Ethnic Violence and the Societal Security Dilemma

By Paul Roe | Go to book overview
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In the West and the East, at the centre and the periphery, cultural identity and societal security have become the central theme of political attitudes and conflicts. 1

Context and goals

This book is concerned with societal security. It is about matters of security and identity: how the defence of ethnic identity can trigger threat perceptions in others, how escalatory dynamics ensue, and how this comes to manifest itself in violence and, ultimately, even war. I view this process through the perspective of the security dilemma, a concept central to the International Relations (IR) discipline for the past 50 years or so and, since the beginning of the 1990s especially, employed by many scholars in explaining conflict between ethnic groups. Unlike most writers on the security dilemma, though, my main goal in this respect is not simply to apply but to reconstruct the concept itself, to bring questions of identity to the fore. In short, this book is about an identity security dilemma, or, a 'societal security dilemma'.

The concept of the security dilemma was first expounded at the beginning of the 1950s by the British historian Herbert Butterfield, 2 and the American political scientist John Herz. 3 In essence, the security dilemma defines a situation whereby one actor - in its traditional manifestation, the state - in trying to increase its security, causes a reaction in a second, which, in the end, decreases the security of the first. As a result, a (spiral) process of action and reaction is manifest in which each side's behaviour is seen as threatening. For both Butterfield and Herz, the key to the security dilemma is misperception; defensively motivated actions are misinterpreted as offensive moves, thus requiring some kind of countermeasure. Butterfield, in this way, described the situation as a 'tragedy', inasmuch as the protagonists seek to avoid conflict of any sort. Hence, Charles Glaser's description of the concept as 'the key to understanding how in an anarchical international system states with fundamentally compatible goals still end up in competition and war'. 4


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