[This post was written in a purely personal capacity, etc.]
I recently had several long conversations with a friend about whether my regular doom-scrolling regarding the Ukraine war had sharpened my understanding of the world or mostly been a waste of time.
Unfortunately, it seems more of the latter. When my mind has changed, it's been slight, and it’s unclear what actions my new views justify. Personally, this means I should probably go back to thinking about happiness and RCTs.
I set out what I think are some relevant questions Russia's invasion of Ukraine could change your mind about and provide some sloppy commentary, but I'm interested to know what other EAs and rationalists think about this issue.
Likelihood of great power conflict
It seems like the Metaculus forecasting community is now more worried about great power conflict than it was before the war. I assume the invasion of Ukraine is a causal factor. But I feel oddly reassured about this, like the world was ruled by drunks who sobered up when the knives came out, reminded that knives are sharp and bodily fluids are precious.
After the invasion, the prospect of a Russia-USA War shifted from a 5-15% to a 25% chance before 2050. I hadn’t known about this forecast, but I would have assumed the opposite. Before the war, Russia viewed the US as a waning power, losing in Afghanistan, not-winning in Syria, Libya and Venezuela, riven by internecine strife and paralyzed by self-doubt. Meanwhile, Russia’s confidence in its comeback rose with each cost-effective success in Crimea, Syria, and Kazakhstan.
Now Russia knows how hollow its military was. And it knows the USA knows. And it knows that NATO hand-me-downs are emptying its once vast stockpiles of tanks and APCs. I assume it won’t recover the depth of its armour stocks in the near term (it doesn’t have the USSR’s state capacity or industrial base). The USA also doesn’t need to fight Russia. If Ukraine is doing this well, then Ukraine + Poland + Baltics would probably do just fine. I’d put this more around 6.5%.
I think a Russian war with a European state has probably increased simply based on Russia’s revealed willingness to go to war, in conjunction with forecasters predicting a good chance (20%-24%) that the US and China will go to war over Taiwan. Russia may find such a conflict an opportunity to attempt to occupy a square mile of uninhabited Lithuanian forest to create a safe zone for ethnic Russian speakers and puncture the myth of NATO’s 5th article.
The predicted probability to this question shifted by around 10%, from the 10-15% range to 20-25% after the war began. I assume this is mostly driven by Russia-NATO-initiated conflict. China-India conflict predictions have decreased from 30% pre-war to 17% before 2035 most recently. And China-US war predictions have stayed constant (20% before 2035). So the rise must stem from the increase in the likelihood of a Russia-US war or by other major powers between 2035 and 2050. I don’t think I agree with the community here, as I explained previously.
China hasn’t involved itself in the Ukraine war yet. And the prospects for its involvement seem like they should dim over time — surely it would have acted or given more hints that it was considering doing so by now?
This makes me more confused about whether China committed to a military confrontation with the West. If it has, and China believed it had more military-industrial capacity than the West (which is what I’d believe if I was China), then now is the perfect opportunity to drain Western stocks further and prop up its ally (?) by pumping weapons into Russia (see previous forecasting question). But maybe it sees the risk as encouraging the resurrection of Western arms manufacturing?
Due to Ukraine, I think the US has a (very) slightly higher likelihood of military response to Taiwan because supplying Ukraine has given the USA back some of its lost mojo. However, I also think that China has seen that Western equipment is quite effective against Soviet-based hardware, and it may be rethinking or delaying its invasion plans. So I think the strong Western response (and its success so far) will somewhat deter China.
Likelihood of nuclear war, conditional on great power conflict
I feel like this has gone down in my mind. This is mostly because almost all opportunities for escalation have been handled carefully despite the Western support causally leading to the deaths of thousands of Russian soldiers.
I was so placated by the thought that the likelihood of nuclear war might be lower than I expected if China and the USA fought over Taiwan — so much so that I thought, hey, maybe we should defend Taiwan. But when I articulated this probability, I realised it remained shockingly high in my mind. I'm now quite confused over whether we should provide direct support or try and pull a Ukraine 2.0.
I settled on a 10-15% likelihood of a USA-China war over Taiwan escalating to nuclear war. We agreed this was mostly due to the likelihood of an accident in the first three days of the conflict due to a blinding attack or weather anomaly (c.f. Petrov). There were a lot of reasons that went into placing most of the probability mass near the initiation of the conflict, but I won’t belabour them here.
For p(nukes | big power war) to get into the low single digits, I think there needs to be strong political control over the military in both countries. They both share and somehow convincingly communicate that they wish to keep the war contained to Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait. Any slippage of the war to mainland China or American bases on Guam or Okinawa seems to come with a big dose of risk of nuclear war. If China struck US bases, it would also face conventional risks of activating NATO or Japanese military assistance so that it could have other reasons for restraint.
Likelihood of nuclear war
I’m honestly unsure about the likelihood of nuclear war. Metaculus seems to think it’s higher in the post-war world, moving from 20-25% to 30-35% after the war. I assume this is primarily because of a predicted increase in the likelihood of the USA-Russian war. Still, again, I think of Ukraine as more of a pressure release valve than a pressure cooker for the likelihood of war between these states.
Conditional on Russia losing, is the world a safer place?
I think maybe a bit, in a general “don’t reward conquest” sort of way. This has to be balanced with the “What if a nuclear power collapses” scenario. But I think regime change or chaos is relatively unlikely, and my predictions of chaos have been lower than the community for a long time. See:
- Will there be a large-scale armed conflict in Russia before 2030?
- When will Vladimir Putin cease to hold the office of President of Russia?
If Russia had a large-scale civil conflict, I think it’d be high variance but, on average, result in a safer world because of the small chance of a weakened Russia with its nukes secured by NATO and China (c.f. Breakup of USSR). But I feel the distorting pull of my Pollyannaish impulses here. Most of this comes through a bipolar world being more stable; see game theory.
Things I remain deeply confused about:
- At what probability of nuclear war or great power war should we sacrifice a country or a region to the clutches of an authoritarian state?
- How bad is authoritarianism anyways? China and Taiwan’s life satisfaction isn’t that different.
- How much influence does the global hegemon have over global values? How much additional influence will China have on the trajectory of human values if the USA concedes geopolitically to China?
- What, if anything, should EAs do about war? Having a lot of EAs work in diplomacy to try and increase international cooperation between great powers seems like a basic, GiveDirectly type of good. But I’m struck by how clueless I feel about the sign of many specific potential actions (e.g., should the USA directly defend Taiwan?).
- Was globalisation a good idea? Sure, China’s growth was good for millions of Chinese, but is the threat of China’s ascendence to great power status enough to offset this? If a revisionist turn seems warranted, what does this mean about how we go forward?
Indirect updates and reminders
- USA being #1 seems good (assuming Europe is not an alternative).
- Adversarial geopolitics is bad for global collaboration on things we need to get right, like biotechnology.
- Winning great power wars can lead to a critical period in the capacity for creating tools of international collaboration. I.e., League of Nations, EU and UN. World seems safer because of these institutions. What if we rolled into the nuclear age without them?
- The great pacification, insomuch as it exists, seems far less applicable to authoritarian regimes. All else equal, trade with dictators seems to give more leverage to dictators than democracies.
- Updated towards the west being more unified than I feared. The response to the war has been robust and quite collective. Germany seemed to wean itself off Russian gas in a matter of months (I know it also got lucky). This counterbalances the poor initial response of most western institutions to manage COVID.
- I think it’s plausibly good to support destroying Iran’s capacity to get nukes (RIP Iran nuclear deal – top 5 worst things Trump did?). Adding another unreliable nuclear actor (and the shield it provides for developing other weapons) seems worth the cost of war / brief invasion. Relatedly, I’m a bit more sceptical of civilian nuclear technology that can advance nuclear weapons technology being used by geopolitically insecure states. Not sure it’s worth it for climate goals.