At some point in the 21st century, an unwinnable war may be fought.
A modern great power war could see nuclear weapons, bioweapons, autonomous weapons, and other destructive new technologies deployed on an unprecedented scale.
It would probably be the most destructive event in history, shattering our world. It could even threaten us with extinction.
We’ve come perilously close to just this kind of catastrophe before.
On October 27, 1962 — near the peak of the Cuban Missile Crisis — an American U-2 reconnaissance plane set out on a routine mission to the Arctic to collect data on Soviet nuclear tests. But, while flying near the North Pole, with the stars obscured by the northern lights, the pilot made a navigation error and strayed into Soviet airspace.1
Soviet commanders sent fighter jets to intercept the American plane. The jets were picked up by American radar operators and nuclear-armed F-102 fighters took off to protect the U-2.
Fortunately, the reconnaissance pilot realised his error with enough time to correct course before the Soviet and American fighters met. But the intrusion enraged Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who was already on high alert amidst the crisis in Cuba.
“What is this, a provocation?” Khrushchev wrote to US President John F. Kennedy. “One of your planes violates our frontier during this anxious time when everything has been put into combat readiness.”
If the U-2’s path had strayed further west, or the Soviet fighters had been fast enough to intercept it, this incident could have played out quite differently. Both the United States and the USSR had thousands of nuclear missiles ready to fire. Instead of a nearly-forgotten anecdote, the U-2 incident could have been a trigger for war, like the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.
Competition among the world’s most powerful countries shapes our world today. And whether it’s through future incidents like the lost U-2, or something else entirely, it’s plausible that it could escalate and lead to a major, devastating war.
Is there anything you can do to help avoid such a terrible outcome? It is, of course, difficult to imagine how any one individual can hope to influence such world-historical events. Even the most powerful world leaders often fail to predict the global consequences of their decisions.
But I think the likelihood and severity of great power war makes this among the most pressing problems of our time — and that some solutions could be impactful enough that working on them may be one of the highest-impact things to do with your career.
By taking action, I think we can create a future where the threat of great power conflict is a distant memory rather than an ever-present danger.
Economic growth and technological progress have bolstered the arsenals of the world’s most powerful countries. That means the next war between them could be far worse than World War II, the deadliest conflict humanity has yet experienced.
Could such a war actually occur? We can’t rule out the possibility. Technical accidents or diplomatic misunderstandings could spark a conflict that quickly escalates. Or international tension could cause leaders to decide they’re better off fighting than negotiating.
It seems hard to make progress on this problem. It’s also less neglected than some of the problems that we think are most pressing. There are certain issues, like making nuclear weapons or military artificial intelligence systems safer, which seem promising — although it may be more impactful to work on reducing risks from AI, bioweapons or nuclear weapons directly. You might also be able to reduce the chances of misunderstandings and miscalculations by developing expertise in one of the most important bilateral relationships (such as that between the United States and China).
Finally, by making conflict less likely, reducing competitive pressures on the development of dangerous technology, and improving international cooperation, you might be helping to reduce other risks, like the chance of future pandemics.
There’s a significant chance that a new great power war occurs this century.
Although the world’s most powerful countries haven’t fought directly since World War II, war has been a constant throughout human history. There have been numerous close calls, and several issues could cause diplomatic disputes in the years to come.
These considerations, along with forecasts and statistical models, lead me to think there’s about a one-in-three chance that a new great power war breaks out in roughly the next 30 years.
Few wars cause more than a million casualties and the next great power war would probably be smaller than that. However, there’s some chance it could escalate massively. Today the great powers have much larger economies, more powerful weapons, and bigger military budgets than they did in the past. An all-out war could kill far more people than even World War II, the worst war we’ve yet experienced.
Could it become an existentially threatening war — one that could cause human extinction or significantly damage the prospects of the long-term future? It’s very difficult to say. But my best current guess is that the chance of an existential catastrophe due to war in the next century is somewhere between 0.05% and 2%.
War is a lot less neglected than some of our other top problems. There are thousands of people in governments, think tanks, and universities already working on this problem. But some solutions or approaches remain neglected. One particularly promising approach is to develop expertise at the intersection of international conflict and another of our top problems. Experts who understand both geopolitical dynamics and risks from advanced artificial intelligence, for example, are sorely needed.
Reducing the risk of great power war seems very difficult. But there are specific technical problems that can be solved to make weapons systems safer or less likely to trigger catastrophic outcomes. And in the best case, working on this problem can have a leverage effect, making the development of several dangerous technologies safer by improving international cooperation and making them less likely to be deployed in war.
Why might preventing great power conflict be an especially pressing problem?
A modern great power war — an all-out conflict between the world’s most powerful countries — could be the worst thing to ever happen to humanity.
Historically, such wars have been exceptionally destructive. Sixty-six million people died in World War II, likely the deadliest catastrophe humanity has experienced so far.
Since World War II, the global population and world economy have continued to grow, nuclear weapons have proliferated, and military technology has continued to advance. This means the next world war could be even worse, just as World War II was much deadlier than World War I.
It’s not guaranteed that such a war will break out. And if it does, it may not escalate to such a terrible extent. But the chance can’t be ignored. In fact, there are reasons to think that the odds of World War III breaking out this century are worryingly high.
A modern great power war would be devastating for people alive today. But its effects could also persist long into the future. That’s because there is a substantial chance that this century proves to be particularly important. Technologies with the potential to cause a global catastrophe or radically reshape society are likely to be invented. How we choose to develop and deploy them could impact huge numbers of our descendants. And these choices would be affected by the outcomes of a major war.
To be more specific, there are three main ways great power conflict could affect the long-term future:
High international tension could increase other risks. Great power tensions could make the world more dangerous even if they don’t lead to war. During the Cold War, for example, the United States and the USSR never came into direct conflict but invested in bioweapons research and built up nuclear arsenals. This dynamic could return, with tension between great powers fueling races to develop and build new weapons, raising the risk of a disaster even before shots are fired.
War could reshape international institutions and power balances. While such a catastrophic war is possible, it seems extremely unlikely. But even a less deadly war, such as another conflict on the scale of World War II, could have very long-lasting effects. For example, it could reshape international institutions and the global balance of power. In a pivotal century, different institutional arrangements and geopolitical balances could cause humanity to follow different long-term trajectories.
The rest of this profile explores exactly how pressing a problem great power conflict is. In summary:
Great power relations have become more tense. (More.)
Partly as a result, a war is more likely than you might think. It’s reasonable to put the probability of such a conflict in the coming decades somewhere between 10% and 50%. (More.)
If war breaks out, it would probably be hard to control escalation. The chance that it would become large enough to be an existential risk cannot be dismissed. (More.)
This makes great power conflict one of the biggest threats our species currently faces. (More.)
It seems hard to make progress on solving such a difficult problem (more) — but there are many things you can try if you want to help (more).
International tension has risen and makes other problems worse
Imagine we had a thermometer-like device which, instead of measuring temperature, measured the level of international tension.2 This ‘tension metre’ would max out during periods of all-out global war, like World War II. And it would be relatively low when the great powers3 were peaceful and cooperative. For much of the post-Napoleonic 1800s, for example, the powerful European nations instituted the Concert of Europe and mostly upheld a continental peace. The years following the fall of the USSR also seem like a time of relative calm, when the tension metre would have been quite low.4
How much more worried would you be about the coming decades if you knew the tension metre would be very high than if you knew it would be low? Probably quite a lot. In the worst case, of course, the great powers could come into direct conflict. But even if it doesn’t lead to war, a high level of tension between great powers could accelerate the development of new strategic technologies, make it harder to solve global problems like climate change, and undermine international institutions.
During the Cold War, for instance, the United States and USSR avoided coming into direct conflict. But the tension metre would still have been pretty high. This led to some dangerous events:
The development of new bioweapons. Despite signing the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972, the search for military advantages motivated Soviet decision makers to continue investing in bioweapon development for decades. Although never used in combat, biological agents were accidentally released from research facilities, resulting in dozens of deaths and threatening to cause a pandemic.5
Nuclear close calls. Military accidents and false alarms happened regularly, and top decision makers were more likely to interpret these events hostilely when tensions were high. On several occasions it seems the decision about whether or not to start a nuclear war came down to individuals acting under stress and with limited time.
This makes international tension an existential risk factor. It’s connected to a number of other problems, which means reducing the level of international tension would lower the total amount of existential risk we face.
The level of tension today
Recently, international tension seems to have once again been rising. To highlight some of the most salient examples:
China-United States relations have deteriorated, leading to harsh diplomatic rhetoric and protectionist trade policies that aim to reduce the countries’ economic interdependence.
These dynamics raise an important question: how much more dangerous is the world given this higher tension than it would be in a world of low tension?
I think the answer is quite a bit more dangerous — for several reasons. First, international tension seems likely to make technological progress more dangerous. There’s a good chance that, in the coming decades, humanity will make some major technological breakthroughs. We’ve discussed, for example, why one might worry about the effects of advanced artificial intelligence systems or biotechnology. The level of tension could strongly affect how these technologies are developed and governed. Tense relations could, for example, cause countries to neglect safety concerns in order to develop technology faster.6
Second, great power relations will strongly influence how nations do, or do not, cooperate to solve other global collective action problems. For example, in 2022, China withdrew from bilateral negotiations with the United States over climate action in protest of what it perceived as American diplomatic aggression in Taiwan. That same year, efforts to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention were reportedly hampered by the Russian delegation after their country’s invasion of Ukraine raised tensions with the United States and other western countries.
And third, if relations deteriorate severely, the great powers could fight a war.
How likely is a war?
Wars are destructive and risky for all countries involved. Modern weapons, especially nuclear warheads, make starting a great power war today seem like a suicidal undertaking.
But factors like the prevalence of war throughout history, the chance that leaders make mistakes, conflicting ideologies, and commitment problems, make me think that conflict could break out anyway.
On balance, I think such an event is somewhat unlikely but hardly unthinkable. To quantify this: I put the chance we experience some kind of war between great powers before 2050 at about one-in-three.7
War has occurred regularly in the past
One reason to think a war is quite likely is that such conflicts have been so common in the past. Over the past 500 years, about two great power wars have occurred per century.8
Naively, this would mean that every year there’s a 2% chance such a war occurs, implying the chance of experiencing at least one great power war over the next 80 years — roughly until the end of the century — is about 80%.9
This is a very simple model. In reality, the risk is not constant over time and independent across years. But it shows that if past trends simply continue, the outcome is likely to be very bad.
Has great power conflict become less likely?
One of the most important criticisms of this model is that it assumes the risk is constant over time. Some researchers have argued instead that, especially since the end of World War II, major conflicts have become much less likely due to:
Nuclear deterrence: Nuclear weapons are so powerful and destructive that it’s just too costly for nuclear-armed countries to start wars against each other.10
Democratisation: Democracies have almost never gone to war against each other, perhaps because democracies are more interconnected and their leaders are under more public pressure to peacefully resolve disputes with each other.11 The proportion of countries that are democratic has increased from under 10% in 1945 to about 50% today.
Strong economic growth and global trade: Global economic growth accelerated following World War II and the value of global exports grew by a factor of almost 30 between 1950 and 2014. Since war disrupts economies and international trade, strong growth raises the costs of fighting.12
**The spread of international institutions: Multilateral bodies like the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council promote diplomatic dialogue and facilitate coordination to punish transgressors.13
It is true that we are living through an unusually long period of great power peace. It’s been about 80 years since World War II. We just saw that a simple model using the historical frequency of great power wars suggests there was only a 20% chance of going that long without at least one more war breaking out. This is some evidence in favour of the idea that wars have become significantly less common.
At the same time, we shouldn’t feel too optimistic.
The numerous close calls during the Cold War suggest we were somewhat lucky to avoid a major war in that time. And a 20% chance of observing 80 years of peace is not that low.14 Structural changes might have dramatically reduced the likelihood of war. Or perhaps we’ve just been lucky. It could even be that technological advances have made war less likely to break out, but more deadly when it occurs, leaving the overall effect on the level of risk ambiguous. It just hasn’t been long enough to support a decisive view.15
So while the recent historical trend is somewhat encouraging, we don’t have nearly enough data to be confident that great power conflict is a thing of the past. To better predict the likelihood of future conflict, we should also consider distinctive features of our modern world.16
One might think that a modern great power war would simply be so destructive that no state leader would ever choose to start one. And some researchers do think that the destruction such a war would wreak globally makes it less likely to occur. But it would be hard to find anyone who claims this dynamic has driven the risk to zero.
First, a war could be started by accident.
Second, sometimes even prudent leaders may struggle to avoid a slide towards war.
We could blunder into war
An accidental war can occur if one side mistakes some event as an aggressive action by an adversary.
This happened several times during the Cold War. The earlier example of the wayward American reconnaissance plane shows how routine military exercises carry some escalation risk. Similarly, throughout history, nervous pilots and captains have caused serious incidents by attacking civilian planes and ships.17 Nuclear weapons allow for massive retaliatory strikes to be launched quickly — potentially too quickly to allow for such situations to be explained and de-escalated.
It is perhaps more likely, though, that an accidental war could be triggered by a technological malfunction. Faulty computers and satellites have previously triggered nuclear close calls. As monitoring systems have become more reliable, the rate at which such accidents have occurred has been going down. But it would be overconfident to think that technological malfunctions have become impossible.
Future technological changes will likely raise new challenges for nuclear weapon control. There may be pressure to integrate artificial intelligence systems into nuclear command and control to allow for faster data processing and decision making. And AI systems are known to behave unexpectedly when deployed in new environments.18
New technologies will also create new accident risks of their own, even if they’re not connected to nuclear weapon systems. Although these risks are hard to predict, they seem significant. I’ll say more about how such technologies — including AI, nuclear, biological, and autonomous weapons — are likely to increase war risks later.
Leaders could choose war
All that said, most wars have not started by accident. If another great power war does break out in the coming decades, it is more likely to be an intentional decision made by a national leader.
Explaining why someone might make such a costly, destructive, unpredictable, and risky decision has been called “the central puzzle about war.” It has motivated researchers to search for “rationalist” explanations for war. In his 2022 book Why We Fight, for example, economist Chris Blattman proposes five basic explanations: unchecked interests, intangible incentives, uncertainty, commitment problems, and misperceptions.19
Unchecked interests: Sometimes leaders who can decide to go to war stand to personally gain. Meanwhile, the costs are borne by citizens and soldiers who may not be able to hold their leaders to account.
Intangible incentives: War can sometimes provide some abstract value, like revenge, honour, glory, or status. This can help offset its costs.
Uncertainty: States will sometimes try to hide their strength or bluff to win concessions. Under this uncertainty, it can sometimes be in their rivals’ interests to call the bluff and fight.
Commitment problems: Bargaining is based on relative strength. If one state is growing in power more quickly than its rival, it may be hard to find a compromise solution that will continue to be acceptable in the future.
Misperceptions: Leaders may just misjudge the strength, beliefs, or resolve of their rivals and push for untenable bargains. Faced with what seem to be unfair terms, the rival state may decide to go to war.
This section discusses how great power tensions may escalate to war in the next few decades. It focuses on three potential conflicts in particular: war between the US and China, between the US and Russia, and between China and India. These are discussed because each of these countries are among the world’s largest economies and military spenders, and seem particularly likely to fight. At the end, I briefly touch on other potential large conflicts.
The most worrying possibility is war between the United States and China. They are easily the world’s largest economies. They spend by far the most on their militaries. Their diplomatic relations are tense and have recently worsened. And their relationship has several of the characteristics that Blattman identifies as causes of war.
At the core of the United States-China relationship is a commitment problem.
China’s economy is growing faster than the United States’. By some metrics, it is already larger.20 If its differential growth continues, the gap will continue to widen between it and the United States. While economic power is not the sole determinant of military power, it is a key factor.21
The United States and China may be able to strike a fair deal today. But as China continues to grow faster, that deal may come to seem unbalanced. Historically, such commitment problems seem to have made these kinds of transition periods particularly dangerous.22
In practice, the United States and China may find it hard to agree on rules to guide their interactions, such as how to run international institutions or govern areas of the world where their interests overlap.
The most obvious issue which could tip the United States-China relationship from tension into war is a conflict over Taiwan. Taiwan’s location and technology industries are valuable for both great powers.
This issue is further complicated by intangible incentives.
For the United States, it is also a conflict over democratic ideals and the United States’ reputation for defending its allies.
For China, it is also a conflict about territorial integrity and addressing what are seen as past injustices.
A related aggregated forecast of the chance that at least 100 deaths occur in conflict between China and Taiwan by 2050 gives it, as of 8 June 2023, a much higher 68% chance of occurring.25
Russia is the United States’ other major geopolitical rival.
Unlike China, Russia is not a rival in economic terms: even after adjusting for purchasing power, its economy is only about one-fifth the size of the United States’.
However, Russia devotes a substantial fraction of its economy to its military. Crucially, it has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. And Russian leadership has shown a willingness to project power beyond their country’s borders.
Military spending in 2021 (2020 USD, PPP adjusted)
Top five countries by estimated military spending, 2021. Source: SIPRI
Unchecked interests and intangible incentives are again at play here. Vladimir Putin leads a highly-centralised government. He has spoken about how his desire to rebuild Russia’s reputation played in his decision to invade Ukraine.
India is already the world’s third-largest economy. If national growth rates remain roughly constant, the size of the Indian economy will surpass that of the United States’ sometime this century. India also has nuclear weapons and is already the world’s third-largest military spender (albeit at a much lower level than China or the United States).
One reason to worry that China and India could fight a war is that they already dispute territory along their border. Countries that share a border, especially when it is disputed, are more likely to go to war than countries that do not. By one count, 88% of the wars that occurred between 1816 and 1980 began as wars between neighbours.26
Forecasters agree that a China-India conflict seems relatively (though not absolutely) likely. An aggregated forecast gives a 19% chance of war before 2035.
Other dangerous conflicts
These three conflicts — United States-China, United States-Russia, and China-India — are not the only possible great power conflicts that could occur. Other potential conflicts could also pose existential risk, either because they drive dangerous arms races or see widespread deployment of dangerous weapons.
We should keep in mind India-Pakistan as a particularly likely conflict between nuclear-armed states and China-Russia as a potential, though unlikely, conflict between great powers with a disputed border and history of war. Plus, new great powers may emerge or current great powers may fade in the years to come.
While I think we should prioritise the three potential conflicts I’ve highlighted above, the future is highly uncertain. We should monitor geopolitical changes and be open to changing our priorities in the future.
Below is a table listing relevant predictions from the forecasting platform Metaculus, including the number of predictions made, as of 10 March 2023. Note the different timescales and resolution criteria for each question; they may not be intuitively comparable.
Number of predictions
World war by 2151
A war killing >0.5% of global population, involving >50% of countries totalling >50% of global population from at least 4 continents.
A war killing at least >1% of global population, involving >10% of countries totalling >25% of global population
World War III before 2050
Involving countries >30% of world GDP OR >50% of world population
Global thermonuclear war by 2070
3 countries each detonate at least 10 nuclear warheads of at least 10 kt yield outside of their territory
2 countries each detonate at least 50 nuclear warheads of at least 10 kt outside of their territory
When will be the next great power war?
Any two of the top 10 nations by military spending are at war
“At war” definition:
Formal declaration OR
Territory occupied AND at least 250 casualties
Media sources describe them as “at war”
25th percentile: 2031
75th percentile: 2088
Never (not before 2200): 8%
No non-test nuclear detonations before 2035
No nuclear detonation other than controlled test
[Note the negation in the question. It resolves negatively if a warhead is detonated]
At least 1 nuclear detonation in war by 2050
Resolves according to credible media reports
I have previously independently estimated the likelihood of seeing a World War III-like conflict this century. My calculation first adjusts historical base rates to allow for the possibility that major wars have become somewhat less likely, and uses the adjusted base rate to calculate the probability of seeing a war between now and 2100.
This method gives a 45% chance of seeing a major great power war in the next 77 years. If the probability is constant over time then the cumulative probability between now and 2050 would be 22%. This is aligned with the Metaculus predictions above.
We can also ask experts what they think. Unfortunately, there are surprisingly few expert predictions about the likelihood of major conflict. One survey was conducted by the Project for the Study of the 21st Century. The numbers were relatively aligned with the Metaculus forecasts, though slightly more pessimistic. However, it seems a mistake to put too much stock in this survey (see footnote).27
We now have at least a rough sense of a great power war’s probability. But how bad could it get if it occurred?
A new great power war could be devastating
At the time, the mechanised slaughter of World War I was a shocking step-change in the potential severity of warfare. But its severity was surpassed just 20 years later by the outbreak of World War II, which killed more than twice as many people.
A modern great power war could be even worse.
How bad have wars been in the past?
The graph below shows how common wars of various sizes are, according to the Correlates of War’s Interstate War dataset.28
The x-axis here represents war size in terms of the logarithm of the number of battle deaths. The y-axis represents the logarithm of the proportion of wars in the dataset that are at least that large.
Using logarithms means that each step to the right in the graph represents a war not one unit larger, but 10 times larger. And each step up represents a war that is not one unit more likely, but 10 times more likely.
Source: Author’s figure. See the data here. Data source: Correlates of War Interwar dataset, v4.029
What the graph shows is that wars have a heavy tail. Most wars remain relatively small. But a few escalate greatly and become much worse than average.
Of the 95 wars in the latest version of the database, the median battle death count is 8,000. But the heavy tail means the average is 334,000 battle deaths. And the worst war, World War II, had almost 17 million battle deaths.30
The number of battle deaths is only one way to measure the badness of wars. We could also consider the proportion of the population of the countries involved who were killed in battle. By this measure, the worst war since 1816 was not World War II. Instead, it’s the Paraguayan War of 1864–70. In that war, 30 soldiers died for every 1,000 citizens of the countries involved. It’s even worse if we also consider civilian deaths; while estimates are very uncertain, it’s plausible that about half of the men in Paraguay, or around a quarter of the entire population, was killed.31
What if instead we compared wars by the proportion of the global population killed? World War II is again the worst conflict since 1816 on this measure, having killed about 3% of the global population. Going further back in time, though, we can find worse wars. Ghengis Khan’s conquests likely killed about 9.5% of people in the world at the time.
The heavy tail means that some wars will be shockingly large.32 The scale of World War I and World War II took people by surprise, including the leaders who initiated it.
It’s also hard to know exactly how big wars could get. We haven’t seen many really large wars. So while we know there’s a heavy tail of potential outcomes, we don’t know what that tail looks like.
That said, there are a few reasons to think that wars much worse than World War II are possible:
We’re statistically unlikely to have brushed up against the end of the tail, even if the tail has an upper bound.
Other wars have been deadlier on a per-capita basis. So unless wars involving countries with larger populations are systematically less intense, we should expect to see more intense wars involving as many people as World War II.
Economic growth and technological progress are continually increasing humanity’s war-making capacity. This means that, once a war has started, we’re at greater risk of extremely bad outcomes than we were in the past.
So how bad could it get?
How bad could a modern great power war be?
Over time, two related factors have greatly increased humanity’s capacity to make war. 33
First, scientific progress has led to the invention of more powerful weapons and improved military efficiency.
Second, economic growth has allowed states to build larger armies and arsenals.
Since World War II, the world economy has grown by a factor of more than 10 in real terms; the number of nuclear weapons in the world has grown from basically none to more than 9,000, and we’ve invented drones, missiles, satellites, and advanced planes, ships, and submarines.
Ghengis Khan’s conquests killed about 10% of the world, but this took place over the course of two decades. Today that proportion may be killed in a matter of hours.
First, nuclear weapons could be used.
Today there are around 10,000 nuclear warheads globally.34 At the peak of nuclear competition between the United States and the USSR, though, there were 64,000. If arms control agreements break down and competition resurges among two or even three great powers, nuclear arsenals could expand. In fact, China’s arsenal is very likely to grow — though by how much remains uncertain.
Many of the nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the great powers today are at least 10 times more powerful than the atomic bombs used in World War II.35 Should these weapons be used, the consequences would be catastrophic.
By any measure, such a war would be by far the most destructive, dangerous event in human history, with the potential to cause billions of deaths.
The probability that it would, on its own, lead to humanity’s extinction or unrecoverable collapse, is contested. But there seems to be some possibility — whether through a famine caused by nuclear winter, or by reducing humanity’s resilience enough that something else, like a catastrophic pandemic, would be far more likely to reach extinction-levels (read more in our problem profile on nuclear war.
Nuclear weapons are complemented and amplified by a variety of other modern military technologies, including improved missiles, planes, submarines, and satellites. They are also not the only military technology with the potential to cause a global catastrophe — bioweapons, too, have the potential to cause massive harm through accidents or unexpected effects.
What’s more, humanity’s war-making capacity seems poised to further increase in the coming years due to technological advances and economic growth. Technological progress could make it cheaper and easier for more states to develop weapons of mass destruction.
In some cases, political and economic barriers will remain significant. Nuclear weapons are very expensive to develop and there exists a strong international taboo against their proliferation.
In other cases, though, the hurdles to developing extremely powerful weapons may prove lower.
Improvements in biotechnology will probably make it cheaper to develop bioweapons. Such weapons may provide the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons at a much lower price. They also seem harder to monitor from abroad, making it more difficult to limit their proliferation. And they could spark a global biological catastrophe, like a major — possibly existentially catastrophic — pandemic.
Finally, we may have to deal with the invention of other weapons which we can’t currently predict. The feasibility and danger of nuclear weapons was unclear to many military strategists and scientists until they were first tested. We could similarly experience the invention of destabilising new weapons in our lifetime.
What these technologies have in common is the potential to quickly kill huge numbers of people:
A nuclear war could kill tens of millions within hours, and many more in the following days and months.
A runaway bioweapon could prove very difficult to stop.
Future autonomous systems could act with lightning speed, even taking humans out of the decision-making loop entirely.
Faster wars leave less time for humans to intervene, negotiate, and find a resolution that limits the damage.
How likely is war to damage the long-run future?
When a war begins, leaders often promise a quick, limited conflict. But escalation proves hard to predict ahead of time (perhaps because people are scope-insensitive, or because escalation depends on idiosyncratic decisions).
This raises the possibility of enormous wars that threaten all of humanity.
The risk of extinction
It is extremely difficult to estimate the chance that a war escalates to the point of causing human extinction.
One possible starting point is to extrapolate from past wars. Political scientist Bear Braumoeller fit a statistical model to the Correlates of War data I discussed above.36 His model suggests that any given war has at least37 a one in 3,300 chance of causing human extinction.
If we experience 15 wars in the next 30 years,38 then the implied chance of an extinction war is about 0.5%. Assuming 50 wars over the next 100 years, that rises to a disturbing 1.5% chance of extinction.
But this estimate must be interpreted cautiously. First, it infers probabilities of different outcomes today using data from the past. Yet the chance of different war outcomes have very likely changed over time. The Correlates of War data goes back to 1816; it seems reasonable to think that 19th-century wars, fought with cannons and horses, tell us little about modern wars. This means it probably underestimates the chance of huge wars in the 21st century wars.
The Correlates of War data also only includes battle deaths. But large wars also kill lots of civilians. So considering only battle deaths will underestimate the chance of an extinction-level war by a considerable margin (for example, if one civilian is killed for every soldier, then a smaller, more probable war of just over four billion battle deaths would cause human extinction).
On the other hand, to infer probabilities about extinction-level events, Braumoeller extrapolates far beyond the data we’ve observed so far. An extinction-level war would be more than 100 times larger than World War II. It is hard to imagine a conventional war,39 at least, escalating to this extent. The logistics would be enormously complex. And barring omnicidal maniacs, world leaders would be hugely incentivised to bring the fighting to an end before killing literally everyone. This makes the model look too pessimistic.
On the whole, a 1.5% chance of an extinction-level war this century seems too high to me.
But while Braumoeller’s model seems too pessimistic on net, his work makes it hard to rule out a war that causes human extinction. We’re just left pretty uncertain about how likely it might be.
Another approach is to estimate the specific risks posed by different weapons of mass destruction.
We’ve estimated that the direct risk of an existential catastrophe caused by nuclear weapons in the next 100 years is around 0.01%. Maybe half of that risk (0.005%) comes from escalation through a major conflict.
I’d guess that the risks posed by bioweapons are similar (and possibly higher). We should also consider the interaction between great power conflict and risks from AI, as well as other future weapons of mass destruction whose development we can’t predict.
We could assume that these risks, plus the risk of conventional wars, are approximately mutually exclusive, and that each contributes about 0.005%. That would give a total risk of around 0.025% — or around one in 4,000 this century.
The risk of collapse
A more likely scenario is a war which doesn’t cause extinction, but is much larger than World War II.40 Such an event would still be easily the most destructive and deadly in human history. Beyond the enormous suffering it would cause, it would inflict major damage on the world’s infrastructure, trade links, social networks, and perhaps international institutions. The effects could be very long lasting.
One possibility is that civilisation could be damaged to the point of collapse. While some people would survive, they would lack the physical and social infrastructure to maintain all the processes we need to sustain modern life.
Rebuilding in these conditions would be a formidable challenge. Adjusted for inflation, under the Marshall Plan the United States spent $150 billion helping nations in western Europe recover from World War II. Accounting for investments from other Allies and the affected countries, as well as damage in eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa, rebuilding after World War II cost trillions of dollars.
So rebuilding after a war much larger than World War II could cost tens of trillions of dollars. And such a war would leave fewer nations with intact economies to fund the recovery. Survivors could also face additional challenges like widespread nuclear fallout and uncontrolled spread of weaponised pathogens.
Even if it doesn’t cause extinction or civilisational collapse, a major war could affect our long-term trajectory
Finally, a large war could alter our future even if it doesn’t cause human extinction or a global societal collapse.
Consider how different the world looked before and after World War II. Before the war, most of the world was autocratic. Fascists controlled several of the world’s most powerful countries.
This changed after the war. The Allied victory preceded a global wave of democratisation. Though fascist regimes continued in some countries, far-right ideology clearly posed less of a threat after the war. Instead, as a direct result of the war, the international institutions that emerged in the years after were shaped by liberal values like human rights and international cooperation.42
World War II is a particularly dramatic example, but it’s not the only time that war has caused major geopolitical realignments and affected which values are influential globally. Major conflicts reshape the global balance of power. In their aftermath, leaders of the victorious nations often use their new influence to change various institutions in their favour.
They redraw borders and cause civilisations to rise and fall. They invest in military research and influence how technological change happens. And their diplomatic strategies shape the norms and institutions that structure the international system.
Such changes can have very long-lasting effects.43 In extreme cases, they can even change our civilisational trajectory: the average value of the world over time. This might sound abstract, but just think about how much more pessimistic you’d feel about the future if more of the world’s most powerful countries were still ruled by fascist dictators.
A new great power war has the potential to cause similarly important changes to global institutions. For example, if an authoritarian state or alliance emerged from the war victorious, they may be able to use their influence and modern digital surveillance tools to entrench their power at a global scale.44
That said, World War II also shows that the effect of war on our civilisational trajectory is not always unambiguously negative. That’s why I have focused on the effects of war that do seem unambiguously bad: dangerous technological development, near-term death and destruction, and heightened risk of a major global catastrophe.
Overall, the short answer to the question of how likely a war is to affect our long-term future is that we really don’t know. Not much research has addressed this question, and each of the estimates I’ve ventured above has some serious weaknesses.
But considering the track record of past wars and the chance that weapons of mass destruction are used, I’d put the chance of an extinction-level war at between 0.025% and 1%.
We’re much more likely to experience a somewhat smaller war (a war killing 800 million people is probably around three times more likely than a war killing eight billion). But its long-term effects are far more ambiguous than extinction. So perhaps the risk to the long-term future from trajectory changes is roughly equal — though it’s really hard to say.
On the whole, my best guess is that the chance a war seriously damages the long-term future this century is between 0.05% and 2%. But I expect, and hope, this estimate will change in the coming years as more researchers work on these questions.
What are the major arguments against this problem being especially pressing?
So far, I’ve talked a lot about reasons why you might want to work on this problem: the chance that a new great power war breaks out is low but far from zero, such a war could escalate to unprecedented size, and the effects could reach far into the future.
In other words, the importance of the problem is clear. But we need to consider other factors as well. In particular, we need to ask if there’s anything we can realistically do to help solve it. And there are several reasons to think that improving great power relations is among the more difficult major problems to make progress on:
There are many people working on avoiding war, with strong incentives to do so. (More.)
Even if you can influence policy, it’s often not clear what the best thing is to do. (More.)
Maybe it’s better to focus instead on specific risks. (More.)
It’s less neglected than some other top problems
Most people want to avoid war
The most obvious reason you might not choose to work on this problem is that it’s less neglected than some of our other top problems.
War hurts almost everyone. Some (though not all) wars start with public support. But they are costly in human lives and economic disruption. Negotiated solutions are almost always preferable. In reality, most wars that could happen don’t because people work to avoid fighting them.45
That said, it’s important not to take this argument too far. It is not the case that everyone is harmed by war or high international tension. The most obvious example is defence companies who benefit when governments buy more and more expensive weapons. In certain circumstances, unchecked leaders can also gain status and enhance their reputation through war without personally incurring many costs. And some foreign policy professionals benefit from increasing demand for their work.
I mention these factors not to criticise these actors in particular. Rather, it’s to point out that we can’t assume war will be avoided because it’s so costly for large swathes of society.
We know conflict has been historically common. And we know that negative outcomes can occur when their costs are distributed across society but their benefits are concentrated among influential actors.
More people work on this problem than some other top problems
Still, the obvious costs of war mean that there are already thousands of people working in relevant diplomacy, research, and policy roles. For example, there are about 13,000 Foreign Service members in the US State Department alone.
Thousands more people work on these issues in think tanks and universities. The Council on Foreign Relations, a prestigious membership organisation which publishes Foreign Affairs and hosts events about foreign policy, has over 5,000 members. The International Studies Association, which focuses more on academics, has over 7,000 members. Many thousands more people work on this problem in the intelligence and defence communities.
Of course, these organisations cover a huge range of issues, with only a fraction of their employees focused on great power conflict in particular. And of this fraction, only a small number are probably focused on preventing or mitigating worst-case outcomes like extinction.
To get a rough estimate of the number of people working on this problem, let’s try assuming that the US government employs about 250,000 people who work on issues broadly related to great power conflict. Perhaps 5% of this effort focuses on the specific issues we’ve discussed throughout this profile. That would leave about 12,500 people working on the most important US foreign policies in the government today.
Assume further that another 10,000 people work on international relations in think tanks and universities and, again, 5% focus on the issues in this profile. That would bring our total to about 13,000 people.
Of course, this is a very rough estimate. Accounting for the civil servants, diplomats, analysts, researchers, professors, and advocates in other parts of the world could double or triple it.
(In comparison, we’ve previously estimated that only about 400 people work on existential risks from advanced artificial intelligence.)
Because so many people are already working in this field, you will probably find it harder to identify important issues on which a lot of progress can be made that other people haven’t already found.
There aren’t many possible actions which are clearly positive
Suppose, though, that you managed to work your way up to a role which allows you to influence foreign policy in some way. What advice would you give?
This is a hard question to answer for a few different reasons.
First, IR researchers disagree on even the field’s most basic questions, like when deterrence policies are effective and whether diplomatic, cultural, and economic engagement has pacifying effects. So there are a few — though not zero! — ‘consensus’ actions to pursue.
Third, our advice could not just be ineffectual; it could also be harmful. Not only are the long-run effects of foreign policy decisions hard to predict, they often involve difficult tradeoffs.
For example, some researchers argue that building up the world’s nuclear arsenals has made major great power wars less likely (because of mutually-assured destruction) but smaller conflicts more likely (because they are less likely to escalate and thus ‘safer’ to fight).
Under this model, the total effect of nuclear deterrence doctrines on existential risk is ambiguous. It raises the upper bound of how bad a conflict could get. But it makes such conflicts somewhat less likely. And it’s hard to say which effect dominates.46
For these reasons, the impact one can have by working in this area is probably best thought of as improving the quality of decision making on a case-by-case basis rather than advocating generally for specific policies. You’ll probably still have some doubt about which direction to push.
Of course, everyone faces the same issues. You could still have a big impact by giving better advice or making better decisions, given all these constraints, than whoever you’re replacing would have. But acting under so much uncertainty could be a strong limitation on the expected impact you can have.
Maybe it’s better to focus instead on more specific risks
To think through this decision, let us return for a moment to our tension metre metaphor. The goal of someone working in great power relations could be seen as lowering the reading on the metre. I’ve discussed how that might make a diplomatic breakdown or the outbreak of a war less likely, lowering total existential risk.
But it may seem too hard to affect the tension metre. Or the connection between the tension metre and any specific risk (like a deadly pandemic) may be too tenuous. In that case, you’d probably have a bigger impact by taking the current level of international tension as given, and working directly on one of our other top problems in whatever geopolitical context we may find ourselves in.
For example, one way in which great power conflict could lead to catastrophe is by causing the release of an extremely contagious and deadly biological agent. Perhaps high tensions and fear of war increase investment in biological weapons, increasing the risk of an accidental release. Or perhaps one of the great powers, faced with the prospect of a catastrophic lost war, chooses to release such a weapon in a desperate bid for victory, and it goes horribly wrong.47
You could choose to reduce the likelihood of this outcome by reducing the chance we end up in a high-tension or outright-conflict scenario in the first place. Or you could reduce the likelihood of this outcome by focusing specifically on how biological agents are governed and controlled. Although the latter approach doesn’t reduce the other risks conflict poses, there are more concrete proposals you could work on implementing.
Whether it’s better to focus on overall tension or specific risks depends on the relative tractability of proposals in both areas and how many other risks are affected by changes in international tension. You’re more likely to think that trying to reduce conflict is more impactful if:
You think conventional wars pose a lot of risk on their own, either because they can escalate massively or cause trajectory changes.
You think that great power conflict drives a large fraction of the risks posed by nuclear weapons, biological weapons, military AI, and other emerging technologies. This would make reducing tensions between great powers a powerful leverage point for lowering total overall risk.
You think that there are good approaches to reducing great power conflict risk — perhaps ones that aren’t mentioned in this article.
If, however, you think most of the overall existential risk we face comes from a specific risk (such as AI or climate change) or great power conflict is just not that solvable, then you might want to focus on a different area.
Earlier, we identified five specific pathways through which great power conflict could cause an existential catastrophe (conventional war, nuclear war, bioweapons, AI, and future technologies). So by working to reduce great power tensions, you can reduce five risks at once.
But my current best guess is that it’s at least 10 times harder to reduce the chance of conflict by a given amount as it is to reduce a specific risk like a biotech catastrophe. So unless you feel that, for personal fit reasons, you would be at least two or three times more effective working on great power conflict broadly, it still likely makes sense to focus on one of the most pressing specific risks.
(That said, this is a very rough calculation — I could easily be wrong here!)
What can you do to help?
After reading the previous section, you might feel pessimistic about your chances of making progress on this problem.
It’s true that this problem seems generally less neglected than some of the world’s other top problems, and I’m not really sure what’s most helpful for it. But great power conflict encompasses many different issues. I think that some of these specific sub-problems are more neglected and tractable than great power diplomacy generally. You could have a big impact by focusing on them.
Here I highlight a few issues that experts I’ve spoken to have highlighted as particularly promising for people to work on if they want to have an impact in this space.
One promising path to impact looks like gaining a deep understanding of the foreign policy landscape, building a strong network, and practising good judgement. Later in your career, you could use your skills and expertise to support policies that seem good and resist policies that seem harmful. But exactly which policies those are currently seem hard to predict, as they’ll likely rely on highly contextual factors like who’s leading the countries involved.
Another thing to keep in mind is that to reduce great power conflict, you’ll probably need to combine foreign policy expertise with expertise in another important area.48
For example, US foreign policy experts who also know a lot about China or speak Mandarin are really valuable. Similarly, people who understand international relations and biosecurity, risks from advanced artificial intelligence, or nuclear security are sorely needed.
If you want to go into this field, you’ll probably need to be flexible and open to taking unexpected opportunities when they arise.
Finally, you’ll want to think carefully about personal fit. There are a lot of different jobs you could do in this area. Some are very research-focused, like working in a think tank. Others would be much more people-oriented, like working for a policymaker or going into politics yourself. Although you might work on the same issues, your daily routine would look totally different.
The rest of this section gives some preliminary ideas about where you might want to work in this area. It’s separated into two questions: where can you work and what issues should you try to focus on?
The main US federal policy institutions are Congress49 and the executive branch (including both federal agencies and the White House).50
After my conversations with experts, I’ve divided the potential government roles in this space into four broad categories.
First, there are research-like roles in intelligence and analysis. Researchers can affect policy by ensuring it is addressing the right problems and focusing on the best solutions. For example, at the beginning of the Cold War, analysts suggested that the USSR’s nuclear arsenal was larger and more effective than the United States’, and that the gap was growing. This idea was wrong, and it helped drive the early nuclear arms race. Better analysis may have been able to avoid this.
Second, there are decision-making roles in which research is turned into policy. These include political appointees selected by the executive, and career civil servants who work their way up the bureaucracy. Decision makers influence which strategies to pursue and which policies to implement.
Third, there are programme management roles. Programme managers prioritise how government budgets are spent. Since these budgets can be quite large, even small improvements in how they’re spent could have a big impact.
Programme managers have been distinguished from decision makers because they work ‘deeper’ in the bureaucracy with less public visibility. The State Department’s Office of Cooperative Threat Reduction, for example, currently spends about $90 million a year on its Global Threat Reduction programme, which focuses on preventing the development and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and “advanced conventional weapons.”51
Fourth, there are diplomatic roles that involve working with people from other countries to implement policies.
To enter a career in US foreign or security policy, the best paths include completing a relevant graduate degree (ideally based in Washington, DC), particularly a policy master’s or law degree, and participating in a policy fellowship — providing benefits like job placements, funding, training, mentoring, networking opportunities, application support, and more.
However, if you’re in a position to work on foreign policy issues in other influential countries like India or a major NATO member, you could still have a big impact.
Unfortunately, I’m much more uncertain about how to reduce risks and improve policy in Russia or China.
Especially in the United States, think tanks are also an important part of the foreign policy ecosystem.
Framing your career as a choice between working at a think tank or working in the government is actually a bit misleading. In reality, many people move back and forth between the think tank world and the government over the course of their career.
We’ve previously written about think tanks in this article. Working at a think tank allows you to spend more time investigating issues deeply, developing new policy ideas, and building your network and professional reputation. It can be a particularly good way to break into this field early in your career.
My sense is that policy implementation, not research, is more of a bottleneck in the foreign policy and great power conflict space.52 This limits the value of studying and working in universities.
However, the foreign policy space is pretty crowded and competitive. This means that earning a master’s or PhD can also be very useful, or even necessary, to advance in your career.
If you’re pretty sure you want to work in policy, you can do one of the US policy-focused master’s degrees discussed here. If you want to do academic research, or move up to a high-level position in a prestigious think tank, it’s worth giving a PhD programme strong consideration. And if you’re going to do a PhD for career reasons, you could think about how to focus your research on important, policy-relevant issues.
Academics can focus on questions for extended periods of time. They can also think deeply about issues which don’t yet seem to have direct policy relevance. This could help them answer particularly complex questions or help reduce risks that are not yet salient but could be in the next few years or decades. I discuss some potential research topics in the next section.
This makes it very important to have experts who can help policymakers accurately interpret the actions of rival states. Combining an understanding of foreign policymaking processes, say in the United States, with an understanding of the historical, social, economic, and cultural context in another great power like China or Russia could be a highly valuable set of skills.
One concrete example of this kind of work is facilitating Track II diplomacy programmes. This can include hosting summits and meetings between non-official (non-governmental) representatives from different countries to share information and build trust. People with expertise in two nations, such as both China and the United States, can play an important role in facilitating such dialogues.
Track II diplomacy can be useful, for example, when official diplomatic channels have been closed down due to high tension. There are some historical cases where they have even contributed to concrete policy change, such as the United States and the USSR signing the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 1972.
Language skills can also be very useful in this area. See, for example, the work of the Center for Strategic Translation, which works to translate, annotate, and explain influential Chinese texts for English speakers.
If you decide to go down this path, you should probably try to focus on the riskiest relationships, which I discussed here.
Some wars are sparked when small disputes escalate. And escalation is unpredictable and difficult to control.54 One way to lower the total risk of war is to prevent escalatory spirals before they begin.
It may seem difficult to imagine how one could do this. But there are a number of important crisis management systems one could work to improve or support.
You could research, advocate for, and work to implement information-provision systems like hotlines to reduce uncertainty during crises. Or you could research how new weapons and communications technologies might affect escalation dynamics and propose policies to pre-empt unexpected effects.
Thomas Schelling, for example, did influential research on crisis management and communication hotlines and helped motivate the establishment of the Moscow-Washington hotline following the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Analysing the effects of important foreign policy decisions
Another approach one could take is to become an expert in a particularly important foreign policy issue.
For example, great powers will use sanctions to punish aggressive actions from rivals. They may also try to slow their progress in important sectors (like by putting export controls on semiconductors). You could study such policies closely to better predict their effects. By working for the government you could improve their effectiveness and minimise major downside risks (like increasing the chance of conflict). Or you could work outside the government, like in a think tank or as a journalist who can scrutinise policy choices and provide public accountability.
Other areas of foreign policy in which you might consider developing expertise include:
How to integrate forecasting into foreign policy decision-making55
International governance of weapons of mass destruction and emerging technologies
You could also help reduce total war risk by working to make extremely severe outcomes less likely. The most obvious way to do this is to study proposals for international governance agreements on the development, proliferation, and use of weapons of mass destruction. This would include both existing weapons, like nuclear weapons and bioweapons, and emerging weapons technologies like advanced military artificial intelligence systems.
Improving how WMDs and emerging technologies are controlled at the national level
Individual states can also reduce war risks by unilaterally improving their management policies for weapons of mass destruction. Some of these policies in the profiles on nuclear and biological risks.
On several occasions, malfunctioning systems have created false alarms that could plausibly have led to retaliation and escalation to war. If one thinks there is a low but constant risk of something like this going wrong, then we will inevitably head to disaster on long enough time horizons.
Research on how current policies could fail, or how new technologies (like advanced AI or improved satellite imaging) may raise or lower the chance of accidents, could be useful.
Other domestic interventions
There are several other potential interventions one could work on domestically. For example, one could try to affect the politics of war by influencing public discourse to reduce tension and working to get less war-like politicians elected. Or, one could try to strengthen democratic institutions to ensure that leaders remain ‘checked’ and accountable to the people who would bear the costs of war.
I’m more uncertain about how important and how feasible these interventions are, though. Given my current views, I’d instead encourage people to focus on the first five issues I listed in this profile.
Find vacancies on our job board
Our job board features opportunities to work in government and policy on our top problems:
My description of this incident follows that in political scientist Barry O’Neill’s Honor, Symbols, and War (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1999), 64, https://doi.org/10.3998/mpub.14453.↩
By tension I mean something like a “shared worry about an imminent conflict”. This definition comes from chapter 5 of O’Neil’s Honor, Symbols, and War. Let’s assume also this device could measure both the likelihood and expected severity of conflict, meaning it tracks great power conflict risks specifically.↩
There isn’t really a standard definition or list of great power countries. In the international relations literature, great powers are often defined in terms of their military power. Since military power is in large part a function of the economic resources a country can devote to building, equipping, and organising its armed forces, this means great powers are typically among the world’s largest economies.
Here, I use the term to refer to countries whose foreign policy decisions strongly influence geopolitical outcomes that could have very long-term effects. These include the United States, China, Russia, and India.
One could argue for the inclusion of other countries like various European states, other large economies like Japan or Brazil, or other nuclear-armed states like Pakistan. I have omitted these for practical reasons: I think that, due to their size and level of technology the United States, China, Russia, and India are simply much more likely to affect the long-term future through their foreign policy decision-making.↩
Newcombe, Newcombe and Landrus discuss the idea of a tension metre in a 1974 paper, and even propose operationalizing it by comparing actual to predicted military spending (Alan G. Newcombe, Nora S. Newcombe, and Gary D. Landrus, “The Development of an Inter‐nation Tensiometer,” International Interactions 1, no. 1 (1974): 3–18, https://doi.org/10.1080/03050627408434382). I’m not aware of any attempts to further develop the concept.↩
It’s hard to say how much ‘safer’ we should expect technological development to be in a world where great powers are cooperating rather than competing. But some historical examples suggest an important role for diplomacy in shaping the governance of powerful technologies.
After the atomic bomb was developed, for example, several global governance plans for nuclear were proposed. By today’s standards, they seem radical. The idea of the United States giving up its existing bombs to the United Nations, which would then monitor and control global production of fissile materials, was seriously discussed (For more on this example, see chapter 2 of MacAskill’s, What We Owe the Future.
There are several other examples of technologies whose development has probably been strongly shaped by diplomacy (though I’m less confident these exhibit the same path-dependence as nuclear weapons). These include space-based weapons, anti-ballistic missile systems, and areas of biotechnology such as human cloning.↩
To be more specific: my forecast is that there’s about a 30% chance we see a conflict that technically qualifies as a war (i.e. involves at least 1,000 battle deaths in a year) involving at least one of the United States, China, Russia, and India on each side before 2050.
30% is not my forecast of the chance that we see “World War III”, widespread use of nuclear weapons, or some similar kind of global catastrophe. I think these events are much less likely.↩
This comes from Bear F. Braumoeller, Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 26.
Braumoeller in turn cites: Jack S. Levy, War in the Modern Great Power System: 1495-1975 (Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1983); Joshua S. Goldstein, Long Cycles: Prosperity and War in the Modern Age (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).
Both Levy and Goldstein identify an average of roughly two general wars per century. Levy defines a general war as a war “involving at least two-thirds of the Great Powers and an intensity exceeding at least 1,000 battle deaths per million population” (Levy, War in the Modern Great Power System, 75). Levy later summarised seven studies of general wars in the last five centuries (Jack S. Levy, “Theories of General War,” World Politics 37, no. 3 (1985): 344–74, https://doi.org/10.2307/2010247).
I have reproduced his analysis in a tab here (this also serves as a useful summary of which wars various researchers consider to be general wars). The average number of general wars per century of the seven studies Levy examines is actually lower than two, coming in at 1.5 per century instead. However, there are some idiosyncrasies in the data (for example, one analysis does not count World War II as a general war). Levy himself identifies 10 general wars in the last 500 years, exactly two per century.
For my point here I don’t think it matters much whether one uses an average of two or 1.5.↩
Kenneth N. Waltz, “Nuclear Myths and Political Realities,” American Political Science Review 84, no. 3 (September 1990): 730–45, https://doi.org/10.2307/1962764; Robert Jervis, The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution: Statecraft and the Prospect of Armageddon, Cornell Studies in Security Affairs (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989).↩
This claim seems quite robust to critical analysis. It depends somewhat on which countries one counts as democracies. The War of 1812 and World War I are potential exceptions to the rule, though one could reasonably argue that pre-Reform Act Britain and imperial Germany were not democratic in the relevant sense.
Political scientist Greg Cashman has called democratic peace theory an “almost inescapable conclusion”. However, he has also noted that “there is enough suspicion that marginal cases of war between democracies have existed to state the dyadic hypothesis in terms of probabilities rather than certainties: Democratic states are extremely unlikely to fight each other” (Greg Cashman, What Causes War? An Introduction to Theories of International Conflict, Second Edition (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), 261).↩
John R. Oneal and Bruce Russett, “The Kantian Peace: The Pacific Benefits of Democracy, Interdependence, and International Organizations, 1885–1992,” World Politics 52, no. 1 (October 1999): 1–37, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0043887100020013.↩
Bear Braumoeller makes this point in Only the Dead. Several other analyses have found similarly that the so-called Long Peace since World War II is statistically consistent with long-term trends in conflict occurrence.
See Pasquale Cirillo and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, “On the Statistical Properties and Tail Risk of Violent Conflicts,” Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and Its Applications 452 (June 2016): 29–45, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physa.2016.01.050; Aaron Clauset, “Trends and Fluctuations in the Severity of Interstate Wars,” Science Advances 4, no. 2 (February 2, 2018): eaao3580, https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aao3580.↩
In more technical terms, we should have some credence in the view that war has become less likely and some in the view that war remains as likely as ever. With each additional year that passes, we can increase our confidence in the view that the likelihood of war has declined. Though it depends on how much prior probability one puts on each theory (based, for example, on the strength of the theoretical considerations in their favour), it seems difficult to put less than about 15% credence on the view that war remains as likely as ever.↩
In Bayesian terms, we could say that we’ll take the historical base rate as our prior probability of conflict, and update it based on what we observe about the world around us.↩
Recent, tragic examples include the accidental downing of passenger planes in Ukraine and Iran. While it seems very unlikely these accidents could have led to war, the same is not true of accidents in the past. In 1904, for example, “war between Britain and Russia seemed imminent” after a Russian warship mistook a British fishing fleet for Japanese torpedo boats and attacked, sinking one boat and killing two Britons (O’Neill, Honor, Symbols, and War, 64).↩
For more on the incentives for militaries to integrate AI into their systems, and the potential for accidents, see this article by researcher Paul Scharre.↩
See the Introduction in Christopher Blattman, Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace (Dublin: Viking, 2022).↩
It is surprisingly difficult to compare national economies due to local differences in the prices and quality of goods. Measured at market exchange rates, the United States’ economy is probably still a bit larger than China’s. If one adjusts for local prices, though, China’s economy is likely larger.
Few long-term growth forecasts exist, but a 2017 report by the consulting firm PwC projects that India’s economy will overtake the United States’s, after adjusting for purchasing power, before 2050. That report assumed steady annual growth in excess of 6% per year in India, which may prove too strong an assumption.
A more recent, 2022 report by Goldman Sachs, reached a similar conclusion. That report projects China and India will overtake the United States in real terms by 2040 and 2075, respectively.↩
Some countries spend a much larger proportion of their GDP on their militaries, for example. And social factors, like political constraints and the preferences of voters, can constrain the ability of country leaders to deploy their military, limiting their practical power. Human capital like experience and technical expertise can also increase military power without affecting GDP much.↩
In the influential book Destined for War, Political scientist Graham Allison argued that the rate was much higher than this. Of the 16 historical power transitions he documented, 12 (75%) resulted in war. Most other analyses find a smaller effect. It depends on how the authors define a power transition and which data they used. See Cashman, What Causes War?, 416–17 for a good summary.↩
This forecast, like many discussed in this profile, comes from the prediction platform Metaculus. The aggregated predictions discussed here are calculated by weighing the predictions made by individual forecasters according to their track record↩
Note that the resolution criteria uses the CoW-standard definition of war of at least 1000 battle deaths within a calendar year. The chance of a skirmish or incident that involves gunfire, but which kills fewer than 1000 people, could be substantially higher.↩
The resolution criteria is different here, relying on “credible government sources” or “three credible news reports”.↩
This is according to an analysis of data in the Correlates of War dataset, which is commonly used in international relations. Of course, it should also be noted that while most wars are fought by neighbours, most neighbours do not fight. For more detail, see p. 238 of Cashman’s What Causes War?↩
The survey asked 50 experts for their forecasts of the likelihood of conflict between various states in the next 20 years. The median prediction for the probability of a nuclear conflict killing more than 80 million people was 5%. The median forecast for NATO-Russia conflict was 20%; for United States-China conflict the median was 10%; and for China-India conflict it was 12.5%. If we assume, simplistically, that the risk of a major war remains constant throughout the century, and treat each 20-year period as independent, then the median forecast suggests we face an 18.5% chance of a nuclear war worse than World War II in the next 80 years.
I’m pretty sceptical of these estimates, though, because the report does not include: the identities or track records of the surveyed experts; how the forecasts were elicited, e.g. whether there were multiple rounds of estimates and discussion; information about the range of forecasts; nor specific resolution criteria, e.g. what data will be used. In contrast, Metaculus forecasts tend to have more information about track records, aggregation methodology, and resolution criteria.
In general it is hard to say whether we should put more stock in the predictions of experienced generalist forecasters or domain experts. There is some very weak evidence for a slight edge to aggregated forecasters.
In this case, I put more stock in the forecasts because the track record of Metaculus forecasts has some evidence of calibration while the approach and calibration of the “Project” experts is unknown.↩
To make it, I ranked all the wars in the database according to severity, or the number of soldiers killed. I then calculated, for each war, what proportion of all wars in the database were larger.↩
Meredith Reid Sarkees and Frank Wayman, “Resort to War: 1816 – 2007” (Washington DC: CQ Press, 2010).↩
Note also that just counting battle deaths understates the size of wars because it excludes civilian casualties. This effect can be dramatic. World War II’s official battle death count is about 17 million, for example. But the best, though still uncertain, estimates find that the total number of deaths was 66 million. Really, what would be best is a measure of excess deaths in the countries fighting over the duration of the war. Unfortunately, collecting this data has not been feasible.↩
Such estimates are quite controversial. It is sometimes claimed that up to 70% of the country’s male population was wiped out. While this seems very high, the latest research does suggest that an estimate of 50% is reasonable.
See Thomas L. Whigham and Barbara Potthast, “The Paraguayan Rosetta Stone: New Insights into the Demographics of the Paraguayan War, 1864–1870,” Latin American Research Review 34, no. 1 (1999): 174–86, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0023879100024341; Jan M. G. Kleinpenning, “Strong Reservations about ‘New Insights into the Demographics of the Paraguayan War,'” Latin American Research Review 37, no. 3 (ed 2002): 137–42, https://doi.org/10.1017/S002387910002450X.↩
Precisely how likely extreme observations are depends on what kind of heavy-tailed distribution war size follows. This question is the subject of ongoing debate. Many researchers have claimed, or assumed, that war size is distributed according to a power law (Lewis F. Richardson, Statistics of Deadly Quarrels, ed. Quincy Wright, 3. printing (Pacific Grove: Boxwood Pr, 1975); Braumoeller, Only the Dead.). This basically implies enormous wars, orders of magnitude larger than World War II, are possible (and even relatively likely).
But recent research has shown that other probability distributions also fit the war data well (Aaron Clauset, Cosma Rohilla Shalizi, and M. E. J. Newman, “Power-Law Distributions in Empirical Data,” SIAM Review 51, no. 4 (November 4, 2009): 661–703, https://doi.org/10.1137/070710111). Most other distributions imply a thinner tail, suggesting wars orders of magnitude larger than World War II are less likely or even improbable. Since we just don’t have that much data on large wars, it’s hard to say which distribution to use based on statistical analysis alone.↩
“War-making capacity” is an abstract concept borrowed from historian Ian Morris. Morris defines it as a measure of “the number of fighters [the world’s nations] can field, modified by the range and force of their weapons, the mass and speed with which they can deploy them, their defensive power, and their logistical capabilities” Ian Morris, The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 180. I mostly think it’s useful as a support for intuition rather than a ‘real’ quantity that could be calculated exactly. The exact numbers Morris uses could be disputed, but the main point that the 20th century saw a large increase in war-making capacity due mainly to nuclear weapons is incontrovertible.↩
The explosive power of nuclear weapons varies widely. Fission bombs, such as those that were used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were as powerful as 15-20 kilotons of dynamite (kt TNT).
But the thermonuclear bombs in modern nuclear arsenals are much more powerful. The most powerful ever tested as the USSR’s Tsar Bomba, which yielded 50 million tons of dynamite: over 2000 times more powerful than early fission bombs, and reportedly ten times more powerful than all the bombs used in World War II combined.
None of the weapons active today, though, is nearly this powerful (advances in missile accuracy have reduced the need for such enormous, expensive bombs). A typical modern nuclear warhead has about 300 kt TNT: just 15-20 times more powerful than the fission bombs which killed between 110,000 and 210,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.↩
Specifically, he fits a power law model. See footnote 32 for more discussion about the reliability of this assumption.↩
It’s “at least” because Braumoeller only considers battle deaths. But a large war will also have many civilian deaths. So the number of battle deaths needed to cause extinction is significantly less than the total human population (since many deaths will be civilian casualties).↩
The CoW data covers just over 200 years and has 95 wars, meaning one war every two years is a reasonable approximation.↩
By conventional I mean a war that does not involve widespread use of nuclear weapons or other WMDs.↩
To be more precise: I think a war killing between 80M and 800M people is 2-10x more likely than a war killing between 800M and 8B.
Mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson famously calculated that, in the existing data, the probability of observing a war drops by a factor of three for each ten-fold increase in severity (Richardson, Statistics of Deadly Quarrels.). I’m widening the uncertainty bounds to account for the fact that we’re extrapolating well beyond the existing data.↩
The current world population is high enough that even very high-mortality events would leave hundreds of thousands or millions of survivors (to reduce the global population from roughly 8 billion to fewer than 100,000 people, an event would have to kill about 99.999% of people). Then, the survivors would probably be distributed around earth in several separate groups. Only one group would need to survive to eventually recover civilization. Of course, we already know that humanity grew from a small population to a global, industrial civilization once. The survivors of a global catastrophe may be able to rebuild civilization much more quickly because they’d have access to industrial information and artefacts that survived the war.↩
The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the precursor to the World Trade Organization, were all founded during or soon after World War II. The UN Declaration on Human Rights was signed in 1948 and widely-acknowledged to be developed as a direct response to the horrors of the war, including the Holocaust.
Historian Johannes Morsink writes that “during the final General Assembly debate in December 1948 the drafters made it abundantly clear that the Declaration on which they were about to vote had been borne out of the experience of the war that had just ended” (Johannes Morsink, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 36.)↩
If you want to read more, philosopher and 80,000 Hours co-founder William MacAskill describes trajectory changes in more detail on our podcast.↩
For more on this possibility, see: Steven Feldstein, The Rise of Digital Repression: How Technology Is Reshaping Power, Politics, and Resistance, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2021); Bryan Caplan, “The Totalitarian Threat,” in Global Catastrophic Risks (Oxford University Press, 2008), https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780198570509.003.0029.↩
Chris Blattman points this out in Why We Fight:
“We see [that war is the exception, not the rule] at the international level too. There was the long confrontation between America and the Soviets, who managed to divide Europe (indeed the world) into two parts without nuking one another. There is the perpetual standoff between Pakistan and India, the gloomy impasse between North and South Korea, and the constant deadlock over the South China Sea. There was the hasty but peaceful exit of France and England from their African colonies as soon as it became clear they might fight for independence, plus the nonviolent Soviet retreat from Eastern Europe. And then there are the societies riven by political factions, angry and polarized by class and ideology, who nonetheless compete in parliaments rather than on battlefields. Somehow, however, we tend to forget these events. We write tomes about great wars, and overlook the quiet peaces.”↩
Here’s a simple model to show why the effect seems ambiguous:
Say before the invention of nuclear weapons, wars could kill up to 100 million people. But with nuclear arsenals, a war can kill x-times more people. But also, nuclear deterrence makes war less likely by a factor of y.
Then nuclear weapons lower the expected costs of war if x<y. But they make war worse in expectation if x>y.
Estimating the values of x and y is clearly difficult, and I’m genuinely uncertain which is larger. That is, it’s plausible to me that both x and y are on the same order of magnitude: a great power war is something like 10-times larger in expectation, but also about 10-times less likely, due to nuclear deterrence.↩
You can read about this way of modelling great power conflict in a post I wrote for the Effective Altruism Forum here.↩
The extent to which this is true depends somewhat on where you end up working. Somebody who reviewed this article noted that “this is very true in think tanks, less true as a Congressional staffer, and least true as a Foreign Service Officer in the State Department (though even there you may work in policy offices where specialised regional or issue-related expertise really matters).”↩
For example, you could work as a staffer on a foreign policy-relevant Congressional committee, such as the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Armed Services Committees in the Senate and House, or a relevant appropriations committee (which determine agency budgets). Alternatively, you could work on foreign policy issues in the personal office of a Member of Congress, ideally an influential one with a position on relevant committees (in the best case, the chairman or ranking member).↩
For academic overviews of misperceptions and war, see Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1976); Jack S. Levy, “Misperception and the Causes of War: Theoretical Linkages and Analytical Problems,” World Politics 36, no. 1 (1983): 76–99, https://doi.org/10.2307/2010176.↩
While several research projects over the last two decades have demonstrated the accuracy of geopolitical forecasting methods, it remains very rare for analysts and decision makers to reference forecasts when making policy. Only about 10 or 20 pieces of intelligence out of the hundreds of thousands produced in the last 20 years cited crowd-sourced forecasts (Laura Resnick Samotin, Jeffrey A. Friedman, and Michael C. Horowitz, “Obstacles to Harnessing Analytic Innovations in Foreign Policy Analysis: A Case Study of Crowdsourcing in the U.S. Intelligence Community,” Intelligence and National Security, November 23, 2022, 1–18, https://doi.org/10.1080/02684527.2022.2142352.)↩