Have we underestimated the risk of a NATO-Russia nuclear war? Can we do anything about it?

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Nuclear warfareArmed conflictRussia
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Until recently, I thought that the risk of a nuclear war in the 21st century, while not zero, was nevertheless very low and the marginal bit of effort spent reducing it further was probably not a good use of resources. But in the past two weeks, a series of articles on Vox.com have led me to rethink that view. The most detailed of them is worth reading for full context, but I think the key points are these:

  1. Some experts are starting to worry that recent events in eastern Europe have raised the risk of a NATO-Russia nuclear war.
  2. This is because Putin is feeling vulnerable and threatened, and is using nuclear saber-rattling to compensate, doing some things even Cold War-era Soviet leaders avoided (because they felt more secure in their position).
  3. While nobody wants an all-out nuclear war, a particularly worrisome scenario is that Putin does something which, he expects, will scare NATO into backing off, but instead leads to a spiral of escalation.

I've tried to see if other people in the EA community have thought about this issue. The main thing I can find is GiveWell's research into nuclear policy, but when they've looked into the risk of nuclear war, the focus has been on an India-Pakistan nuclear war (which admittedly could be pretty devastating, not just to India and Pakistan but to the rest of the world via fallout and environmental damage).

I'm not sure what to do about this, except to say that it might be nice if GiveWell looked into the issue, if only on the level of one of their "conversation with a single expert" reports. A longer-term strategy might to found an organization dedicated to shifting incentives towards politicians in the US, UK, and France towards less bellicose rhetoric and less escalation, and more international compromise. (One worry when looking at the risk of nuclear war is that politicians may be repeatedly tempted to do things that slightly raise international tensions, for the sake of scoring political points back home.) But it would take a special skill set to be able to found such an organization.

Does anyone else have any other ideas?

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I know GiveWell is aware of these articles, and has looked more into nukes. Probably more conversation notes will be coming out. There is broad agreement (and good object-level evidence) that NATO-Russia nuclear risk is the highest it's been in the post Cold War period. One reason GiveWell has cited for not putting resources into nukes (although it was perhaps runner-up to the GCRs they have invested more in) is the existence of a large established community working on the problem that seemed fairly competent.

"A longer-term strategy might to found an organization dedicated to shifting incentives towards politicians in the US, UK, and France towards less bellicose rhetoric and less escalation, and more international compromise."

Why not support the existing organizations, which have people with a lifetime of experience, scholarly background, and political connections?

"a survey of experts putting the risk of nuclear war with Russia over the next 5 years at 2%"

One note for interpreting that: the experts themselves didn't give those numbers. I was talking about this with someone and they noted that the survey didn't actually ask for probabilities (except 50:50), but verbal descriptions that the authors converted into probabilities by assuming a certain statistical distribution in the relationship between descriptions and probabilities. The previous 'more rigorous' study asked for answers on a 1-10 scale. Risk is definitely up a lot, but we don't have experts' explicit credences, which might be higher or lower than that.

In the EA community see GCRI's work, e.g. this paper on "Analyzing and reducing the risks of inadvertent nuclear war between the United States and Russia." It discusses the disproportionate role of high tension periods such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, or today's fighting in Eastern Europe, many modelling details, and does some estimation.

I know GiveWell is aware of these articles, and has looked more into nukes. Probably more conversation notes will be coming out.

This is good to know.

Why not support the existing organizations, which have people with a lifetime of experience, scholarly background, and political connections?

Do you have any specific organizations in mind? Existing anti-nuclear weapons orgs seem focused on disarmament–which seems extremely unlikely as long as Putin (or someone like him) is in power in Russia. And existing US anti-war orgs seem tragically ineffective. But maybe that's because it's just too hard to have an effective anti-war organization in current US political context.

Partly, I was thinking of an org focused on achievable, narrowly defined actions, one that would fight say, a bill in Congress to provide arms to Ukraine, or authorize "limited" military intervention in eastern Europe, or raise a fuss when presidential candidates go a bit over the line in bellicose rhetoric (disincentivizing such rhetoric). Maybe there are already groups that do things like that–I admit I've only recently started trying to understand this area better.

Yes, GCRI seem to lie at the overlap of the antinuclear and effective altruist communities, and so if Chris was optimistic about prospects for research and activism there, GCRI would be good to look into.

Thanks for this conversation. Here are a few comments.

Regarding the Ukraine crisis and the current NATO-Russia situation, I think Max Fisher at Vox is right to raise the issue as he has, with an excellent mix of insider perspectives. There should be more effort like this, in particular to understand Russia's viewpoint. For more on this topic I recommend recent work by Rajan Menon [http://nationalinterest.org/feature/newsflash-america-ukraine-cannot-afford-war-russia-13137], [http://nationalinterest.org/feature/avoiding-new-cuban-missile-crisis-ukraine-12947], [http://www.amazon.com/Conflict-Ukraine-Unwinding-Post-Cold-Originals/dp/0262029049] and Martin Hellman's blog [https://nuclearrisk.wordpress.com]. I do think Fisher somewhat overstates the risk by understating the possibility of a "frozen conflict" - see Daniel Drezner's discussion of this [http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/07/01/the-perils-of-putins-grim-trigger]. That said, the Ukraine crisis clearly increases the probability of nuclear war, though I think it also increases the prospects and opportunities for resolving major international tensions by drawing them to attention [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/seth-baum/best-and-worst-case-scena_b_4915315.html]. Never let a good crisis go to waste.

Regarding the merits of the EA community working on nuclear war risk, I think it's worth pursuing. Yes, the existence of an established nuclear weapons community means there is more supply of work on this topic, but there is also more demand, especially more high-level demand. I see a favorable supply-demand balance, which is a core reason why GCRI has done a lot on this topic. (We also happen to have relevant background and connections.) Of note, the established community has less inclination towards quantitative risk analysis, and also often takes partisan nationalistic or ideological perspectives; people with EA backgrounds can make valuable contributions on both fronts. My big piece of advice for EAs seeking to get involved is to immerse yourself in the nuclear weapons community to understand its concepts, perspectives, etc., and to respect all that it has already accomplished, instead of showing up expecting to immediately teach them things they didn't know already. This is comparable to the situation with foreign aid projects that don't bother to see what local communities actually benefit from.

I doubt the EA movement is well positioned to do anything about this in the short term. In the long term, building the EA movement inside Russia and other belligerent countries seems like a really good idea.

A longer-term strategy might to found an organization dedicated to shifting incentives towards politicians in the US, UK, and France towards less bellicose rhetoric and less escalation, and more international compromise.

How about incentives in Russia? I worry somewhat about making Western countries less bellicose while leaving Russia highly bellicose. Mumble mumble nuclear deterrence game theory mumble mumble. The first solution that comes to mind is not always the best one.

The Global Priorities Project is run by the Centre for Effective Altruism, and has had meetings with policymakers in the United Kingdom. However, it's correct this might not be enough of an organizational front to have an effect on nuclear armament policy. I think if there was something effective altruism felt the need to do, say, within the next five to ten years, effective altruism would support existing organizations who already have leverage with the government. I think there would be a need to assess what would constitute effective action in this area, and how to achieve it, and ramp necessary social, financial and human capital, and the right networks, as closely to solving this problem if we could. I think effective altruism could become an auxiliary ally to another coalition if need be.

I support efforts to reduce the risk of nuclear war, but I think it is valuable to have a backup plan: Feeding Everyone No Matter What. In the book we argue that the moral hazard problem of people working less hard to prevent the catastrophe is relatively small.

A longer-term strategy might to found an organization dedicated to shifting incentives towards politicians in the US, UK, and France towards less bellicose rhetoric and less escalation, and more international compromise.

Or it might be to shift incentives in the US, UK and France towards more credible deterence and sharper red lines, to prevent a slow sleepwalk into nuclear war when the tanks cross the Vistula. Given there are credible game theoretic and historical arguments on both sides, it seems rather unfair to only highlight one direction as a possibility.

Hmmm... let me put it this way: I suspect the right approach to dealing with the current situation in Ukraine is to back off there, while taking a hard line re: willingness to defend Baltic NATO states like Estonia. Truly sharp red lines are established by things like the NATO treaty, not [hawkish politician X] shooting his mouth off.

Ok, so it sounds like you basically agree with what I said; that increasing the West's willingness to compromise over the Baltics would be actively bad.

However, I think you over-estimate how valuable treaties are in the absense of the institutional will to defend them. We had a Memorandum to defend Ukraine, but that neither prevented Putin from invading nor caused us to defend Ukraine. Treaties are credible only because there are hawkish politicians and voters who assign terminal value to honour, even if in retrospect they wish they could avoid having to fight.

I'm confused, the Wikipedia page you link to doesn't quite seem to support what you're saying:

The Budapest Memorandum was negotiated at political level, though it is not entirely clear whether the instrument is devoid entirely of legal provisions. It refers to assurances, but it does not impose a legal obligation of military assistance on its parties.[1][17] According to Stephen MacFarlane, a professor of international relations "It gives signatories justification if they take action, but it does not force anyone to act in Ukraine."[16]

One reason I was disturbed about that when the Ukraine crisis started was that Ukraine had been given those security assurances in exchange for giving up its nuclear arsenal. So the later Russian invasion and NATO acquiescence support the view that states shouldn't give up nuclear weapons, since the nukes offer more protection than any promises they are offered in exchange.

Of course, that doesn't mean NATO should have fought over the Crimea or Donbas and risked triggering an immediate nuclear war, far from it. But it is a reminder of the complexity of reducing nuclear risk, and the sign of a given action is often in question, not just the magnitude of the effect.

Note that the sources on that page are all from 2014. It's easy to come up with excuses after the fact for why you need not act. But then how can we credibly claim to be willing to die for Latvia? There will be excuses then too.

I am afraid it's slightly outdated (2008) and you can't read the entirety of it online but a paper in Bostrom's 'Global Catastrophic Risks' discusses this: 'The Continuing Threat of Nuclear War'

I'm not sure what the EA movement can do that will have significant effect in the short term. In the long term we should be looking into establishing liberal democracy in countries which either posses nuclear weapons or have the capacity to develop them in the near future (Russia, China, North Korea, Pakistan, Iran...). For example we can support the pro-liberalisation groups which already exist in these countries.

I'm skeptical of this approach given how poorly the Arab Spring ended up working out. I'm skeptical of whether revolutions are a wise idea in general. I think it may be wiser to try to nudge their existing governments towards being more liberal. This approach could include, for example, encouraging EAs in China to join the party their and try to rise through the ranks.

In the Arab Spring many of the revolutionary groups were radical Islamists rather than champions of liberal democracy. Also, I didn't say anything about revolution: in some cases a gradual transition is more likely to work.

Infiltrating an organization you hate while preserving sanity and your true values is a task few people are capable of. I'm quite certain I wouldn't make it.

I think that we need serious research + talking to people from the relevant countries to devise realistic strategies.

Infiltrating an organization you hate while preserving sanity and your true values is a task few people are capable of. I'm quite certain I wouldn't make it.

Hm, really? I don't think it'd be a problem for me. Could look in to the research on counterintelligence and double agents.

I think that we need serious research + talking to people from the relevant countries to devise realistic strategies.

Of course, I'm just spitballing.

I think this is the opposite of true. Do you think Soviet attempts to foster communism in the US during the cold war were a stabilising influence? Countries generally and rightfully take affront at foreigners trying to meddle with their internal affairs. For a more recent example, look at the aftermath of the western coup in Ukraine.

Do you think Soviet attempts to foster communism in the US during the cold war were a stabilising influence?

Well, they might have been stabilizing if they worked :) Although I think war between communist countries is much more likely than war between liberal democracies.

Countries generally and rightfully take affront at foreigners trying to meddle with their internal affairs.

I mostly agree with the descriptive claim but not with the normative claim. Why "rightfully"?

For a more recent example, look at the aftermath of the western coup in Ukraine.

"Western" coup? The revolutionaries were pro-Western to some extent, but why is it a good example of foreign meddling?

I agree that backfiring is a serious risk of such interventions but I don't think we should write them off completely. Moreover, interventions by private organizations, especially private organization whose support base is spread over many countries, seem much less likely to precipitate a diplomatic crisis than direct interventions by governments.