Disarmament Insight


Friday, 15 June 2007

Putting ourselves in the shoes of our enemies

Academics, it might be argued, have the luxury of thinking outside the box in a way that isn’t open to diplomats and policy-makers. Instead, the latter have to apply worst-case thinking because there are no guarantees about the current and future intentions of potential adversaries. But ‘playing it safe’ in this way ignores the possibility that others might be arming out of fear and not malevolence. And if both sides are arming out of fear and mistrust, the result could be a vicious circle of power and security competition no one wanted.

The fundamental problem, as the British historian Herbert Butterfield pointed out over half a century ago, is that diplomats “may vividly feel the terrible fear that [they] have of the other party, but [they] cannot enter into the [others] counter-fear, or even understand why [they] should be particularly nervous”. He added that it’s ‘never possible for you to realise or remember properly that since he cannot see the inside of your mind, he can never have the same assurance of your intentions that you have’. This is the security dilemma, a key research area of the David Davies Memorial Institute of International Studies (DDMI) at the University of Wales Aberystwyth.

The security dilemma confronts all groups in a condition of anarchy (defined as the absence of a central authority) and it arises from the existential condition of uncertainty that characterises all human relations. Analysing these kinds of situation was a major focus of international relations theory during the Cold War. Far from belonging to a bygone era, however, security dilemmas require further careful study because they’re still prevalent – and very dangerous – today.

Recognising this, the DDMI held a workshop in Aberystwyth on 4 May focusing on the ‘Nuclear Security Dilemma in Northeast Asia’, gathering together a diverse bunch of diplomats, academics, and researchers. One contributor to the workshop argued that what motivated North Korea in its nuclear ambitions is ‘fear – fear of the United States, fear of China, and fear of Japan’. Others maintained that North Korea has nothing to worry about because it knows the United States and South Korea would never attack it.

But the DPRK has not been so easily reassured. Building upon Butterfield’s core contention, three decades ago Robert Jervis highlighted the psychological dynamics that blind policy-makers to recognizing how their ‘own actions could be seen as menacing and the concomitant belief that the other’s hostility can only be explained by its aggressiveness’ (see the references below). The danger is that if the White House believes the DPRK knows that the United States is not a threat, Pyongyang’s arming must indicate aggressive intent. Other possible interpretations of North Korea’s motivations abound, underlining the challenges involved in seeing security dilemmas and the full range of responses clearly.

The negative consequences of groups and individuals failing to enter into the counter-fear of others is exacerbated if decision-makers operate with benign self-images that blind them to how their actions and behaviour might be seen as threatening by others. What’s more, the converse of a benign self-image is the attribution of a malign image to the character and actions of adversaries. Ken Booth and I call this ‘ideological fundamentalism’ in our forthcoming book on the security dilemma. Governments operating with such a mindset are blinded to the possibility that the other side might have legitimate grievances and security interests.

The security dilemma facing governments with peaceful intent is whether to risk a trust-building move in a world where there can be no guarantees about the current and future intentions of others. Even if actors can enter into the counter-fear of others, they might be so fearful that acting on this will place them in a vulnerable position should their trust prove misplaced, that they feel unable to take such a risky leap of trust.

This situation seems to characterise the nuclear standoff on the Korean peninsula. Should we assume the worst about Pyongyang’s motives and intentions and prepare for a showdown before they become too strong? Or does such a path risk a terrible war - perhaps one in which nuclear weapons might be used? Given the costs and risks of such a conflict, surely the prudent course lies in trying to reassure rather than provoke the regime in Pyongyang.

Diplomats and policy-makers need to understand how their adversary might be acting out of fear (remembering that ambition is sometimes in play), including crucially, the role that their own actions may play in provoking that fear. This was the challenge thrown down by Butterfield, and it guides the DDMI’s new project on ‘Trust-Building in Nuclear Worlds’. Our workshop on 4 May was the first in a series aimed at exploring with practitioners the possibilities of exercising empathy of this kind: it remains to be seen whether decision-makers in the United States and the DPRK can make the leaps of trust that might lead eventually to the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.

This is a guest blog by Professor Nicholas J. Wheeler. Professor Nicholas J. Wheeler is Director of the DDMI. You can also read a piece by Disarmament Insight contributor John Borrie on the DDMI’s website by clicking here.


Bleiker, R. (2005) Divided Korea: Toward a Culture of Reconciliation, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Booth, K. and N. J. Wheeler (forthcoming 2007) The Security Dilemma: Fear, Cooperation and Trust in World Politics, Palgrave: Macmillan.

Butterfield, H. (1951) History and Human Relations, London: Collins, pp. 9-37.

Collins, A. (2000) The Security Dilemmas of Southeast Asia, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Glaser, C. L. (1990) Analysing Strategic Nuclear Policy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jervis, R. (1976) Perception and Misperception in International Politics, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Johnston, A. I. (2004) ‘Beijing’s Security Behaviour in the Asia-Pacific: Is China a Dissatisfied Power?’, in J. J. Suh, P. J. Katzenstein and A. Carlson (eds), Rethinking Security in East Asia, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, pp. 34–97.

Kydd, A. H. (2005) Trust and Mistrust in International Relations, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Suh, J. J. (2006) ‘Producing Security Dilemma out of Uncertainty: The North Korean Nuclear Crisis’, Mario Einaudi Centre for International Studies, Cornell University, October 2006.

More about the DDMI’s work on trust-building, including a rapporteur’s report about its recent workshop, can be found here and here.

Photo retrieved from Flickr.


edwin said...

Comments from the colonies

Others maintained that North Korea has nothing to worry about because it knows the United States and South Korea would never attack it.

What planet are these people from?

If you can't convince your friends of your peaceful intentions, you're going to have a big problem convincing countries you are technically at war with of your peaceful intentions. If you don't know what your friends think of your "peaceful intentions" then you might as well throw in the towel. It's too late to try thinking outside the box.

Of course if this is all just propaganda for your home population or other target population to consume, then carry on.