text and photo by Phoebus Voulgaris, member of the International Relations & Foreign Policy Research Team


The element of anglosaxonism in international relations theories is prevalent. This analysis ponders whether and how a concept theoretically developed in the West, that of [s1] the “Security Dilemma”- as described by Barry Posen, as a constant cycle of mutual apprehension and heightening of security capabilities between states, in the absence of an international authority, as a means to ensure state survival (1993), is relevant in describing Asian foreign policy and what implications it has. To that effect, the strategies of (the then united) Korea of the early 20th century and modern Mongolia will serve as case studies. Furthermore, it is hypothesized that the natural and “artificial” circumstances of both states influenced the unique way in which they reacted to their security threats and as a result the security dilemma did not have applicability as an analytical tool in portraying policymaking. In each country-case, after the description of the objective reality, the aforementioned hypothesis will be tested. The sum of those findings will provide us with an answer as to whether the security dilemma is relevant in interpreting the foreign policy of Asian states, how it manifests itself and which state (Korea or Mongolia) has been more effective strategically in countering its security threats (even if it didn’t strictly follow the “instructions» of the dilemma), which is measured by the existence of security and sovereignty in the said country.

Korea: How being completely negative can lead to ruin

The end of the 19th century found Korea with few friends and many states coveting its riches and wanting a share of its prosperity. The Joseon Dynasty in the face of this security reality chose to close its borders and decree a prohibition of foreign involvement in Korea. Nonetheless, this move stoked the desire of onlookers (especially Japan, China and the West) and led to the tacit legitimized enforcement- by Toyotomi’s Japan- of the reopening of Korea. From that point on it was compelled to agree to all foreign requests ranging from commerce and friendship agreements with China and the United States of America to the Treaty of Shimonoseki (1895) which ended Japan’s war with China and recognized Nihon supremacy over Korea without the latter’s consent or participation in the negotiations and finally the treaty of Portsmouth (1905) between the Imperial Land of the Rising Sun and Russia with which Joseon officially became part of the former. (Korean Culture Centre, n.d., Britannica, n.d.). The loss of Korean sovereignty, which is proven by the acceptance of all the aforementioned, was a result of the lack of enough military power to protect itself from its adversaries. Such a reality is even more evident from the fact that it couldn’t even safeguard its cultural identity from the Japanese, as it was forced to become “japan-ised” to some extent (Blakemore, 2018). From that point forward, up until its division, it was never again independent. In a world of threats, it seems that looking inwards for security while at the same time neglecting the amplification of power in relation to your enemies is proven insufficient to assure national sovereignty.

Nonetheless, it would appear, as will become apparent by the case of Mongolia, that strict adherence to the edict of hard power augmentation can be overlooked when a state focuses on building a strong non-conflictual nexus of diplomatic relations that all have a stake in its prosperity. As a result, it is safe to assume that had Joseon agreed to promote the interests of at least one of the interested parties from the start, that power would guarantee its protection from the others.

Hence, in the case of Korea, a multitude of threats, in the absence of an international authority, prompted it to isolate itself without enhancing its power. Its competitors took advantage of what they perceived as weakness in order to gain as much as they could, leading Korea to a loss of independence. As a result, it can be surmised that, in this case, the dilemma did adequately outline the threats that Joseon had to face and foreshadowed the eventual need for increasing its power (which was attempted, but at a point in time when the gap between Korea and its enemies, in terms of power, was too great to be bridged) and so it is relevant as an interpretive tool of Korea’s foreign policy.

Mongolia’s Success Story: a policy of sharing one’s prosperity

Modern Mongolia’s case is one of success, despite its strategy not being strictly described by the security dilemma, as regards the enhancement of hard power in order to maintain a balance of power and ensure survival. This state, faced with security concerns posed by the two Great Powers that border it, found a unique way to deal with them, by using its natural wealth as a means to attract third neighbours, in a policy of extroversion and equidistance from the interested parties and of sharing its affluence but at the same time benefiting in security and financial terms from them. The abundance of literature on the topic, stemming from Ulaanbaatar’s achievement and the relative modernity of its policy (since the 1990s), allows for a more detailed analysis than in the case of Korea.

First and foremost, Mongolia has known both Chinese occupation, from 1691 until 1921, and Russian influence, as it was a member of the Soviet Union. Those experiences, however, had very contrasting effects, as in the case of China, Ulaanbaatar retains an apprehensive stance, especially due to the fact that there exists a part of Mongolia that never became independent from the Celestial Empire (Inner Mongolia) and that the latter’s peaceful rise seems to include the development of a strong position in its economy. At the same time, in the case of the Russian Federation, it is viewed as an ally due to the fact that it is the successor of the Soviet Union, in which Ulaanbaatar had experienced the development of basic infrastructures and low unemployment (Radchenko, 2018). Nonetheless, in its relations with both states Mongolia does have reservations regarding the “incursions” of its borders from both the north, where the offenders are cattlers from Russia, and the south, where illegal Chinese immigrants and settlers cross the border (Schmücking, 2015).

 Indeed, Mongolia today views China’s investments as an encroachment in its economy, while at the same time it welcomes Russian ones aiming to enhance Soviet infrastructure. The reason that those powerful states have had their sights on Mongolia is its abundance of natural resources, and especially coal [world’s largest undeveloped deposit (Radchenko 2018)], copper and gold, coupled with a lack of a harbor from where it could ship them internationally. This reality would normally lead to a dual conflict, between the two great powers competing over “Mine-golia”, as it has often been nicknamed (Bulag, 2017), and between Mongolia itself and Russia and/or China, making an effort to avoid being solely dependent on their respective ports and influence. Instead it has chosen a policy of equal distance from both while also introducing a number of third, not geographically near, neighbours (Mongolia is contiguous only with Russia and China), like the USA and the EU, and it has bound together the interests of all parties in a manner that isn’t conflictual. Despite the difficulty of this task, for the most part, Mongolia has been successful, having gained benefits from all states with which it has friendly relations. To be more precise, as Putin’s administration wished for the cultivation of a cordial relationship and the gain of better chances to be awarded mining contracts, it declared a moratorium on soviet debts and offered to invest more in the modernization of the transmongolian Railway (Radchenko 2018). At the same time the non-contiguous neighbours like Canada invest in mining operations in Oyou Tolgoi (Bulag, 2017).

Nonetheless, Mongolia’s aforementioned strategy doesn’t apply only to economic and energy matters, as it has also developed robust security relations with all its neighbours and has aimed for a political diplomacy that is “proactive” (Helbig, 2015) and keeps a close but equal distance between partner states.

 More specifically, as regards security cooperations, Ulaanbaatar participates in military exercises with China and Russia and it has formed a special relationship with NATO, since it is seen by it as a “Partner across the Globe”. This is further confirmed from the fact that it has even participated in missions led by the Organization in Afghanistan and Kosovo and has been provided with political consultation at a ministerial level at NATO summits. However, NATO is really careful so as to avoid tensions with Russia and China. At the same time, the deal with Mongolia is no swindle as, through it, it has gained a foothold into Asia. Apart from its military cooperations, Ulaanbaatar, so as to ensure its equidistance from its allies, follows a policy of prohibition of the existence of foreign military bases on its soil (Helbig, 2015). Another important move that it has made in the field of security is that its military forces are mainly designed, developed and utilized for participation in United Nations peace-keeping operations (Bulag, 2017) and it has been officially recognized as a nuclear-free zone (NWFZ). As a consequence of the above it does not appear to present a military or nuclear threat to China and Russia, a factor which consequently decreases their apprehensions towards it.

Finally, as regards the political side of Mongolia’s cooperation with third actors, there, as in most other categories, is evident that a policy of equidistance and non-provocation is present. This is especially prevalent in that it does not have irredentism aspirations in Inner Mongolia (Bulag, 2017) and that it refrains from being totally negative in the way it associates with its partners (Radchenko, 2018).

Nevertheless, Ulaanbaatar hasn’t always achieved this balance, which is evident from the fact that, owing to the scars that the Chinese Imperium left on it, as has already been mentioned, it is weary of China and it has at times opposed by law its economic dominance in Mongolian soil and in turn such actions have alarmed foreign investors regarding its legal attractiveness (Radchenko, 2018). That being the case, so as to avoid favoring the Russian Federation excessively and maintain equal distance from both states, Ulaanbaatar negotiates with Moscow to increase the control it holds over its joint ownership of the transmongolian railway. Moreover, regarding the weaknesses of its strategy, sometimes the solutions it provides are Solomontian, as was seen with a winning bid of a mining exploitation contract that was to be split between China, Russia and the USA, something which can cause displeasement of partners who believe that their offerings to Mongolia are befitting of a more preferential treatment (Radchenko, 2018). This particular matter is quick to be overlooked, however, as the possible future profits of investment in Mongolia are abundant.

As a consequence of the aforementioned, Ulaanbaatar, in an environment of states threatening it, in not always visible ways, has chosen to neglect its military power but has substituted it with the creation of a considerable diplomatic capital which together with its natural advantages helps it overcome the security dilemma in its own way. In this manner the security dilemma, as an interpretive toll, is relevant as regards the threat awareness from its neighbours but not as regards the way Mongolia chose to resolve its security apprehensions.


As a result, it is evident that the concept of the security dilemma is in both cases relevant in explaining the threat perception of Asian states but only partially in describing their strategic response to them. In Korea’s case, initial introversy and too late attempts at adherence to the prescriptions of the dilemma led to its isolation, to its decline and finally to the loss of its independence. Meanwhile, Mongolia chose a policy of extroversion that created an intricate web of interests that were juggled by it, so as not to be conflicting, and thus, despite the weight of the powers that surround it, managed to avoid being squeezed from their pressure. Nonetheless, the warranted fear that something like that may happen is prevalent, especially regarding China, and it has prompted Ulaanbaatar to make mistakes that endanger its strategy. It thus becomes evident that a wealthy energy-wise state which is attractive for investment and keeps its allies and enemies invested but at equal distance can break the security dilemma, or at least change some of its parameters by not requiring the enhancement of hard power as a prerequisite for survival and consequently not alarming the “phantom menaces” that surround it.


Blakemore E. (2018). “How Japan took control of Korea” Available here

Britannica (n.d.). Korea: The Tonghak Uprising and government reform” Available here

Bulag, U. E. (2017). “A World Community of Neighbours in the Making: Resource Cosmopolitics and Mongolia’s ‘Third Neighbour’ Diplomacy”. In The Art of Neighbouring: Making Relations Across China’s Borders (pp. 121–144). Amsterdam University Press. Available here

Helbig, R. (2015). “NATO-Mongolia Relations: Limited in Scope, but with Room to Grow”. NATO Defense College, Available here  

Korean Culture Centre (n.d.), “The Fall of Joseon: Imperial Japan’s Annexation of Korea”, Available here

Posen B. R. (1993) “The security dilemma and ethnic conflict”, Survival, 35:1, 27-47, DOI: 10.1080/00396339308442672

Radchenko, S. (2018). “Sino-Russian Competition in Mongolia”. In G. Rozman & S. Radchenko (Eds.), International Relations and Asia’s Northern Tier: Sino-Russia Relations, North Korea, and Mongolia (pp. 111–125). Singapore: Springer Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-3144-1_7

Schmücking, D. (2015). “SMALL” STATES IN INTERNATIONAL POLITICS” (pp. 21-37, Rep.) (Wahlers G., Ed.). Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. Available here