of Them Doomsday Machines’

An explainer on foreign policy using lessons from popular culture. In Installment 6, Dr Strangelove grapples with the Security Dilemma.

Just as it is inevitable to break into song while watching a Disney movie, one’s training in international relations is considered incomplete without the mandatory viewing of Dr Strangelove (1964). A black comedy about nuclear conflict between the United States of America and the Soviet Union, the film is often used as diving-board to launch into understanding the nuances of deterrence, mutually assured destruction (MAD), and civil-military relations, besides the obvious lesson in the history of the Cold War (1947-91). At the heart of the film, however, is the concept of Security Dilemma — a dilemma that is deeply rooted in (defensive) realism.

The primary goal of states in an anarchic world is to maximize their own security. However, the actions taken in pursuit of this goal, such as procuring weapons or developing new military technologies, can be misinterpreted by others. IR scholar Robert Jervis’s simple argument is that since states are not aware of each other’s intentions, a defensive move may be interpreted as offensive.

Consider the North Korean justification for its missile program – it is necessary for its defence, and intimidating other states is not its intention. This seems rational given that the United States had threatened (both implicitly and explicitly) to drop nuclear bombs on North Korea during periods of tension in the Korean War (1950-53). Nuclear weapons are simply a measure to ensure that the United States does not attack North Korea (read: overthrow the regime).

However, the growing nuclear arsenal has been perceived as a threat by many, including the United States. Jervis’s central insight in the 1978 paper “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma” was that “many of the means by which a state tries to increase its security decrease the security of others.” He postulates that there is a strong possibility that such a situation can heighten the preoccupation of states with their security and may spiral into an arms race. Dr Strangelove marvelously captures this preoccupation of both the Americans and the Soviets when General Buck Turgidson says, “Gee, I wish we had one of them doomsday machines.”

When it comes to their security, states are slightly paranoid. The USA’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the result of a growing suspicion that Saddam Hussein would grant terrorists access to weapons of mass destruction. Washington’s decision to invade was not based a complete worst-case analysis, but a bad-case analysis, Jervis points out.

A strong criticism of the security dilemma comes from the Constructivists. Alexander Wendt argues that competitive systems of interaction are prone to security dilemmas because they perpetuate distrust and alienation among states. This mistrust, Wendt emphasized, can be diminished through interactions among states that which provide an assessment of the other’s power. Like competition can fuel egotism and thus reproduce itself similarly, he argued, states can learn to cooperate and, in the process, develop a less aggressive conception of themselves. British missiles, Wendt noted, did not have the same significance for the United States as those of the Soviet Union and that Britain’s identity and interests played a significant role in diminishing the mistrust.

Whether the security dilemma can be managed is an on-going debate. But the one thing that both Realists and Constructivists would agree with me on is that Dr Strangelove is a must-watch.