Our Millenia Long Insecurity Condition

When there was a flare-up in tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia over the kingdom’s execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, it was tempting to succumb to simplistic thinking about Sunni-Shiite sectarianism. Even President Barack Obama, not known for taking a less complex view of things, in his State of the Union address claimed the Middle Eastern turbulence is “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” But there’s nothing remotely ancient about the current animosity, which has little to do with religion and everything to do with politics—namely, the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. “I don’t think the Saudis and Iranians are engaged in a sectarian war with each other; I think they’re engaged in a balance of power conflict for regional influence,” F. Gregory Gause III told Zack Beauchamp “But they use sectarianism.” Gause hits it right on the nose. The Sunni and Shiites of the Middle East are being used as pawns by those two states as part of their competition for regional dominance. States fighting other states—now there’s a type of conflict that truly does date back millennia and what has driven it throughout history is what foreign policy realists call the “security dilemma.” Zack Beauchamp brings this up in his piece on the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia:

“Saudi Arabia sees Iran as bent on overturning a Middle Eastern political order that’s quite friendly to Saudi interests; the Iranians believe the Saudis are actively attempting to keep Iran weak and vulnerable. This creates what political scientists call a security dilemma: one side, fearing attack, ramps up defense spending or supports a regional proxy in order to guard against a perceived threat. The other side sees that as threatening—what if they’re planning to attack?—and feels compelled to respond in kind. This creates a self-sustaining cycle in which both countries to take actions that are designed to make their country more secure, but end up scaring the other side and thus raising both the chances and the potential severity of conflict. “It’s what the US and the Soviet Union were involved in” during the Cold War, Daniel Serwer, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, explains. Serwer believes the security dilemma “is what really brings us to this point.” The Saudis and Iranians see regional power in zero-sum terms: the more powerful Iran is, the more vulnerable the Saudis feel. And, again, vice versa: “The rationale [the Iranians] give themselves is very heavily defensive,” he says. That’s why proxy struggles in countries such as Syria and Yemen start to seem so important.”

Chris Layne further elaborates on the security dilemma in his Peace of Illusions:

“Realists also recognize that the great powers’ competition for security causes the (misnamed) “security dilemma” which really should be named the “insecurity condition.” Because the world is a competitive, potentially dangerous place, realists believe that the most basic goal of great powers is to gain security, and thus ensure their survival… When a state increases its military capabilities, prudence constrains others to respond in kind, leading to an open-ended cycle of move and countermove. Yet there is no real way for great powers to avoid this, because fear and insecurity are the facts of life in international politics. The security dilemma is more accurately conceived as the “insecurity condition,” because as long as there are rivals out there, great powers can never take security for granted… As [Ashley J.] Tellis says, because “no state can be certain that its competitors will not use their military capabilities to threaten its existence and autonomy, every state is constrained to attempt eliminating or subjugating its competitors before it suffers a similar fate.”

In short, states have always had to abide by this maxim of Russian Tsarina Catherine the Great: “I have no way of defending my borders but to extend them.” But there is an extra dimension to the security dilemma/insecurity condition, for not only do states have to worry about threats to their existence from abroad but also from within. The U.S. Constitution has that bit about providing for “domestic tranquility” after all and the event that has been marked by U.S. policymakers as jeopardizing that tranquility the most is widespread revolutionary unrest born of lengthy economic depressions. William Appleman Williams, discussing the onset of the Spanish-American War in his Tragedy of American Diplomacy, gives us insight into how the decisions of the bigwigs were guided by the highest priority of warding off market slumps:

“Men like [President William] McKinley and other national leaders thought about America’s problems and welfare in an inclusive, systematized way that emphasized economics. Wanting democracy and social peace, they argued that economic depression threatened those objectives, and concluded that overseas economic expansion provided a means of ending that danger. They did not want war per se, let alone war in order to increase their personal fortunes. But their own conception of the world ultimately led them into war in order to solve the problems in the way that they considered necessary and best.”

This worry about revolution is what I call the “internal insecurity condition” and it is the inevitable result of class divisions that states help uphold. All states, therefore, face the need to expand to ensure that the size of the national economic pie is increased so that more wealth can trickle down to the masses and create the illusion of improvement. It’s not limited to the demands of capitalism either—the Roman Empire’s slave economy and European states under feudalism both sought more land and resources, for example. The attempt of states to expand and gain hegemony for the sake of both external and internal security has been the source of constant conflict and if people everywhere want real security they must unite and put an end to the state, capitalism, and any other economic system characterized by hierarchy and inequality.