The Security Dilemma in “Dr. Strangelove” or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Realist Theory

[Content Warning: Explicit images of nuclear destruction and victims, the terrifying fear of nuclear warfare, and the survival of humanity is not guaranteed]

Russia is developing a nuclear “doomsday” weapon. Conventional diplomacy is failing to contain an emerging nuclear arms race. One wrong word and we could be facing an all-out nuclear war. It is two minutes to midnight and the seconds seem to be ticking away faster than we can respond.

In case you missed some of this news, here’s a quick summary. A nuclear arms race seems to be re-emerging, as Russia has suggested it might be developing an autonomous “doomsday” nuclear submarine drone (Sutyagin, 2016) along with 5 other new weapons (Macias, 2018). In response, President Trump has declared the US is withdrawing from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty (Borger & Pengally, 2018; Reif, 2018) and has signaled the possibility that the US will not extend or may even withdraw from the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) (Pifer, 2017). Amid these rising tensions, the US Ambassador to NATO, Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison, almost accidentally triggered a nuclear war between Russia and the US by answering a reporter’s question by appearing to recklessly state that the US had plans to pre-emptively launch an attack on Russia’s new nuclear forces (Axe, 2018). Lastly, earlier this year the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists updated the famed Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight, signaling the world was at the greatest risk of nuclear desctruction since 1953, shortly after both the US and USSR tested their first thermonuclear weapons (Benedict, 2018).

In the late 1950s, Stanley Kubrick became obsessed with the nuclear arms race that was then spiraling out of control and began writing what would eventually become the 1964 masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Naylor, 2000). This “nightmare comedy” not only speaks to our current moment due to the parallel risks in nuclear geopolitics, but it also presents a useful story for exploring one of the central problems behind nuclear arms control: the security dilemma. In order to understand the security dilemma, and how Dr. Strangelove asks us to reflect upon it, we should first quickly discuss the basics of the international relations theory that often informs our understanding of it: Realism.

There is more than one way to dive into international relations…

International Relations Theory 101: Realism

When International Relations (IR) first emerged as an academic field of study around the turn of the 20th century, there were two primary schools of thought that dominated: Realism and Liberalism (also known as “Idealism”). In the decades since, a number of other IR theories have been developed, such as Marxism, Constructivism, Feminism, Functionalism, and Post-Modernism. Even so, Realism and and Liberalism often still serve as the underlying frameworks for how foreign policy, national security, and military experts analyze international relations and geopolitics. This is particularly evident among think-tanks that assist in the policymaking process, such as this Classical Realist description of the state of the world by the RAND Corporation from a few years ago:

“The past few years have been a reminder that stability is not the natural state of the international environment, that peace is not self-perpetuating, and that whole regions can descend suddenly into anarchy” (Dobbins et al., 2015)

The origins of Realist Theory are often traced back to writers like Thucydides in the 5th Century BCE and Machiavelli in the 16th Century CE, but its current form owes a  lot more to modern theorists, like E.H. Carr, Hans Morganthau and Herman Kahn (Richmond, 2003). Interestingly, Herman Kahn was particularly influential upon Dr. Strangelove, as his writings on nuclear strategy were a core part of the research conducted by Kubrick while writing the script (Naylor, 2000). Today, we can describe most forms of Realism as having three basic assumptions at their core (Wohlforth, 2010):

  1. The basic unit of analysis in IR is the state, which is a rational, unitary actor.
  2. The behavior of states is driven by their national interest, which is primarily to ensure security.
  3. The international system is characterized by anarchy, which conditions the choices available to states.

We will examine these ideas more closely in a moment, but it is important to note what Realists conclude these mean when their taken together: The choices of states in IR are constrained by the need to maximize material (military) power in order to ensure their own security in competition with every other state in a balance of power. The result is, as Oliver Richmond has observed, a vision of the world that only allows for a “victor’s peace,” where the best possible outcome is international stability brought about through the coercive threat of military power by a hegemon, or an alliance with hegemonic dominance (Richmond, 2003).

Clearly, the attraction of this theory does not come from its ultimate vision for the world, as a peace brought about only through a never-ending stand-off is hardly reassuring. Rather, theorists were drawn to this theory by its ability to produce logical, testable predictions about state decision-making that might lend itself to a science of IR (Richmond, 2003), which contemporary theories with a more normative bent failed to provide. This was, in part, because of that first assumption described – that states are rational, unitary actors. By unitary, it was meant that a state is treated as an agent that makes decisions by themselves, rather than the much more complicated process of policies bubbling up out of bureaucratic politics or some other network of individuals. What is maybe more complicated is the idea of states as rational actors, which refers to the Rational Actor Model or Rational Choice Theory.

Rational Choice Theory serves as an underlying assumption in many social science theories, such as Neoclassical Economics and Game Theory. I explored this theory briefly in discussing game theory and the prisoner’s dilemma in a previous essay on Night of the Living Dead. The basic idea of this model is that all actors in a system will make decisions by evaluating the possible outcomes of all the choices available to them and will choose the option that maximizes personal utility according to their own preferences or goals. For example, if I am playing a game that gives me a choice between performing Action A to receive $1 or performing Action B to receive $5, Rational Choice Theory predicts I will choose Action B since I receive more money. As you might have already noticed, there are some key assumptions already baked into this model, such as the idea that actors will have access to perfect information about their choices and all other actors, and will be able to predict the full consequences of their actions based upon this information.

It also assumes that person’s preferences are consistent and logically predictable. For example, if I like bananas more than I like apples, and I like apples more than I like oranges, Rational Choice Theory will predict that I will always choose bananas over oranges (A>B>C means that A>C). So if I am given the choice between bananas and oranges, and then I choose oranges instead, I am not acting rationally according to many versions of this model since my preferences are inconsistent (A>B>C, but I choose C>A). The logical consistency of an given person’s or state’s goals and preferences is vital to the theory, because it makes it possible to calculate and reliably predict what a person will choose under a given set of conditions.

The second assumption listed above also presents an important point. Realists believe that the security and survival of the state is the primary national interest, as all other goals a state might pursue depend upon that goal being fulfilled. After all, if every person in France is dead, it’s not possible for France to do anything, right? This results in every state being primarily concerned with its own survival and pursuing any means to ensure its survival. As Henry Kissinger infamously said, “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.” The consequence is that alliances and rivalries last only as long as they serve or threaten the interests of the state in question. And because this is believed to be true for every state, distrust and competition is believed to be the inevitable state of world affairs, as anyone could betray you at any moment to pursue their own national interests.

This brings us to the third assumption, that the international system is characterized by anarchy. What realists mean by this is that there is no entity more powerful that the state which can compel states to behave and honor their commitments to each other. This is similar to the hypothetical state of affairs that Thomas Hobbes called the state of nature. The state of nature is situation in which there is no political authority to govern what people do, which Hobbes points out means that any person can steal from, harm, or kill any other person since there are no police or government officials that can put a stop to it or punish offenders. He suggests this results in a situation like war, “wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength provides” (The Leviathan, 1651). The ensuing struggle for power and survival results in a life of “continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Hobbes suggests a way out for individual people in the state of nature: the creation of a leviathan, a single entity that is more violently powerful than any one individual and is thus capable of coercing individuals to obey and cooperate with each other. Within the nation-state, the leviathan is the sovereign, an entity such as king or military that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence to ensure security and order. Unlike groups of people though, Realists argue that its not possible for a leviathan to be formed in IR that would be powerful enough to compel states to behave. After all, since states are themselves a type of leviathan, this would just mean the formation of a new, bigger state and the system of international relations would just be reproduced all over again. This means states are condemned to forever struggle within the anarchy that is the state of nature in international relations.

I think this picture really captures my sovereignty…

So, we have the basic Realist picture of the world: every state will seek to maximize its own military power to ensure its survival, with alliances only serving temporarily to balance the power of rivals that threaten a state’s survival. This brings us to one of the key paradoxes in Realist IR Theory: the Security Dilemma.

The Security Dilemma: To Arm or not to Arm?

As described by Wohlforth (2010), the Security Dilemma is:

“…a term coined by John Herz (1950) for the argument that in arming for self-defense a state might decrease its security via the unintended effect of making others insecure, sparking them to arm in response.”

The security dilemma is a consequence of the fact that states, according to realists, will perceive military power as relative to other states. This effectively makes it a zero-sum situation: if my rival becomes more powerful, then I have less ability to coerce them with my own power. The problem comes from the fact that we rarely perceive our own actions as aggressive, but rather as defensive. A classic way to frame this is to imagine Athens and Sparta fighting between each other. One day, Athens builds a wall to protect itself from Sparta, but Sparta realizes that if Athens has a wall, then Athens can attack with bows and spears from behind the wall and Sparta won’t be able to attack them back. So Sparta builds a wall to defend itself too, but then Athens realizes that now Sparta can attack their soldiers on the ground without Athens being able to attack back. Then Athens builds a catapult and so on and so forth.

This is how the nuclear arms race developed between the US and the USSR following World War II. As Robert Ehrlich explains (1985, p. 46):

“Because of its fear of further Soviet expansion, the U.S. government adopted a policy of containment of communism and used its nuclear superiority to threaten the Soviet Union with massive retaliation if it committed unspecified aggressive actions anywhere in the world….The Soviet Union was not able to begin to pose a serious nuclear threat to the United States until 1955 when it deployed its first intercontinental bombers. The U.S. policy of massive nuclear retaliation against the Soviet Union for any misdeeds gradually became untenable…as the Soviet Union began to accumulate its own nuclear arsenal that could seriously threaten the United States.”

Slightly more terrifying than walls and arrows (Illustration by Carl de Torres, source: Mecklin, 2015)

The US saw itself as taking a defensive action, deploying the threat of nuclear weapons to deter the Soviet Union from invading other nations. The idea was that through nuclear deterrence, the US could defend itself and its allies from acts by the USSR that the US perceived as threatening their security. Of course, the Soviet Union only saw the threat of an arsenal of nuclear weapons being pointed at it by a rival that had made it clear that it didn’t want the USSR to even exist. So the Soviets developed their own nuclear arsenal, eventually catching up enough with the US to be able to credibly threaten to destroy the Americans if they ever attempted to use nuclear weapons against them. By the US trying to defend itself with nuclear weapons, it actually made itself less secure as it found nuclear weapons pointing back at the US and a quickly escalating arms race.

The problem is that nuclear weapons are fundamentally different than any other kind of weapon, so an arms race inevitably leads to a stalemate of “Mutually Assured Destruction.” As Ehrlich explains (1985, p. 47):

“Once the Soviet Union accumulated a sufficient number of nuclear weapons, the U.S. policy of massive retaliation for Soviet misdeeds gave way to the doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD). The idea of MAD is that each side is deterred from attacking the other by the realization that its own destruction would be assured in retaliation….According to the doctrine of mutual assured destruction, it did not matter which side had more nuclear weapons, as long as each had enough to assure the destruction of the aggressor in retaliation.”

The nuclear arms race between the US and the USSR quickly got out of control, with both countries developing bigger, and crazier, thermonuclear weapons. Talking about this in the abstract can be hard though, so I would like us to take a moment to compare two things: the destruction of Nagasaki by 21 Kiloton bomb in 1945 by the US and the Tsar Bomba or “Big Ivan” test of a 58 Megaton bomb conducted by the USSR in 1961.

Before and after pictures of the annihilation of Nagasaki, Japan on August 9, 1945
The destruction of Nagasaki from the ground level.
The Tsar Bomba test, touching the edge of space (Photo belongs to Russian Department of Atomic Energy)
Nuclear Comparison
Tsar Bomba was ~4,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb and ~10 times more powerful than all of the munitions used in WWII

This was the situation that Kubrick became obsessed with in the late 1950s, a nuclear arms race spiraling out of control with seemingly only one possible, inevitable outcome: the destruction of every living thing on the planet (Naylor, 2000). He devoured over 50 books on the topic, including Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War (1960), which played a key role in the development of nuclear strategic policy during the Cold War. Kubrick first attempted to write a serious, dramatic script for the movie, but the absurdity of the situation made it nearly impossible to make an effective movie that didn’t just result in fatalism. And it was precisely the fatalism he observed in the public’s response to the Cuban Missile Crisis that he wanted to change, leading him to develop what one of his collaborator’s called a “nightmare comedy” about mutually assured destruction in the early 1960s (Naylor, 2000). This nightmare comedy is the now classic movie, Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964).

The Rationality of a Doomsday Weapon

The plot of Dr. Strangelove begins when General Ripper orders Burpleson Airforce Base to be put on Code Red, shutting it off to communications from the outside, and giving the order to the bomber jets under his command to execute “Plan R.” “Plan R” is a set of orders each bomber had for waging nuclear war against the USSR, including pre-selected targets for each bomber within Russian territory, which also leads to all communications to the jets being coded and blocked off to those who do not know the code. The problem with this order is that no other nuclear weapons had been launched, and General Ripper was going beyond his authority to order the strike for the very purpose for sparking a nuclear retaliation from the Soviet Union that would require the US to strike first with the full strength of its nuclear arsenal. Oh, and General Ripper is also completely delusional, believing that fluoridation of the water supply is a Communist conspiracy to corrupt the precious bodily fluids of Americans.

That feeling when you discover that a madman has started a nuclear war

As soon as we discover that General Ripper is out of touch with reality and has ordered a nuclear strike without authority, the first assumption of Realism is invalidated immediately. The decision to use nuclear weapons and start a nuclear war was not a rational, deliberative decision by a head of state, but an impulsive, delusional plan started by a general further down the chain of command. While the beginning of the movie attempts to reassure the audience that this could never really happen, a tongue in cheek tone isn’t hard to imagine when it wasn’t hard to guess that this was a real risk for much of the Cold War (Schlosser, 2014).

Upon hearing about these orders being given, the President Muffley meets with his top generals and advisors in the War Room in order to discover what has occurred and how to respond. Since they do not know the code for the bomber communications that General Ripper set, they cannot call back the bomber jets and they know in a matter of minutes that Russian radar stations will detect the bombers, which would likely lead to the beginning of retaliation and mutually assured destruction. In the initial discussions that follow, General Turgidson echoes Herman Kahn as he describes a Realist view of the situation (Transcript):

Turgidson: One, our hopes for recalling the 843rd bomb wing are quickly being reduced to a very low order of probability. Two, in less than fifteen minutes from now the Russkies will be making radar contact with the planes. Three, when the do, they are going to go absolutely ape, and they’re gonna strike back with everything they’ve got. Four, if prior to this time, we have done nothing further to suppress their retaliatory capabilities, we will suffer virtual annihilation. Now, five, if on the other hand, we were to immediately launch an all out and coordinated attack on all their airfields and missile bases we’d stand a damn good chance of catching ’em with their pants down. Hell, we got a five to one missile superiority as it is. We could easily assign three missiles to every target, and still have a very effective reserve force for any other contingency. Now, six, an unofficial study which we undertook of this eventuality, indicated that we would destroy ninety percent of their nuclear capabilities. We would therefore prevail, and suffer only modest and acceptable civilian casualties from their remaining force which would be badly damaged and uncoordinated.

Muffley: General, it is the avowed policy of our country never to strike first with nuclear weapons.

Turgidson: Well, Mr. President, I would say that General Ripper has already invalidated that policy. laughs

Muffley: That was not an act of national policy and there are still alternatives left open to us.

Turgidson: Mr. President, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth both for ourselves as human beings and for the life of our nation. Now, the truth is not always a pleasant thing, but it is necessary now make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless, distinguishable post-war environments: one where you got twenty million people killed, and the other where you got a hundred and fifty million people killed.

Muffley: You’re talking about mass murder, General, not war.

Turgidson: Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say… no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh… depending on the breaks.

Muffley:I will not go down in history as the greatest mass murderer since Adolph Hitler!

As Turgidson argues, this situation presents an inevitable choice between two predictable outcomes, which mean the difference between the survival of the United States or its complete destruction. Clearly, there is only one rational choice: go all in and commit the largest genocide in human history! Interestingly, President Muffley decides to take a different approach by contacting the premier of the Soviet Union directly, inviting in the Russian ambassador aid communication and testify to the truth of what he says, and informing the USSR how to shoot down the approaching bombers to prevent an all out nuclear war.

The exchange between President Muffley and General Turgidson reveals a lot about what Kubrick thought of the different potential responses in this situation (Naylor, 2000). He purposefully directed Turgidson to be played like an juvenile adolescent, chewing gum and not fully comprehending the consequences of his actions. He also asked Peter Sellers to play the president as a straight, serious character who fully understood the weight of what was going on and was trying to act responsibly. That said, throughout every scene in the War Room, shadowy figures are gathered around a round table that Kubrick demanded be colored green (despite shooting in black and white), in order to suggest to every actor that they were playing a poker game, gambling with the lives of the entire human race.

Is it just me or are the stakes too high to refer to something as playful as “Game Theory”?

When the risk of some bomber jets getting through is discussed, the Russian ambassador reveals that the situation is far more dangerous than anyone realized because the Soviet Union has recently deployed and armed the “Doomsday Machine.” The Doomsday Machine is a thermonuclear device that has the sole purpose of causing catastrophic nuclear fallout that would kill all life on the entire planet if a single nuclear detonation is detected anywhere on the planet. While this sounds insane, Ambassador DeSadeski explains that it was their most rational choice:

Muffley: But this is absolute madness, ambassador. Why should you build such a thing?

DeSadeski: There are those of us who fought against it, but in the end we could not keep up with the expense involved in the arms race, the space race, and the peace race. And at the same time our people grumbled for more nylons and washing machines. Our doomsday scheme cost us just a small fraction of what we’d been spending on defense in a single year. But the deciding factor was when we learned that your country was working along similar lines, and we were afraid of a doomsday gap.

Fearing a doomsday gap, similar to the perceived missile gap that was driving the nuclear arms race during this period, the only way to balance this potential threat is with their own deterrent doomsday weapon. This is the security dilemma in a nutshell, with both the US and the USSR responding to each other’s acts of self-defense under the impression that these are acts of aggression. The result is an ever-escalating spiral until we are left with a weapon that can destroy every living thing on the planet and can’t be stopped. As the titular Dr. Strangelove explains this is the logical conclusion of the nuclear arms race:

Muffley: But, how is it possible for this thing to be triggered automatically, and at the same time impossible to untrigger?

Strangelove: Mr. President, it is not only possible, it is essential. That is the whole idea of this machine, you know. Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy… the fear to attack. And so, because of the automated and irrevocable decision making process which rules out human meddling, the doomsday machine is terrifying. It’s simple to understand. And completely credible, and convincing.

The doomsday machine is the perfect deterrent, making it clear to any state that would attempt to use nuclear weapons that literally every single living thing on the planet earth would die. It can’t be stopped or disarmed either, meaning that any rival state couldn’t imagine that it might be possible to destroy it first and then strike, like some theorists believed would be possible to prevent the use of enemy bombs and missiles. There is one problem, as Dr. Strangelove points out:

Strangelove: Yes, but the… whole point of the doomsday machine… is lost… if you keep it a secret! Why didn’t you tell the world, eh?

DeSadeski: It was to be announced at the Party Congress on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises.

As was mentioned in our examination of Realism, Rational Choice Theory assumes decision-makers have access to perfect information and can reliably predict what the outcomes of the choices available to them based upon this information. The convenience of this way of thinking isn’t hard to see either, as General Turgidson helped us navigate seemingly unthinkable choices in only a few sentences using this logic. The problem is, there is no such thing as perfect information in the real world and it was not unusual for either the US or the USSR to develop weapons in secret during this period. Not to mention, as with comedy, nuclear warfare is all about the timing.

Luckily, before all of the bombers reach their targets, Captain Mandrake, General Ripper’s second-in-command, is able to discover the code needed to contact the bombers. Just in time, the order is sent out for the bombers to return to base, and all seems well as everyone in the war room cheers. That is, until they suddenly realize that there is one plane missing, which Russia interceptors were able to damage but not take down. Due to the damage caused by the missile that struck the plane, the radio is dead and they never received the message canceling their attack orders. And it appears like it is closing in on a target and will drop their nuclear payload momentarily. We go to the bomber at that moment, and watch as Captain Kong manages to fix some frayed wires, plummeting out of the bomber doors with the nuclear bomb he is sitting upon, yeehawing into the apocalypse.

Kubrick originally planned that the last scene would involve a pie fight in the War Room, with the flying pies representing the countless bombs and missiles being launched at that moment as the MAD doctrine was carried out (Naylor, 2000). After shooting the scene, it became evident it wouldn’t work, as the actors looked like a bunch of boys having fun throwing pies around, seemingly undercutting the weight of that final moment. Instead, we close out on a proposal by Dr. Strangelove to take a select group of people deep into the tunnels of mine shafts to outlast the 93-years of radioactive nuclear fallout. Turgidson responds by pointing out that the Soviets could do that too, and they can’t let the US fall behind with a “mine shaft gap,” rebirthing the spiral of the security dilemma all over again. The scene closes with Strangelove articulating a vision of totalitarian state implementing a system of eugenics as he salutes his new “fuhrer.” In this last moment, Kubrick is making it clear to us that the logic of realism is inevitably slippery slope into a nihilistic or fascist worldview.

It’s generally inadvisable to follow the suggestions of man whose own hand is trying to kill him.

We still live in a mad MAD world

In the end, trapped inside the security dilemma, realism proves incapable of saving us from the Doomsday Machine because it relies upon the same logic that created it. Kubrick makes it a point to remind us that not all decision-makers are rational or predictable and that the chain-of-command is made up of hundreds of imperfect human beings. We are reminded that we may not have enough reliable information to properly evaluate our choices and that the potential consequences are too dangerous to risk being wrong even 0.001% of the time. Lastly, in the final scene, iit is my opinion that Kubrick is trying to persuade us that the mindless pursuit of power leads to only one logical conclusion – fascism and death. If this is not the future we want, we must turn back now.

We must turn back

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Works Cited

Axe, D. (2018, October 2). Trump’s NATO Ambassador Threatens War With Russia…By Mistake…We Think. Daily Beast. Retrieved from

Borger, J., & Pengally, M. (2018, October 21). Trump says US will withdraw from nuclear arms treaty with Russia. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Dobbins, J., Solomon, R. H., Chase, M. S., Henry, R., Larrabee, F. S., Lampert, R. J., . . . Shatz, H. J. (2015). Choices for American in a Turbulent World. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

Ehrlich, R. (1985). Waging Nuclear Peace. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Mecklin, J. (2015, March 24). Disarm and Modernize. Foreign Policy.

Naylor, D. (Writer). (2000). Inside: ‘Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’. In: Columbia Pictures Corporation.

Pifer, S. (2017, February 10). The problem with President Trump’s hasty denunciation of New START. Order From Chaos. Retrieved from

Reif, K. (2018). Trump to Withdraw U.S. From INF Treaty. Retrieved from

Richmond, O. (2003). Peace in international relations: Routledge.

Schlosser, E. (2014, January 17). Almost Everything In ‘Dr. Strangelove’ Was True. The New Yorker. Retrieved from

Sutyagin, I. (2016). Russia’s underwater ‘doomsday drone”: Science fiction, but real danger. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 72(4), 243-246. doi:10.1080/00963402.2016.1194617

Wohlforth, W. C. (2010). Realism. In C. Reus-Smit & D. Snidal (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of International Relations (pp. 133-134). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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