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

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.

Assessment Papers Cyberspace Influence Operations Scott Harr

Assessment of the Impacts of Saudi Arabia’s Vision2030 on U.S. Efforts to Confront Iran

This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which runs from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019.  More information about the writing contest can be found here.

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:  Assessment of the Impacts of Saudi Arabia’s Vision2030 on U.S. Efforts to Confront Iran

Date Originally Written:  March 7, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  April 2, 2019.

Summary:  The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Vision2030 plan to transform its economy and society will have significant effects on the U.S. ability to confront and counter Iran. In either success or failure, Vision2030 will alter the balance of power in the Middle East, conferring advantages to either a strong American ally (Saudi Arabia) or the most formidable and long-standing U.S. adversary in the region (Iran).

Text:  Amidst the continuing turmoil and instability that touches many parts of the Middle East, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) maintain a fierce rivalry vying for regional and Islamic dominance. Both countries factor prominently into U.S. regional goals and interests as Iran (since its Islamic Revolution in 1979) serves as the preeminent regional threat and adversary to the U.S. while the KSA, in many ways, serves as the centerpiece of U.S. efforts to counter and degrade Iranian influence in the region[1]. As the region’s premiere Islamic rivals, internal social, economic, and political movements within the KSA and the IRI inherently shape and inform U.S. actions and efforts aimed at undermining hostile (IRI) objectives while supporting friendly (KSA) initiatives. U.S. President Trump, for instance, was quick to voice support in early 2018 for protesters in Iran railing against (among other things) perceived regime inaction and contribution to the stagnant Iranian economy[2]. Alternatively, Trump preserved U.S. support to the KSA even after allegations of KSA government involvement in the killing of a prominent and outspoken journalist[3]. Such dynamics underscore how the inner-workings of regional rivals create venues and opportunities for the advancement of U.S. interests confronting regional threats by applying pressure and defining alliances using different elements of national power.

In 2016, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, known as “MBS,” unveiled an ambitious and grandiose plan for economic, cultural, and social change in the Kingdom. In response to a worldwide decline in oil prices that drastically shrunk Saudi cash reserves and simultaneously highlighted the precarious state of the Kingdom’s oil-dependent economy, MBS released “Vision2030”- a sweeping program of reform that aimed to create a vibrant society, build a thriving economy, and establish a culture of ambition within the Kingdom[4]. Motivating these ideas was a desire to increase the privatization of the economy and make Saudi society attractive to foreign investment to diversify the economy and decrease its dependence on oil[5]. Whether explicitly or implicitly, the mechanisms of change that drive the execution of MBS’ Vision2030 rest on the extent to which Western values (namely free-market principles and social liberalism) can be inculcated into a historically conservative and closed society. Given the magnitude of Vision2030’s scope, targeting all of Saudi society, the ideology involved in its execution (incorporating Western values), and the KSA’s geopolitical status as a key U.S. ally against Iranian foreign policy objectives, the implementation and execution of Vision2030 cannot fail but to have far-reaching impacts on both Middle Eastern regional stability in general and U.S. efforts confronting Iran in particular.

Whether Vision2030 succeeds or fails, the sheer scope and scale of its desired effects will shape (or re-shape) the momentum of America’s ongoing conflict with Iran and perhaps play a decisive role in determining who (American friend or foe) holds sway in the Middle East. On an ideological plane, if Vision2030 succeeds and successfully introduces Western values that contribute to a balanced and prosperous economy as well as a (more) foreigner-friendly open society, the KSA immediately serves as a blueprint for other Middle Eastern societies plagued by government corruption, limited economic opportunities, and social restrictions. In Iran specifically, Saudi success at transforming their society will perhaps reinvigorate popular protests against a ruling regime that many perceive as purveyors of exactly the kind of corruption and social control described above[6]. That the impetus for change in KSA sprang from the government’s desire for reform (and not citizens engaged in resistance –as in Iran) may further buoy popular unrest in Iran as Vision2030 allows the Saudi government to be cast as benevolent leaders in stark contrast to the Iranian regime’s reputation as corrupt and heavy-handed rulers. Increased unrest in Iran opens the door for increased American support and actions aimed at dislodging the current hostile regime and supporting popular Iranian efforts to introduce democratic reforms. On an economic plane, the success of Vision2030 will potentially decrease the economic capability of the IRI as the desired foreign investment into the KSA resulting from Vision2030 will presumably draw resources from traditional IRI economic partners and cause them to re-invest in a more open and friendly KSA market[7]. This potential economic success will potentially make it more difficult for the IRI to circumvent U.S. actions in the economic realm (sanctions) designed to coerce the IRI into abandoning hostile policies towards U.S. interests.

There will also be significant regional repercussions should Vision 2030 fail and the KSA proves unsuccessful in transforming its economy and society. On an ideological plane, Vision 2030’s failure will likely serve as a referendum on the viability of Western values in the Islamic world and, as such, help sustain the IRI ruling regime. Just as a failing Venezuela has become a symbol and warning of the dangers of socialism to America, so too will the KSA become fodder for IRI propaganda denouncing Western values[8]. On an economic plane, the failure of Vision2030 will, by default, mean that the KSA was unsuccessful in diversifying its economy and severing its reliance on oil for prosperity. Given the tumultuous state of oil prices and the gradual (but palpable) desire of advanced countries to decrease their dependence on oil, this will likely mean that the KSA, as a whole, will be a weakened and less-capable ally against the IRI.

The success of Vision2030 is far from a foregone conclusion in the KSA as recent government implementation measures have encountered staunch resistance from a Saudi citizenry not accustomed to a reduced supporting role from the government[9]. However, what seems clear enough is that the endeavor, regardless of its success or failure, will create effects that reverberate across the Middle East and alter (for better or worse) the balance of power and impact the U.S. ability to confront, counter, and compete against the IRI in the region.


[1] David, J. E. (2017, May 20). US-Saudi Arabia seal weapons deal worth nearly $110 billion immediately, $350 billion over 10 years. Retrieved March 05, 2019, from

[2] Mindock, C. (2018, January 03). Donald Trump says Iranian protesters will see ‘great support’ from US. Retrieved March 6, 2019, from

[3] Harte, J., & Holland, S. (2018, November 17). Trump calls CIA assessment of Khashoggi murder premature but possible. Retrieved March 6, 2019, from

[4] Full text of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030. (2016, April 26). Retrieved March 6, 2019, from

[5] Khashan, H. (2017). Saudi Arabia’s Flawed “Vision 2030”. Middle East Quarterly, 24(1), 1-8. Retrieved February 27, 2019.

[6] Pourzand, A. (2010). Change They Don’t Believe In: The Political Presence of the Basij in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Kennedy School Review, 10, 99. Retrieved March 6, 2019.

[7] Al Gergawi, M. (2017, October 26). China Is Eyeballing a Major Strategic Investment in Saudi Arabia’s Oil. Retrieved March 6, 2019, from

[8] Montgomery, L. K. (2018, May 22). Venezuela should remind Americans about the dangers of socialism. Retrieved March 6, 2019, from

[9] Ghitis, F. (2017, April 27) Is Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 Reform Plan Faltering—or Succeeding? Retrieved March 6, 2019 from

2019 - Contest: Small Wars Journal Assessment Papers Iran Saudi Arabia (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) Scott Harr