Why might great power conflict be an especially pressing problem?
A large violent conflict between major powers such as the US, Russia, or China could be the most devastating event to occur in human history, and could result in billions of deaths. In addition, mistrust between major powers makes it harder for them to coordinate on arms control or ensure the safe use of new technologies.
In general, it seems very plausible that existential risks are heightened in war between powerful nations.
Researcher Stephen Clare estimated that the chance of great power conflict this century is around 45%, and that the chance of an extinction-level war is around 1%.
This does not seem implausible, because of the use of potentially extinction-level technology like AI, engineered bioweapons, and nuclear weapons in large-scale conflicts, which we’ve written separate profiles on.
If we factor the use of these technologies out, it seems much less likely that a conflict could result in human extinction — even at the limit of their scale. It seems like people would be much less likely to continue to fight a conventional war when almost everyone is dead and the countries they are fighting for are more or less destroyed.
About 3% of the world population died in World War II, the most severe war in history. So to threaten extinction, a war would have to be something like 30 times as bad. It’s pretty unclear if something like that is possible without the widespread use of new destructive technology.
However, conflict seems to make the use of potentially extinction-level technology more likely — both because of deliberate use in war, and because it creates arms race dynamics and reduces cooperation, which seems likely to lead to less caution. So if Clare is right that there is a 45% chance of great power conflict this century, that seems like a huge existential risk factor — not to mention a disturbingly high chance of first-order death and destruction on an enormous scale.
Moreover, perhaps there could be a conflict that threatens a non-extinction-level societal collapse from which humanity never recovers.
We haven’t yet written a full profile on great power conflict as a cause area, but expect that if we investigated it more we’d find that it should be among our top problems. One reason is that it is ‘upstream’ of nuclear war, which seems like a non-negligible existential risk of its own. And as we said, it also seems to make other risks worse, especially ones that have to do with the development of dangerous technology. And finally, many of our advisors guess it’s one of the most pressing issues.
Our biggest reservation about listing this as a top problem involves tractability and new interventions. In a sense a lot of work is already being done here by governments and diplomats, and we aren’t sure what the best measures are to take on top of that. It does seem like peacebuilding measures aren’t always aimed at reducing the chance of the worst outcomes.
We’d like to see more research into how to reduce the chance of the most dangerous conflicts breaking out and the damage they would cause, as well as implementation of the most effective mitigation strategies.
Great power conflict is the subject of a large body of literature spanning political science, international relations, military studies, and history, so there are many ways to get into the subject. We’re not sure which is best, so have listed many resources below.
Learn more about great power conflict
Want to learn more about global issues we think are especially pressing? See our list of issues that are large in scale, solvable, and neglected, according to our research.
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