Cause Area

Great Power Conflict

29 November, 2021
Stephen Clare

Click here to download the full text of our Great Power Conflict report. The giving recommendations based on this research are the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and the Dual-use and Arms Trade Control Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Executive summary

Conflict between Great Power countries has had a strong influence on the course of history. This pattern seems likely to continue into the 21st century. Great Powers are states with global interests and the military strength to defend them against their rivals. In the 21st century, the United States, China, and potentially India and Russia will have this status. Leaders in those countries will have to choose how to cooperate and compete in the decades to come. The effects of the decisions they make will be felt in many domains, including how emerging technologies are developed and governed, whether they are able to coordinate to solve global problems, and whether the Great Power peace that has prevailed since World War II will continue. The danger new competition poses appears even greater when considered from a longtermist perspective, paying particular attention to the potential effects on future generations.

This report intends to advise philanthropic donors who want to help reduce this danger. In it, we discuss the risk Great Power conflict poses, recommend effective funding opportunities to reduce that risk, and estimate the cost-effectiveness of this work to allow for cross-cause comparisons. First, the concept of Great Power competition is defined and the existing academic literature on its causes is briefly reviewed. Second, estimates of the probability of future conflict between today’s Great Powers are made using several different methods. Third, the pathways through which Great Power competition this century can affect the long-term future by increasing the probability of a global catastrophe are defined and discussed. Fourth, the available evidence on effective strategies to reduce these risks is summarized. Fifth, specific funding opportunities are recommended, along with relevant uncertainties and open questions.

We emphasize that a wide range of outcomes for Great Power conflict in the coming century remain possible. There could be all-out war, renewed cooperation to solve important problems, or an outcome somewhere in between with a mix of conflict and cooperation. Philanthropists have an opportunity to nudge humanity towards a peaceful outcome and away from a dangerous one. Specific funding opportunities Founders Pledge recommends in this area can be found on our website.

The risks of international tension and causes of war

We think about the long-term significance of Great Power conflict by considering its effect on existential risks. Such risks are events that, if they occurred, would cause human extinction, a permanent collapse of global civilization, or a complete halt in growth and progress. Any one of these outcomes would prevent humanity from achieving its long-term potential, precipitating unprecedented suffering for everyone alive today and preventing all generations to come from living happy lives.

Great Power conflict is a risk factor. It plausibly increases the chance that a host of other bad outcomes come to pass. International tensions clearly increase the chance that a war breaks out. If that war involved the widespread use of weapons like thermonuclear warheads, it could cause enough damage to threaten civilizational collapse, or leave humanity in a weakened state and vulnerable to subsequent disasters like a pandemic. But more tense relationships between Great Powers can increase our vulnerability to global catastrophic risks even if they don’t lead to all-out war. For example, they may make countries more likely to invest in riskier technological development and less likely to coordinate to solve global problems like climate change.

Researchers typically investigate the causes of war at five levels of analysis: the individual level, the substate level, the state level, the bilateral level, and the international system level. Wars are complex, multi-causal events. In order to predict when future wars are likely to occur, we will consider multiple causes at different levels of analysis. The different levels also present a useful framework for thinking about different possible intervention points for philanthropists.

At the individual level, attention is focused on the role of individual decision-makers and the cognitive patterns that shape their behaviour. An example of an intervention at this level could be providing information or training to change these decision-making processes. At the substate level, researchers consider how group decision-making processes, such as those used by cabinets or committees, affect when and why leaders choose to go to war. Groups tend to fail to consider all options or use shortcuts and heuristics rather than comprehensive analysis, providing another potential intervention point. At the state level, we consider which characteristics of countries make them more or less prone to war. The evidence suggests that larger, more powerful states are more aggressive than smaller states, emphasizing the dangers posed by Great Power tensions. At the bilateral level, relationships between pairs of states are considered. This is an important analytical frame: we see that sets of states which share a border or have territorial disputes are far more likely to go to war than other sets of states, that past rivalries make future escalation and conflict more likely, and that pairs of democracies are much less likely to fight than pairs of countries where at least one member is authoritarian. Finally, the international system level considers which distributions of global power are most stable and least likely to experience conflict. We see that periods of power transition—when one state is growing more quickly than the current global leader—seem particularly dangerous.

Historical trends and predictions of future conflict

With a better understanding of important factors that increase or decrease the risk of war, we consider the likelihood of conflict in the future, over roughly the next 100 years. To do this, we first identify which countries are likely to be involved in Great Power competition. We find that, barring a transition to a new economic growth mode (like an acceleration spurred by the invention of a breakthrough technology or a collapse caused by a global disaster), China, the United States, and likely India will be by far the world’s three largest economies in the 21st century. In addition to these three economic superpowers, we also consider Russia a Great Power for the purposes of this report by dint of its large nuclear arsenal and demonstrated willingness to project power beyond its borders.

We estimate the future likelihood of conflict in a few different ways. First, we consider a historical baseline: in the modern era, humanity has experienced roughly two major wars per century. Second, we consider a statistical model where about one war of any size occurs every two years, and the size of the war, as measured by the per capita number of battle deaths, is drawn from a Pareto distribution with a very long tail. This means that most wars have relatively few deaths, but the worst wars will have many thousands of times more deaths than the average. The possibility of very bad outcomes (“tail risks”) makes the risk of war very high. Finally, we consider a model where, for a number of factors, the baseline risk of war is considerably lower following World War II than it was before.

To make an all-things-considered prediction, we assign subjective credences to each of these three models based on our judgement of the strength of the arguments behind them and how well they explain the available data. This calculation suggests that there is about a one-in-three chance of a major war breaking out in the next 100 years. It is worth noting that this is the risk of a war on the scale of World War II, or potentially much larger given how much the global economy, population, and total war-making capacity has grown since 1945. An all-out war between modern Great Powers could be far more destructive than any historical comparison.

Great Power conflict and the long term

How serious would such a conflict be? We consider its long-term implications by tracing the sequences of events that could connect Great Power tension to existential catastrophe. We identify five such “pathways to catastrophe”:

  • 1. Catastrophes otherwise mitigated by global cooperation
  • 2. Technological disaster
  • 3. Nuclear war
  • 4. Totalitarian lock-in
  • 5. War followed by subsequent disasters

We describe for each pathway how, tangibly, Great Power tension could actually cause an unprecedented global catastrophe this century. We note that, at least for pathways 1 and 2, conflict could lead to catastrophe without a single missile being launched simply by harming the international community’s ability to coordinate and solve other serious problems.

At the end of the section, we present a statistical model that includes our subjective estimates for the relative likelihoods of each step in the causal chains we identified. This model allows us to calculate the relative risk posed by each of the pathways. After calibrating the model by comparing it to the few other attempts at estimating long-term risks from Great Power conflict, we are able to advance some tentative conclusions about which pathways are most concerning based on the amount of risk they pose. We find that most of the risk comes from the pathways to catastrophe which result from a breakdown in international cooperation or involve risks from emerging technologies like advanced artificial intelligence.

Evaluating interventions

We use our tentative prioritization of risk pathways to inform our evaluations of the different interventions a philanthropist could fund in this space. To reflect the high degree of uncertainty we must contend with in this space, we introduce a model based on expected value reasoning: considering a range of potential outcomes for funding an intervention, and weighting them based on how probable we expect them to be. We note that interventions in this space often have large downside risks in addition to large upside risks: they may have a chance of bringing about bad outcomes as well as good ones. This pushes us to look for interventions for which downside risk is minimized, making them highly valuable in expectation.

We also look at funding data for philanthropists currently active in this space to look for neglected opportunities. Nuclear issues are relatively well funded in comparison to issues regarding emerging technologies (note that one could still consider nuclear issues relatively underfunded in comparison to other philanthropic cause areas). Considering that it seems likely that the bulk of the long-term risk from Great Power conflict is related to how it affects the development of emerging technologies, we encourage donors to look for opportunities to fund research and diplomacy initiatives related to emerging technologies. We also note that Track II diplomacy initiatives, which involve bringing together non-governmental representatives from two countries, like scientists or businesspeople, to share information and discuss mutual problems, appear highly neglected. Since there are theoretical and empirical reasons to believe that Track II diplomacy can play an important role in dispute resolution, especially when official diplomatic channels are strained or even fully cut off, we think this is a highly-promising intervention.

Discussion and conclusion

We conclude by discussing the report’s limitations and final take-aways. It should be noted that this report is a first step towards understanding the relationships between Great Power tension, war, and longtermism rather than the final word on this extremely complex topic. We raise many questions and directions for future research, including more analysis of alternative future scenarios (including growth accelerations and collapses) and more robust comparisons between the benefits of funding work in this cause area and funding work in other longtermist cause areas like biosecurity.

Despite these limitations, we believe this report represents a useful contribution that will help allow philanthropists who worry about rising tensions between Great Power countries to act more effectively to reduce them. To reiterate, there are still multiple paths humanity could follow in the years to come. Shifting us towards peaceful outcomes could prove a hugely important mission.

Stephen Clare

Stephen joined Founders Pledge in 2019. Previously he was a Program Analyst for the United Nations Development Programme in Rwanda. He has also worked on climate change projects with the UN in Panama and the Youth Climate Lab in Canada. Stephen has an M.Sc. from McGill University and a B.Arts.Sci. from McMaster University.