The Security Dilemma and the Causes of World War I

By Thomas Richter

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Photo by Hassan Pasha on Unsplash

Abstract of Argument: I argue that the security dilemma can explain the rise of militarism, colonialism, and the formation of alliances in Europe before World War I. I draw on Anglo-German naval competition, the "Scramble for Africa," and the formation of the Franco-Russian Alliance to prove this point.


Can the security dilemma, as defined by Jervis in his article "Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma," explain the factors that led to World War I? I examine three factors that contributed to the outbreak of the war: militarism, imperialism, and alliances. I argue that the security dilemma explains each of these factors. I make this case in two parts. First, I define the security dilemma. Second, I consider examples of militarism, imperialism, and alliances, and show why each is the result of the security dilemma. Specifically, I use Jervis's theory to explain Anglo-German naval competition, the "Scramble for Africa," and the formation of the Franco-Russian Alliance preceding the war.

What is the Security Dilemma?

International relations is anarchic; there is no overarching power that guarantees a state's safety. Therefore, each state must take steps to protect itself. The security dilemma is a theory of international relations that posits that every time a state takes an action that increases its own security, it decreases the relative security of its neighboring states. [1] The two states in a security dilemma are "status quo" powers motivated by fear.[2] Neither one is aggressive, but both are afraid for their own safety. The two states become trapped in a "action-reaction" cycle.[3] When one increases its military strength for self-protection, it scares the other state into building up its own arsenal. Therefore, I look for evidence of this "action-reaction" cycle in the European historical record in the decades before World War I.[4]

World War I and the Security Dilemma

In this section, I show that Anglo-German naval competition, the "Scramble for Africa," and the creation of the Franco-Russian Alliance are all results of the security dilemma. I begin by considering how rising militarism and Anglo-German naval competition are explained by the security dilemma. In 1898 and 1900, the Reichstag passed laws that allowed the German navy to expand its fleet. As Maurer notes:

This legislation committed the German government to support a long-term buildup of Germany's naval power by setting an overall strength for the navy that called for the construction of new warships, and provided sailors to man these vessels, equipped the fleet with supplies of stores and weapons, developed the navy's bases, and expanded the shipbuilding capacity of German industry. [5]

The result was a German fleet of sixty modern capital ships all less than twenty years old. [6]

German militarism in the early 20th century created a security dilemma between Germany and Britain. At the time, Britain possessed the world's strongest navy with 18 dreadnaughts and over 400 total ships. [7] Germany took steps to increase its own security by developing its navy; however, this decreased the relative security of Great Britain by threatening their naval superiority. Britain responded by further developing its navy because it feared for its own safety. This security dilemma is evident in the rhetoric of English leaders of the era. In 1906, English Admiral Sir John Fisher said, "Germany keeps her whole fleet always concentrated within a few hours of England. We must therefore keep a fleet twice as powerful as that of Germany always concentrated within a few hours of Germany."[8] England followed through on this threat beginning the following year. From 1907 to 1914, "Britain's annual naval expenditures increased by £18,250,000—or almost 70 percent […]."[9] This action-reaction cycle illustrates that rising militarism in England and Germany before World War I was the result of a security dilemma.

Some could argue that Anglo-German naval competition was not the result of a security dilemma because Germany was not a "status-quo" power. This is true: Germany did not approve of Britain's naval dominance as the status-quo. "From the very first navy law in 1898, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, Germany's navy secretary and the principal architect of its growing naval power, envisioned the establishment of Germany as a world power on equal footing with Britain by the building of a German battle fleet." [10] The security dilemma, however, still explains Britain's naval buildup because Britain was a status-quo power. England already possessed the world's strongest navy, so their naval buildup was only an attempt to maintain that status quo in the face of a threatening Germany.

The security dilemma also explains the "Scramble for Africa" during the Age of Imperialism. Colonialism by European nations during the late-19th century was motivated by the desire for power and economic growth. [11] Nations pursued imperialist policies "to maintain and increase state prestige on a world-wide scale," and they "were intent on achieving these aims by strengthening their armed forces on land and sea, by the acquisition of strategic positions and bases throughout the world, and by gaining territory,"[12] and because "tremendous pressure existed in the so called "capitalist" countries for overseas investment."[13]

These pressures created a security dilemma for European nations during the late-19th century. As each nation gained colonies that increased their relative share of economic and political power, they decreased the relative power of other European nations. This security dilemma is particularly evident in English and French reactions to Germany's growth during the late-19th century. Beginning in 1884, Germany seized colonies near modern Tanzania and Cameroon and exploited them for economic growth ..[14] Germany's relative share of European wealth grew from 20% in 1880 to 39% in 1910,[15] partly due to the exportation of cotton, rubber, and precious metals from these colonies.[16] This increase in Germany's relative power worried England and France. In response to German colonial expansion, British politician David Lloyd George said "I am also bound to say this—that I believe it is essential in the highest interests, not merely of this country, but of the world, that Britain should at all hazards maintain her place and her prestige amongst the Great Powers of the world."[17] Figure 1 (below) is a French political cartoon titled "Two Sides of the Border," which illustrates that the popular opinion in France also did not approve of German expansion.[18] England and France responded to German expansion by seizing more territory for themselves in Africa. France colonized the Ivory Coast in 1893 and England colonized Kenya in 1895, thus perpetuating the "action-reaction" cycle of colonial expansion (see fig. 2).[19] These examples illustrate that the security dilemma explains imperialism and the "Scramble for Africa" in the decades preceding World War I.

  • Two soldiers depicted standing across enemy lines
    Fig. 1. French School, (20th century); French. Medium: colour lithograph.
    Date: 1911. Les deux cotes de la frontiere; Provenance:
    Private Collection / Giraudon. Photographic Rights The Bridgeman Art Library.

The security dilemma also explains the formation of the Franco-Russian alliance in 1891. Several factors threatened the relative security of France and Russia in the late-19th century. First, as already discussed, France feared expansionist German policies. One French journalist articulated these fears, writing "Imagine the situation for France, left face to face with Germany like two hostile seconds at a duel! Is not this consideration sufficient to suggest the desirability of extreme caution on the part of the French people?"

  • Map of Europe
    Fig. 2. whiplashoo21, "Colonial Africa On The Eve of World War I," Brilliant Maps, April 30, 2015.

[20] German policies also threatened Russia's economic security. In the late-19th century, the Russian economy depended on the exportation of wheat and other grains. During the 1870s, Russia exported 7.2 billion pounds of wheat annually, 20% of which went to Germany.[21] In 1879, the Reichstag passed a tariff that increased rates on agricultural goods.[22] This law contributed to a recession in Russia; in the early 1880s Russian agricultural exports fell by 75% to only 1.8 billion pounds per year.[23] Additionally, the formation of the Triple Alliance in 1882 threatened both Russia and France. Germany, Austria, and Italy increased their own relative security by forming the Triple Alliance; however, the Alliance decreased the relative security of France and Russia. France and Russia became "outcasts among the nations; not without friends […] but politically isolated by the dominant influence of German diplomacy."[24] These examples illustrate that France and Russia both faced a security dilemma because their relative security was decreased by German policies and the formation of the Triple Alliance.

France and Russia sought to overcome their security dilemma by forming the Franco-Russian Alliance in 1891. France and Russia both believed that they could increase their security and ensure peace by forming an alliance. This is clear from the writings of French and Russian leaders at the time. The French foreign minister Théophile Delcassé wrote that "To France and to Russia alike, a common peril calls imperatively for the closest co-operation. […] They will be obliged to bring pressure of the same sort upon Germany. Each acts as a counter-weight in Europe, one in the East, one in the West, to that Teutonic giant." [25] Similarly, Russian foreign minister Nicholas Giers wrote that "we have entered into an entente with France. […] We have but one aim—peace, lasting peace."[26] In 1891, France and Russia formalized their alliance, both agreeing that "with a view to intensifying and reinforcing that cordial understanding which now unites them, and to promoting by their joint efforts the maintenance of peace, which is the object of their sincerest desires, the two Governments hereby affirm that they will take counsel together on all questions which are calculated to jeopardize the peace of the world."[27] These examples illustrate that the security dilemma led to the Franco-Russian Alliance because they show that France and Russia allied to protect themselves from Germany and the Triple Alliance.

[1] Robert Jervis, "Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma," World Politics 30, no. 2 (January 1978): 167-214.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] This "What is the Security Dilemma" section is taken from an earlier paper written by the author; see Thomas Richter, "The Security Dilemma Applied to the Relations between India and Pakistan" (unpublished paper, 2019).

[5] John H. Maurer, "Arms Control and the Anglo-German Naval Race before World War I: Lessons for Today?" Political Science Quarterly 112, no. 2 (Summer 1997): 287.

[6] Capital ships are generally the largest warships in a naval fleet. At this time, a capital ship would have been a dreadnaught or a large battleship. See ibid.

[7] At the time, Dreadnoughts were the most powerful ships in the world. They were equipped with ten 12-inch guns and could reach speeds of 21 knots, making them significantly faster and more dangerous than the previous generation of battleships; see John Simkin, "The Royal Navy and the First World War," Spartacus Educational, accessed November 24, 2019,

[8] Qtd. in Maurer, "Arms Control," 288.

[9] Ibid., 290.

[10] Ibid., 287.

[11] Heinz Gollwitzer, Europe in the Age of Imperialism 1880-1914, Norwich: Jarrold and Sons, 1969.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] New World Encyclopedia, s.v. "German Colonial Empire," accessed November 24, 2019,

[15] John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, updated ed., New York: Norton, 2014.

[16] Richard V. Pierard, "A Case Study in German Economic Imperialism: The Colonial Economic Committee, 1896–1914," Scandinavian Economic History Review 16, no. 2 (December 1968): 155-67.

[17] Qtd. in "Primary Sources: Effects of the Second Moroccan Crisis," The Colonization of Morocco, accessed November 24, 2019,

[18] French School, "The Two Sides of the Border," September 1911, Le Petit Journal, Paris, France, accessed November 24, 2019,

[19] whiplashoo21, "Colonial Africa On The Eve of World War I," Brilliant Maps, April 30, 2015, accessed November 24, 2019,

[20] Georges Michon, The Franco-Russian Alliance, n.p.: George Allen & Unwin, 1969.

[21] M. E. Falkus, "Russia and the International Wheat Trade 1861-1914," Economica 33, no. 132 (November 1966): 416-29.

[22] Steven B. Webb, "Tariff Protection for the Iron Industry, Cotton Textiles and Agriculture in Germany 1879-1914," Journal of Economics and Statistics 192 (November 1977): 336-57.

[23] Falkus, "Russia."

[24] Nicholas Mansergh, The Coming of the First World War, London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1949.

[25] Michon, Franco-Russian Alliance.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.