Preventing great power conflict
How can we prevent war or a breakdown in cooperation between the great powers?

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Start here for an introduction to existential risk research. Read more

This profile is tailored towards students studying economics, history, maths, political science and psychology and cognitive science, however we expect there to be valuable open research questions that could be pursued by students in other disciplines.

Why is this a pressing problem?

War has a terrible humanitarian impact through loss of life, violence and indirect impacts such as disruption to food supplies. A war between major powers such as the United States, China or Russia could be particularly deadly, potentially posing a direct threat to humanity’s existence and the potential for a flourishing future, as well as increasing the probability of other existential risks.

The frequency of war has declined over the past 500 years and there has not been a conflict between great powers since WWII. However, expert predictions suggest a worryingly high probability that the ‘Long Peace’ will come to an end this century. This report from Founders Pledge estimates there is a 1 in 3 risk of a war between great powers in the next 100 years and in 2015, a poll of 50 international relations experts estimated a median 5% chance of a nuclear conflict that kills at least 80 million people in the next 20 years. At the Global Catastrophic Risk Conference in 2008, academics predicted a median 1% chance of extinction caused by nuclear war in the 21st century. 

Current and emerging technology would make a war between major powers particularly catastrophic. For example, the use of nuclear weapons could lead to nuclear winter, or engineered pathogens could be used as biological weapons. Countries might race to develop more powerful AI systems, de-emphasising safety considerations and increasing the chance of an AI system being developed that is dangerously misaligned with human values.

A major war could also leave humanity weaker and more vulnerable to subsequent catastrophes such as natural pandemics, but even without war, increased conflict between major powers would decrease the international coordination needed to address global threats such as pandemics and climate change.

To learn more, watch the talk below or listen to this podcast on the causes of great power conflict.

Explore existing research

Find a thesis topic

If you’re interested in working on this research direction, below are some ideas on what would be valuable to explore further. If you want help refining your research ideas, apply for our coaching!

Stephen Clare, a research fellow at the Forethought Foundation, suggests the areas for exploration below.

It could be valuable to:

  • investigate the size of the effect trade interdependencies have on the likelihood of conflict.
  • apply game theory and/or public choice models to improve understanding of how leaders decide to go to war.

 

See suggestions of other potential research projects here.

You could take a broad approach and study the general dynamics of great power conflicts (e.g. risk factors and paths to war). Research could also be done on the research directions suggested in this conference talk from Brian Tse, such as whether and when promoting international trade has decreased conflict.

The areas below, drawn from this report from Founders Pledge, may also be particularly valuable to explore:

  • Long-term trends in warfare and how risks from war are changing over time.
  • The relationship between international rivalries and technological development. Do heightened tensions between great power nations accelerate the development of new weapons technologies? Do they affect the safety-speed trade-off in the development of new technologies? Do they cause counterfactual discoveries, i.e. the creation of weapons that otherwise wouldn’t be invented?
  • The causes of war and drivers of peace, including international trade, international institutions, and cultural and scientific exchanges.
  • Foreign policies which have reduced international tensions.
  • The effectiveness of specific programs, including Track II diplomacy, academic, business or scientific exchanges, and crisis-communications channels (like highly-resilient hotlines)
  • You could also explore what has contributed to the ‘long peace’ and how likely it is that this trend will continue. Another possible direction is exploring the distinction between unipolar, bipolar and multipolar international relations with regard to conflict.

Stephen Clare, a research fellow at the Forethought Foundation, suggests the areas for exploration below.

Statistical analysis could be valuable to:

  • test International Relations theories of conflict like power transition theory, power cycle theory, or democratic peace theory.
  • test the fit of different probability distributions for war severity (e.g. Clauset 2018).
  • investigate the probability distribution for the ratio of civilian-combatant deaths in wars.

 

See suggestions of other potential research projects here.

You could take a broad approach and study the general dynamics of great power conflicts (e.g. probability of war between major powers, risk factors, paths to war). Alternatively, you could narrowly focus on a specific existential risk (e.g., from nuclear war, pandemics, or AI) and research how the risk in question may be impacted by great power conflict.

In their review of nuclear weapons policy, Open Philanthropy describes work on nuclear weapons policy done outside of the US (rather than about other countries from within the US) as one of ‘the largest potential gaps in the field.’

Research could also be done on the research directions suggested in this conference talk from Brian Tse, and this talk from Noah Taylor.

The areas below, drawn from this report from Founders Pledge, may also be particularly valuable to explore:

  • The relationship between international rivalries and technological development.
  • The causes of war and drivers of peace, including international trade, international institutions, and cultural and scientific exchanges.
  • Which foreign policies are likely to reduce international tensions.
  • The effectiveness of specific programs, including Track II diplomacy, academic, business or scientific exchanges, and crisis-communications channels (like highly-resilient hotlines).

The research agenda ‘Psychology for Effectively Improving the Future’ from the Effective Altruism Psychology Lab suggests several research topics related to preventing great power war.

  • “What do people think about nuclear proliferation?
    • Do people across different countries (e.g., USA, Russia, China, India) differ in their views on nuclear proliferation and disarmament? 
    • How do cognitive biases (see Rationality section) impact thinking about the risk of nuclear threat and global war?
  • How can we raise awareness of nuclear threats?
    • How effective are different messages or framings?
  • What leads to the endorsement of extremist beliefs and behaviors (e.g., war and terrorism)? 
    • How do contextual factors (e.g., poverty, inequality, religious or ideological education, educational attainment) influence the uptake of extremist beliefs and behaviors? 
    • How do psychological factors (e.g., self-deception, cognitive dissonance, close-mindedness, dehumanization) influence the uptake of extremist beliefs and behaviors? 
    • How do social factors (e.g., type of intergroup conflict, history of oppression, conflicting ideologies) influence the uptake of extremist beliefs and behaviors?”

Further resources

If you’re interested in working on this research direction, apply for our coaching and we can connect you with researchers already working in this space, who can help you refine your research ideas.

You can also apply to join our community if you’re interested in peer connections with others working in this area. 

Apply for our database of potential supervisors if you’re looking for formal supervision and take a look at our advice on finding a great supervisor for further ideas.

Our funding database can help you find potential sources of funding if you’re a PhD student interested in this research direction.

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Our profiles on nuclear war prevention and recovery and great power coordination may also be relevant if you’re interested in this research direction.

Contributors

This profile was last updated 30/12/22. The introduction to this profile is based on a conference talk given by Brian Tse. Thanks to Darius Meissner and Stephen Clare for contributions to this profile. All errors remain our own.

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