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Jervis: Cooperation under the security dilemma

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Jervis. 1978. Cooperation under the security dilemma. World Politics 30: 167-214.

[mostly from handout]


Anarchy and the security dilemma make cooperation seemingly impossible. Why would states cooperate anyway? Presumably, there must be some mechanism which allows states to bind themselves (and partners) not to "defect," or at least some mechanism by which to detect defection early enough to respond appropriately. (170-171)


Jervis identifies two main variables, the offense/defense balance [X1] and the ability to distinguish between offensive/defensive postures [X2]. Using these two variables he creates a two-by-two matrix with four possible strategic environments:

1Offensive/Defensive posture indistinguishable - Offensive advantage

This world is very dangerous because countries have an incentive to take offensive action to increase their security and they have an inherent mistrust of each other because they cannot determine their neighbors' intentions from their actions. The security dilemma is strong in this environment

2Offensive/Defensive posture indistinguishable � Defensive advantage

The security dilemma will exist in this world, but the defensive advantage will give countries an incentive to invest in primarily defensive capabilities. Security needs could be compatible.

3Offensive/Defensive posture is distinguishable � Offensive advantage

The security dilemma will not operate in this environment, but countries will have an incentive to use offensive action to protect themselves. Status-quo states can differentiate themselves from aggressors and there will likely be warning of an aggressors' intentions

4Offensive/Defensive posture is distinguishable � Defensive advantage

This is the safest possible environment. In this situation the security dilemma does not have a significant influence because actors can differentiate between types when analyzing their counterparts. Additionally, the advantage given to defense will cause nations to invest greater resources in defensive capabilities that do not threaten their neighbors.


Jervise uses these variables to illustrate why WWI broke out rapidly (Bismarck's wars left Europeans expecting offense to be decisive in quick, cheap victories) but statesmen were more cautious and patient going into WWII (b/c WWI left England and France expecting defense to have the upper hand, so German preparations were less worrisome). So the security dilemma was more powerful going into WWI than going into WWII.


Defense/offense balances contribute how influential the security dilemma i. If defense is stronger then the security dilemma doesn't operate as powerfully, if offense has an advantage over defense then the security dilemma becomes more acute

Priors and memories of previous events affect decision-makers beliefs as to the defense/offense balance

Technology and geography have a strong influence on whether defense or offense have the advantage in a given scenario

If it is possible to clearly differentiate between defensive and offensive military build-ups or weapons then the security dilemma does not hold because nations can observe the intentions of their neighbors

Example: ICBMs are not clearly offensive or defensive, since the defense against ICBMs is ICBMs (deterrence). SLBMs, on the other hand, are clearly defensive (since they are less accurate). So if we reduced ICBM numbers and relied instead on SLBMs, we could eliminate the security dilemma (assuming, of course, that both sides are status quo powers).


Cooperation can be enhanced by increasing the gains from mutual cooperation, decreasing the gains from defection, or increasing the expectations that both sides will cooperate.

When the costs of being exploited are low, countries will have less need to take defensive action that would decrease their neighbors' security.

The perception of a functioning collective security also reduces a country's perception of threat and its need to respond quickly and perhaps to overreact, to its neighbors' actions.

Mutual defection, or war, is doubly costly. In a mutual defection scenario, the actors must pay the costs of war and the opportunity costs of the lack of coordination.

Gains from exploitation of a second country can be decreased if the second country is both non-threatening and if it provides goods that will be lost if the 1st country attempts to exploit it.

Monitoring regimes help to support CC solutions because they make it easier for countries to international agreements

Understanding of the security dilemma can also help to mitigate cooperation problems because statesmen will realize how their actions affect their neighbors' perception of security

Geography also has a strong effect � geographically isolated countries like the U.S. do not need to threaten their neighbors' to increase their security


"Because there are no institutions or authorities that can make and enforce international laws, the policies of cooperation that will bring mutual rewards if others cooperate may bring disaster if they do not. Because states are aware of this, anarchy encourages behavior that leaves all concerned worse off than they could be, even in the extreme case in which all states would like to freeze the status quo. This is true of the men in Rousseau's "Stag Hunt." [continues] from page 1

Research by the same authors

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Jervis, Robert (author)International RelationsSecurity DilemmaAnarchyCooperationDeterrenceWestphalia SystemAnarchy vs Hierarchy

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