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The Washington Quarterly 25.4 (2002) 7-21

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The Contemporary Security Dilemma:
Deterring a Taiwan Conflict

Thomas J. Christensen

The security dilemma, one of the most important concepts in the field of international relations, is currently out of fashion. In the aftermath of September 11, concern that mutual misunderstandings and spiraling mistrust might cause international conflicts seems quaintly naïve. It also seems clearer than ever that international instability is most likely a result of the aggressive actions of a few evil actors attempting to change the status quo by force, not a result of the inadvertent escalation of tension among actors primarily interested in security and defense of the status quo. Common sense tells us that weakness invites conflict and toughness gets results; wars are not Greek tragedies, they are crime scenes. Deterrence, not reassurance, is the name of the international security game.

In reality, the choice between deterrence and reassurance is a false one, created in part by common misunderstandings of the core tenets of deterrence theory and its proper relationship to the security dilemma concept. Successful deterrence requires both threats and assurances about the conditionality of those threats. Otherwise, the target has no reason to comply with the deterrer's demands. 1 In other words, the security dilemma, properly considered, almost always exists in deterrence relationships. Discovering how to reduce it without undercutting the credibility of the deterrent threat is the art of coercive diplomacy.

In East Asia, the security dilemma concept still applies, and in a particularly knotty fashion that increases the difficulty of balancing simultaneous threats and assurances. The United States must maintain a high degree of superiority over regional actors to maintain regional stability and, in particular, to deter conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Beijing is both revisionist and [End Page 7] anxious about the Taiwan issue. Therefore, the United States needs to be able to balance two positions: (1) clear, credible commitments to transfer defensive capabilities to Taiwan and, if necessary, to intervene on Taiwan's behalf; and (2) political reassurances that the United States does not plan to use its superiority now or in the future to harm Beijing's core security interests by promoting the independence of Taiwan.

The Taiwan issue challenges some core tenets of political science literature, which treats the potential for territorial conquest as the most important international security problem and prescribes arms control, particularly of offensive weapons, as the solution to that problem. Precisely because the Taiwan issue is not primarily about territorial conquest, but about coercion and political identity, the thresholds of credible deterrent capabilities are very high, as are the obstacles to credible reassurance—even defensive capabilities in the hands of Taiwan and its supporters can appear provocative to Beijing. In fact, robust defense would be the best asset for Taiwan's independence. To balance threats and reassurances, the United States must be creative, mixing a high degree of military superiority with credible political assurances to Beijing that Washington has no intention to create mischief with that superiority.

The Security Dilemma in Theory and History

Political science literature has two distinct models of international security politics: insufficient deterrence of revisionist actors (the deterrence model) and insufficient reassurance of status quo actors (the security dilemma, or spiral model). Status quo actors are defensive but might be provoked into an avoidable conflict; therefore, they must be reassured. Revisionist actors, on the other hand, must be robustly deterred; otherwise, they will exploit enemy weakness and initiate conflicts. 2

In his classic, Perception and Misperception in International Politics, Robert Jervis argues that it is absolutely critical to know the type of leadership with which one is conducting affairs. A nation's leadership must ask whether its counterpart is an aggressive, revisionist state or a defensive, status quo state. Reassurance is ineffective against evil aggressors. In fact, appeasement can lead to "self-denying prophecies" of peace by whetting the appetite of leaders with revisionist or irredentist aims. The classic case is Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Adolf Hitler, followed by the latter's determination that he need not...


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pp. 7-21
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Archived 2009
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