The security dilemma is a result of an anarchic international system in which there is no singular superior force to compel states to behave or act in a certain manner. It is the idea that as one state attempts to increase its security, another state feels threatened or less secure. A given state, however, will believe that its neighbors understand its intentions, and builds forces for protection. However, in reality, neighboring states will always assume the worst -- that the state is preparing for aggression.

The key problem, then, is one of perceptions. As a state attempts to increase security, it gets both too much and too little -- too much in the sense that by building arms it has gained the potential to become an aggressor, and too little because it will not really gain a sense of greater security as other states strive to do the same. The problems of the security dilemma at its worst will lead to an arms race which may spiral out of control, proliferation of arms, as well as burden on the economies of states (e.g., the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union).