Brinkmanship and the security dilemma

datePosted on 01:53, September 24th, 2017 by Pablo
There is a concept in international relations known as the “security dilemma.” Uncertain about each other’s capabilities and intent, adversaries ramp up their military preparations for war as a hedge against a preemptive strike against them. Seeing rivals ready themselves for war and still unsure of their intent, states escalate their own preparations so as to show resolve and the ability to win the fight. This leads to arms races and, in the event of a miscalculation or mistake on either side, war that otherwise should have been avoided had uncertainties about capabilities and intent been addressed via peaceful means (read: dialogue and negotiations).
 
Add to this another IR concept: brinkmanship. Brinkmanship is a form of calculated risk-taking by which an actor engages in provocative, even recklessly dangerous behavior in order to intimidate an opponent into desisting or retreating from a given course of action.This is done by words and/or deeds depending on what an opponent’s perceived weaknesses may be (to include leadership ego, vanity and fear of losing face). When actors resort to brinkmanship in order to impose their will on others, the possibility of misperception leading to miscalculation increases dramatically.
 
Can anyone think of a situation today where these two concepts might be in play?
 
This is yet another reason why the absence of foreign policy intellectuals and international relations theorists from discussions about the DPRK-US standoff is troubling. It is as if those running the show in DC (if not Pyongyang) are unaware of these concepts and the consequences of their application in real life. To this can be added a myriad of media pundits, including former military officials, who speak more about the possibilities and types of military exchange rather than the larger dilemma and the alternative means to resolve it (in NZ a historian was used by a media outlet to explain why a DPRK nuclear test in the Pacific was a threat to Aotearoa in spite of the fact that he did not appear to know much about nuclear yields, the logistics and physics of missile targeting or the geopolitical implications of the threatened test).
 
What is really insane is that the Drumpf administration now seems intent on picking a simultaneous fight with Iran over the nuclear delimitation agreement signed with Iran by its predecessor and several other powers. That opens the possibility of aggravating another security dilemma punctuated by brinkmanship games in the Persian Gulf. Perhaps some among the president’s security advisors still cling to the belief that the US can prevail in a 2.5 Major Regional War (MRW) scenario, where it can on its own simultaneously fight and defeat adversaries in two major wars and one minor conflict. But if so, they have ignored the painful fact that the US has proven unable to decisively prevail in even one regional or minor conflict, including against adversaries that have limited to no air and sea power and even with the help of allied coalition forces. Regardless of the harping by some practicioners and commentators about restrictive rules of engagement and the lack of political will on the part of civilian politicians hampering the US military ability to sucessfully prosecute the 2.5 MRW scenario (or any war, for that matter), the notion that the US can militarily engage the DPRK and Iran simultaneously and win is a pipe dream even if it does not escalate to nuclear exchanges.
Yet barking continues from the dogs of war in the US, DPRK and Iran. What that means is that the US is the meat in that conflict sandwich, or, to put it less colloquially, the brinkmanship hub of the most dangerous security dilemmas now in play. 
 
Is there anyone in DC who does not see this? Surely there must be, but are they being ignored? Because even if one wants to believe that the leadership in Pyongyang and Tehran are irrational lunatics, then it is even more important for the US government to display nuance and calibration in its approach towards them rather than act as a mirror image of what it (or at least the White House) perceives to be lined up against it.
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