Scott Harr is a U.S. Army Special Forces officer with deployment and service experience throughout the Middle East.  He has contributed articles on national security and foreign policy topics to military journals and professional websites focusing on strategic security issues.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Assessing the Impact of the Information Domain on the Classic Security Dilemma from Realist Theory

Date Originally Written:  September 26, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  December 2, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes that realist theory of international relations will have to take into account the weaponization of information in order to continue to be viable.

Summary:  The weaponization of information as an instrument of security has re-shaped the traditional security dilemma faced by nation-states under realist theory. While yielding to the anarchic ordering principle from realist thought, the information domain also extends the classic security dilemma and layers it with new dynamics. These dynamics put liberal democracies on the defensive compared to authoritarian regimes.

Text:  According to realist theory, the Westphalian nation-state exists in a self-interested international community[1]. Because of the lack of binding international law, anarchy, as an ordering principle, characterizes the international environment as each nation-state, not knowing the intentions of those around it, is incentivized to provide for its own security and survival[2]. This self-help system differentiates insecure nations according to their capabilities to provide and project security. While this state-of-play within the international community holds the structure together, it also creates a classic security dilemma: the more each insecure state invests in its own security, the more such actions are interpreted as aggression by other insecure states which initiates and perpetuates a never-ending cycle of escalating aggression amongst them[3]. Traditionally, the effects of the realist security dilemma have been observed and measured through arms-races between nations or the general buildup of military capabilities. In the emerging battlefield of the 21st century, however, states have weaponized the Information Domain as both nation-states and non-state actors realize and leverage the power of information (and new ways to transmit it) to achieve security objectives. Many, like author Sean McFate, see the end of traditional warfare as these new methods captivate entities with security interests while altering and supplanting the traditional military means to wage conflict[4]. If the emergence and weaponization of information technology is changing the instruments of security, it is worth assessing how the realist security dilemma may be changing along with it.

One way to assess the Information Domain’s impact on the realist security dilemma is to examine the ordering principle that undergirds this dilemma. As mentioned above, the realist security dilemma hinges on the anarchic ordering principle of the international community that drives (compels) nations to militarily invest in security for their survival. Broadly, because no (enforceable) international law exists to uniformly regulate nation-state actions weaponizing information as a security tool, the anarchic ordering principle still exists. However, on closer inspection, while the anarchic ordering principle from realist theory remains intact, the weaponization of information creates a domain with distinctly different operating principles for nation-states existing in an anarchic international environment and using information as an instrument of security. Nation-states espousing liberal-democratic values operate on the premise that information should flow freely and (largely) uncontrolled or regulated by government authority. For this reason, countries such as the United States do not have large-scale and monopolistic “state-run” information or media channels. Rather, information is, relatively, free to flow unimpeded on social media, private news corporations, and print journalism. Countries that leverage the “freedom” operating principle for information implicitly rely on the strength and attractiveness of liberal-democratic values endorsing liberty and freedom as the centerpiece for efforts in the information domain. The power of enticing ideals, they seem to say, is the best application of power within the Information Domain and surest means to preserve security. Nevertheless, reliance on the “freedom” operating principle puts liberal democratic countries on the defensive when it comes to the security dimensions of the information domain.

In contrast to the “freedom” operating principle employed by liberal democratic nations in the information domain, nations with authoritarian regimes utilize an operating principle of “control” for information. According to authors Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov, when the photocopier was first invented in Russia in the early 20th century, Russian authorities promptly seized the device and hid the technology deep within government archives to prevent its proliferation[5]. Plainly, the information-disseminating capabilities implied by the photocopier terrified the Russian authorities. Such paranoid efforts to control information have shaped the Russian approach to information technology through every new technological development from the telephone, computer, and internet. Since authoritarian regimes maintain tight control of information as their operating principle, they remain less concerned about adhering to liberal values and can thus assume a more offensive stance in the information domain. For this reason, the Russian use of information technology is characterized by wide-scale distributed denial of services attacks on opposition voices domestically and “patriot hackers” spreading disinformation internationally to achieve security objectives[6]. Plausible deniability surrounding information used in this way allows authoritarian regimes to skirt and obscure the ideological values cherished by liberal democracies under the “freedom” ordering principle.

The realist security dilemma is far too durable to be abolished at the first sign of nation-states developing and employing new capabilities for security. But even as the weaponization of information has not abolished the classic realist dilemma, it has undoubtedly extended and complicated it by adding a new layer with new considerations. Whereas in the past the operating principles of nation-states addressing their security has been uniformly observed through the straight-forward build-up of overtly military capabilities, the information domain, while preserving the anarchic ordering principle from realist theory, creates a new dynamic where nation-states employ opposite operating principles in the much-more-subtle Information Domain. Such dynamics create “sub-dilemmas” for liberal democracies put on the defensive in the Information Domain. As renowned realist scholar Kenneth Waltz notes, a democratic nation may have to “consider whether it would prefer to violate its code of behavior” (i.e. compromise its liberal democratic values) or “abide by its code and risk its survival[7].” This is the crux of the matter as democracies determine how to compete in the Information Domain and all the challenges it poses (adds) to the realist security dilemma: they must find a way to leverage the strength (and attractiveness) of their values in the Information Domain while not succumbing to temptations to forsake those values and stoop to the levels of adversaries. In sum, regarding the emerging operating principles, “freedom” is the harder right to “control’s” easier wrong. To forget this maxim is to sacrifice the foundations that liberal democracies hope to build upon in the international community.


[1] Waltz, Kenneth. Realism and International Politics. New York: Taylor and Francis, 2008.

[2] Ibid, Waltz, Realism.

[3] Ibid, Waltz, Realsim

[4] Mcfate, Sean. The New Rules Of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder. New York: Harper Collins Press, 2019.

[5] Soldatov, Andrei and Borogan, Irina. The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries. New York: Perseus Books Group, 2015.

[6] Ibid, Soldatov.

[7] Waltz, Kenneth Neal. Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959.