Beware the 'security dilemma.' Tell Americans that arming up, or posturing to do so against each other, could only make things worse.
In international relations, we learn that moments of crisis and conflict are ultimately resolved or left unresolved by the ability of individuals to find common ground. The way we collectively choose to speak and engage with one another has the potential to shape the trajectory of events for better or worse.
Over the last few weeks, I kept finding myself applying a well-known concept in the study of international relations to our troublesome domestic political situation. It’s called “the security dilemma.” In it, actions taken by a state aimed at increasing its own security prompt reactions from another state that actually reduce the first state’s security. Even purely defensive moves could cause uncertainties over intentions and inadvertently lead to additional mistrust, tensions, or military conflict.
When I worked as military analyst at the CIA and as a graduate student of international relations, I often honed in on the pervasiveness of human psychology at consequential historical moments — trying to change hearts and minds on the ground during an insurgency, working to deescalate a nuclear crisis, or bring parties to the table for a peace treaty. We are in such a moment in the United States. As our nation faces a COVID pandemic, high unemployment, protests against racial injustice, animus against the police, extreme political polarization, and an upcoming election, many Americans have become increasingly concerned about unrest and violence in the upcoming months, particularly if we find ourselves facing any type of protracted or contested outcome after Nov. 3.
Some Americans, most notably President Donald Trump, seem to be making violence increasingly more likely with incendiary language and tactics aimed at securing what they perceive to be their own political interests. Trump has called for his supporters to show up at polling places as election watchers of his fraud conspiracy claims, which Democrats argue is pure voter intimidation. Already, armed right-wing extremists and private ex-military security groups have responded by appearing at polls and with online calls to mobilize on Nov. 3. The governors of Michigan and Virginia, two states which Trump called on to be “liberated,” were targets of kidnapping plots by far-right extremists. Other governors are weighing whether to mobilize National Guard troops to help police officers ensure such outlier groups do not interfere with voting. On Wednesday, two armed men falsely claiming to be on-duty security guards hired by the Trump campaign appeared at a St. Petersburg, Fla., polling place, prompting local police to station real officers there the next day.
On the left, many have applauded calls for visible law enforcement and military during the election, including when former military officers called on the Pentagon to enforce the election result by using active duty U.S troops, if necessary, should Trump lose and refuse to vacate the office.
We have also seen that there are some, including those affiliated with ANTIFA, who are willing to resort to violence when they perceive their interests are at stake and they need to defend such interests. We have seen protests nationwide that have turned into violent demonstrations time and time again since the shooting of George Floyd that sparked this year’s civil unrest. Leaders on the left must unequivocally condemn this violence as well.
In other words, we currently seem to be in the nascent stages of our own form of a security dilemma here at home, exacerbated predominantly by extreme political polarization. It is important to remember that these individuals are not the majority. But these trends are both troubling and dangerous. We must be careful that our actions, and our leaders, do not make things worse by encouraging or emboldening those willing to use violence.
So, what can we do?
First, leaders must condemn violence and calls to arms or violence not just on the other side, but on their own side. This is a way to signal non-offensive intentions and avoid worsening the security dilemma.
They must condemn those acting as vigilantes ahead of the election who try to take the law into their own hands by framing it as a defensive maneuver. And they must preemptively condemn all potential future violence associated with the election, whether at polling locations or in the election’s aftermath.
Second, stop fueling conspiracy theories or encouraging false information. Leaders need to say more publicly about preserving the integrity of elections from both foreign interference and domestic misinformation, like U.S. officials did in an extraordinary announcement on Wednesday. And all sides should dial back statements intended to erode norms about the peaceful transfer of power. All of this creates additional uncertainty that helps fuel the dilemma.
Third, we should amplify bipartisan efforts and moderate voices, and elevate the discourse in today’s media between those who possess differing views. Intellectual debate and civil discourse between both sides has been hijacked by competitions for virality, which has produced a rhetorical race to the bottom. We need intellectual debates on important topics with thoughtful, rational, and new voices from the right and the left, rather than the vitriolic partisan arguments on a loop, within media channel silos, featuring the same old echo chambers and limited casts of characters.
Fourth, we can and should befriend people we admire — and respect — who think differently from us. Debate with them. Understand where their views come from and try to find zones of agreement. Listen to those public voices you respect who have different opinions from you. Find people you think are smart and noble, even if you disagree.
Fifth, we should strive to restore norms of character, dignity, grace, & civility to our public sphere on social media. As much as anyone, I love a passionate and heated debate. Social media shouldn’t be an excuse for all professional and personal norms to go out the window, particularly for our leaders and journalists. Words have consequences.
Arming up, or posturing to do so against each other, will not increase our security. When citizens and leaders work to appeal to the better angels of our nature, we all can work to reduce the propensity for civil discord and violence at home. Over the next few weeks, this will be more important than ever.
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