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Game Theory in the Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict

Barry Posen’s The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict” uses the security dilemma, a game theoretical concept in international relations, to explain  how its exacerbation creates fertile ground for ethnic conflict, using the Yugoslavian War as a case study. The security dilemma, briefly stated, describes how even though a state intends to increase its security, and, in doing so, indirectly weakens it by causing other states to increase their own security, potentially leading to war. Whether or not the context favors offensive weapons (missiles) or defense (stone castles, missile-defense systems) in part determines whether or not the situation will spiral to war.

Game theory, especially the prisoner’s dilemma, off of which the security dilemma is based, also explains the spiral into brutal ethnic conflict and genocide. Yugoslavia, with its imbalance of power towards Serbia, and centuries of hostility, including Croats slaughtering civilians and Serbian pretenses to hegemony. Serbia had the offensive advantage but could not count on maintaining that forever, due to Croatia gaining statehood and legitimacy, leading to its insecurity, consequent build-up of offensive capabilities, which led to a spiraling effect throughout the whole region. The Yugoslavian War is an example of a network with structural imbalances, with which positive and negative relations are only understood within their larger historical context. This touches upon a few concepts from networks, from the system of conflicting states, with every relationship deteriorating into war, and game theory explaining why the states inherently distrusted each other and sought offensive capabilities over defensive.


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