Dani Nedal: Risks From Great-Power Competition
When competition intensifies between powerful countries, peace and security are threatened in many ways. Proxy wars break out and global cooperation breaks down — including agreements on nuclear weapons. In this talk, Dani Nedal, who teaches global nuclear politics at Carnegie Mellon University, offers thoughts on these risks, and how countries and individuals can work to reduce them.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of Dani’s talk. You can also watch it on YouTube and read it on effectivealtruism.org.
I’m here to talk about direct and indirect risks from great-power competition. First, I want to briefly define what I mean by “great-power competition.” Who are these “great powers” that are competing?
Generally, we think about great powers as “the P5”: the five original nuclear powers. I would say that in five, 10, or 15 years from now, we should probably include some other countries and political entities on that list.
What are they competing over? They’re competing not just militarily, but also politically, diplomatically, and economically. They’re competing over allies, markets, wealth, power, values (i.e., which power’s values dominate), and status. The reasons they compete vary, and we don’t necessarily have to get into why they’re competing.
If we start from the assumption that we are witnessing an era of heightened competition between great powers — which is very much a conditional forecast — there are some things that we should worry about, because they’re real risks.
Let’s start with nuclear war. It is the most obvious reason why you should care about this.
Even if nuclear war doesn’t reach extinction-level risks, and even though we know that the likelihood of a general nuclear war that devastates humanity is low — we can all sleep safely at night knowing that it’s not going to happen today — I would say that the baseline risk is slightly higher, and increasing. It’s happening as a result of a few troubling trends.
One is the fact that deterrence is inherently harder with more nuclear powers competing over a variety of positional goods in the international system, as well as over status in different areas of the world.
It is also a fact that there are nine nuclear countries today, versus the 20 or 30 that experts in the 1950s and 1960s expected. Nuclear technology is not that complicated; we’ve had mastery of the atom for a good 70 years now. And that is largely a product of factors like U.S. primacy (and a desire to maintain that primacy) and a good amount of great-power concert between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Also, U.S.-centered globalization shaped incentives for other countries to refrain from engaging in nuclear proliferation, for fear of being marginalized. All of these factors are being undermined by trends in international economic power and political alliances.
The other trend that we should all worry about is the unending search for “usable nuclear weapons”: tactical nuclear weapons, low-yield nuclear weapons, low-fallout and no-fallout nuclear weapons, missile defense, and first-strike capability (the ability to develop and deliver a first strike that disarms the enemy and allows you to pursue your goals unhindered, without worrying about retaliation). This is not new, but we are witnessing a renaissance in all these areas, and they all make for a more terrifying nuclear environment.
Then, of course, there is evidence that some of the norms underlying non-proliferation arms control and non-use patterns for the last 60 years are being undermined. If there was ever a taboo against using nuclear weapons, it is weaker now than it has been in a long time. A lot of studies of U.S. public opinion show that the general public is a lot more comfortable with the use of nuclear weapons in certain circumstances than we would like to think. Many of us in this room are uncomfortable with the use of nuclear weapons in almost any scenario, other than retaliation against nuclear use. The general public is not so squeamish. That terrifies me and many other people who, in the past, were optimistic about [maintaining the] taboo against nuclear weapons.
This is deeply troubling [when we consider] the mobilization of an anti-nuclear movement and the prevention of the proliferation and further pursuit of “limited” nuclear options. And we see a lot of similar patterns in places like India, Russia, and China. They’re also engaged in a rapid modernization of their nuclear forces and some creative thinking around nuclear weapons.
This is contributing to the potential unraveling of a lot of the foundational international regimes that deal with nuclear arms control, proliferation, and disarmament. Despite some promising developments, we don’t see a lot of buy-in to the dream of nuclear disarmament from the countries it would take in order for us to be optimistic about this.
Another risk of great-power competition turning violent is not necessarily the direct military confrontation between great powers, but the tendency of great powers to fight indirectly through regional intermediaries.
Great powers often play two roles. They can be mediators or peacekeepers, preventing things from escalating out of control and limiting or de-escalating crises during conflict. But they can also act as spoilers or provocateurs, inciting regional conflict or preventing it from being resolved peacefully or at all — as we’re seeing in Syria today.
In an age of heightened great-power competition, we’re more likely to see the latter [great powers acting as spoilers or provocateurs] than the former [acting as mediators or peacekeepers]. And a lot of research shows that [external intervention], both before and during the Cold War, led to much bloodier, longer wars, especially when great powers were involved. We should worry about the humanitarian impacts, impacts on regional stability, and the ability to maintain development efforts in places like Africa, Central America, and Asia.
And of course, there’s a potential for escalation. A war may start as an indirect proxy war. We had close calls when proxy wars almost escalated to general war during the Cold War. We definitely had cases in which proxy wars became general wars before the Cold War [and the existence of] nuclear weapons. And there are reasons to believe that the mechanisms that led to controlled escalation during the Cold War may be weakened. [Today] there are a lot more players. The response time would be shorter, because [the flow of] information is faster. A deepfake could be involved.
Then there are the indirect risks. This is an area I really want to emphasize, because direct risks are fairly easy to grasp, but indirect risks are more likely to affect [members of the EA community] on a day-to-day basis as citizens, entrepreneurs, policy entrepreneurs, activists, and philanthropists.
What do I mean by “indirect risks of cooperation breakdown”? In an age of heightened political competition between great powers, we see an increased focus on the distribution of gains from cooperation. Generally, in any kind of bargaining situation or cooperative game, there will be some amount of focus on traditional gains: Who wins more? Who gets the better deal? But in an age of heightened political competition, and heightened fear and distrust — in which any kind of relative advantage may be exploited in the future in ways that are unrecoverable — there will be shorter bargaining ranges. We will see more focus on these relative-gains issues. Cooperative arrangements that may be socially optimal may not be reachable, because the countries involved are too focused on distributional consequences, in either the short or long term.
If that’s the case, [encouraging] policymakers to “just think more long term” (which is something people in the EA community often advocate for) might not necessarily lead to more cooperative behavior. It might actually lead to more conflictual behavior, depending on how the leaders think the future is going to play out. We might need to tweak the message.
In situations [like the current one], we tend to see less policy convergence. And less policy convergence is a bad thing. In the EA community, we tend to be less worried about protecting our own sectors and parochial interests against competition; we tend to think that good policies should be adopted across the board, because we want to maximize human welfare. There is bound to be some variation in how we implement it to account for societal and political differences. But generally, we want policies to travel, and we don’t want to lose time, money, and effort [navigating] a variety of different regulatory environments for different countries, even if [this complexity] maximizes our own personal or corporate interests.
We could be looking at a period of disorder, or at least order fragmentation. We might see a bifurcation, or an even more complex network of different countries pushing their own policy agendas and regulations onto their spheres of interest. We certainly [are experiencing] this fragmentation or segmentation of international order and regulations when it comes to industry, environmental standards, and so on.
It might also mean limitations on cross-border activity, which is something that [EAs] care about. A lot of us operate transnationally and multinationally. For our day-to-day work, we rely on being able to move unencumbered to different countries and enjoy certain protections, just by virtue of the work we do. We’re already witnessing complications with this. We’re already looking at many more restrictions on the work of NGOs and international civil society organizations in places like China, Russia, India, and Brazil. We can expect heightened political competition between great powers to lead to governments looking more suspiciously at transnational actors who are promoting animal welfare, cooperation on climate change, or development in particular ways, or in particular countries. We may be used to this, but should worry about it becoming a greater problem.
The general implications are that it will be harder to deal with problems that are global in nature, or at least transregional in nature — whether we are trying to prevent or limit pandemics, biohazard risks, or other global catastrophic risks. As long as what we work on requires global cooperation, and involves a massive cost for the countries involved, I think we will see a tougher environment for these kinds of arrangements. The general infrastructure that we’ve relied on to build a lot of this community work — how international society, the UN system, and things of that nature work — might come under strain.
You already see a massive funding crisis for the UN system today. That is a product of great-power competition and distrust among the usual suspects we expected to be the big revisionist powers in the system. But it’s not just these rising powers that are the problem. The core countries that built the system, or at least acted as the main drivers of its development, are also going to question the utility of an order that allows for the emergence of revisionist powers. We’re already seeing a lot of evidence of this today.
There are a few troubling trends that interact with this and further drive great powers to compete, complicating efforts to forestall [negative outcomes]. One is the emergence of different types of particularism or parochialism.
Think about particular violent strands of nationalism, ethnonationalism based on racial and racialized discourse, and very exclusivist types of discourse that pit the Western Judeo-Christian civilization against some vilified other.
Of course, this has been with us for a long time and it’s not going away. But we’re seeing the popularity of these types of discourses supplant what was, in the ’90s and early 2000s, a more cosmopolitan, universalist set of discourses, particularly at elite levels. We could count on a degree of support for international solidarity [through] norms and institutions — things like R2P [responsibility to protect] and a bevy of global human rights regimes that were [seen as] fairly commonsensical. We’re seeing a lot of resistance to these today, not just in emerging powers, but again, at the very core of the international system.
This, of course, accentuates the drive to compete. The status anxiety that helps drive this particularism doesn’t just affect local and national elections. It affects international competition as well. There’s a lot of good work on how racial and racialized discourse limits global cooperation. It undermines the trust and empathy required to overcome some of the monitoring, enforcement, and bargaining problems of cooperation.
As a social scientist, I think it’s important to remind people that these identities are not essential. There’s nothing natural about them. They’re political movements. They are subject to contestation and reformulation. There’s no such thing as Western civilization. [That idea] has been reconstructed and weaponized in a particular way, and it tends to [be paired with] the vilification of things like global governance and cooperation, and things of a more cosmopolitan bent. It’s set up as a foil to efforts of global governance.
The second [troubling trend] is the breakdown of trust in scientific experts, in disinterested observers, in journalism.
This is what Jennifer Kavanaugh has cleverly called “truth decay.” It is an inability to trust any kind of observable truth. First of all, it weakens mechanisms of political accountability in democratic societies. It’s harder to hold elected leaders accountable if they can easily manipulate the views of the public and play on the polarization of opinion.
Truth decay also reinforces that polarization. It gives informational asymmetry an advantage. People in particular positions of power can manipulate opinion in ways that they can’t when there is a free, disinterested media, or a free, disinterested class of experts and educators who can serve as arbiters of information.
What are some opportunities for EA organizations to help? I think some conditions favor change. I think [economic] expectation shocks will be a big opportunity for us. I believe that the failure of globalization to “deliver the goods” to most societies has prompted a lot of the backlash that we’re seeing. And while this is a forecast that we’re going to have to test out, I think the failure of particularist movements to deliver the goods could lead to a second expectation shock, which will create an opening for alternative ideas. I think the EA community could be one source of new ideas for dealing with the failure of the standard liberal internationalist project and of reactionary nationalist movements. We’re going to need alternative ideas. The EA community is a good spot from which those could emerge.
We have a new generation of experts in public policy, political science, and national security. They are less wedded to traditional ways of thinking and open to different ideas that might come from the EA community and elsewhere. It’s a more diverse body of scholars, experts, and policymakers.
It’s also a field starved for resources. The National Science Foundation has cut political science funding. The people who fund traditional work on national security spend quite a bit, but not as much as you would think, given the importance of some of these issues. So, there’s a lot of space for new funders to influence the shape of the field. And polarization in the area of national and international security is comparatively low relative to [polarization in] issues like abortion, euthanasia, and universal basic income. We can have productive conversations across the aisle, as it were. I think this lends itself well to a community that embraces a diversity of views.
There’s also a lot of synergy between the goals that I’m proposing here to help prevent great-power competition and conflict, and the humanitarian, universalist goals that the EA community already embraces — and that are central to maximizing the effectiveness of these investments.
Problems that we have include what I call “the closing of the wonk mind.” It’s hard to propose radically new ideas. The ways that policymakers talked about world peace and disarmament in the 1950s and ’60s involved a lot of “pie in the sky” ideas that we just don’t hear today in discussions inside the Beltway or beyond. There’s a lot more pragmatism. I think that’s the tradeoff of taking an evidence-based approach. You lose some of the creativity and boldness of spirit. I think we can inject some back by bringing new ideas from areas outside the fields [that policymakers usually] come from (law, political science, and international relations).
And of course, there’s the problem of policy access. In the U.S., policy access is somewhat easy. In some places, not so much. In China, India, and Russia, it’s trickier for the EA community to shape discourse and the way things are studied. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
And of course, [great-power competition] is an area where it’s very hard to bring about policy change. There are a lot of structural forces and powerful vested interests to fight against.
It’s also difficult to measure impact. The EA community is very open to doing a lot more work [to make up for the lack of existing research] on how to measure the quality and length of cooperation among great powers, and states in general.
So what can you do?
First, I have a basic civic message: You can vote. Hold leaders accountable and pay attention to their policy platforms on foreign policy. Don’t make it just a secondary issue. Very few people in [the U.S.] take foreign policy seriously as an electoral issue. That’s natural; it’s not clearly impactful in your life. It’s not as polarized. It’s not as salient. It’s not like abortion, religion, or your next paycheck. But it has all kinds of effects. If you can, make it a part of your conversations about electoral politics and hold leaders accountable. Call them, mail them, and so forth.
Also, make international cooperation part of your cause. That might mean embracing the fact that international corporation and the infrastructure for it could be breaking down in important ways, and future-proofing your organization against it. It might be hard to forestall and affect great-power competition. But you can definitely prepare for it when it comes. There are a lot of ways in which it might affect your own work. Try to build coalitions, nationally and internationally, with partners who share the same values — whom you may disagree with on other issues, but who can provide the access you need to try to prevent things from getting out of control. I think that is a reasonable and low-cost approach. Try to simply think about how you, your organization, and your cause might be affected if great-power competition really does become a lot more intense and some of these dynamics [that I’ve mentioned come to pass].
Educate your peers. A lot of people are not aware of the biases held in the bubbles they inhabit. We know that in general, elites and the millionaire or billionaire class tend to be a lot more hawkish. It’s not probably true for the millionaires and billionaires who inhabit [the EA] bubble, but it’s definitely true for their extended networks. Educating those extended networks on the dangers of great-power competition and conflict is a low-cost strategy. And educating and mobilizing the public is something in which we need more infrastructure and investment. The American public, in particular, is severely undereducated on issues of international politics. We have evidence that other countries are a little better in this regard than in the U.S., but not necessarily _much_ better. Therefore, investing in the right type of education is also important. A little goes a long way; investing in education and research on [how best to do it] is not that expensive. I’ve just done some research on levers to influence the shape of fields in international security, and I’m happy to talk to anyone about it.
Finally, in addition to investing in some evidence-based reform projects, put some money behind a few crazy ideas. Help scientists step out of their comfort zone and think about new ways to change the world. There’s a lot of appetite for this in political circles. A lot of young progressives, libertarians, liberals, and conservatives are starving for new ideas that they can take to their constituents on foreign policy. A lot of people want to escape the sameness of international policy discourse.
We’ve seen some initiatives that are very promising. There’s a burgeoning field of think tanks in D.C. and London looking at foreign policy and national security from different perspectives, but there could be more.
Make globalism great again. Globalism doesn’t have to be a four-letter word or a pejorative. Embracing the world as your oyster is not necessarily a bad thing. There’s nothing wrong with patriotism, if it’s positive, and there’s nothing wrong with valuing your ethnicity, religion, and identity. But there’s also nothing wrong with thinking of the world as your community. We need to go back to valuing global discourse.
Nathan Labenz [Moderator]: Thank you. Here’s one question that came in from the audience: How do you think that the relative power of the “great powers” plays into what happens next? It was once the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., and now it might be the U.S. and China (or maybe not). How do you survey that scene, and how does it impact what you think about downstream?
Dani: That is a great question, and one we’ve been asking since the end of the Cold War (at least). What does the system look like now? Some people would say, “It’s unipolar.” Some people say it’s uni-multipolar, multi-multipolar, apolar, or non-polar. The terminology is endless. I think we can all agree that what we have is short of unipolar, with a lot of power diffusion in different issue areas.
What that means is we’re going to have differences in approach [and players], depending on what the issue is. In, say, the area of economic regulation, the EU is the great power — no doubt about it. But in terms of international security, that’s questionable. The fact that Pakistan has nuclear weapons immediately brings it to the great-power stage, if you’re talking about nuclear weapons, protecting nuclear security, and proliferation disarmament. But its economy is a fraction of the size of India’s. It’s about $200 billion. So the criteria for inclusion into that list is different, and the implications for who gets a seat at the table on some of these issues may vary. My sense of this is that we’re going to get a lot more disorder, because you can’t expect to see the same players at all of the tables the way that you could 30 or 40 years ago.
This also has implications for people working on AI. Japan definitely has a seat at that table. South Korea probably does. I don’t know if India does. I don’t know if France and the U.K. do.
That’s my shortest answer possible.
Nathan: Another question: Some decades ago, there were very clear philosophical paradigms that were competing (e.g., capitalism, communism). That seems to be much less what’s going on today. There’s the Chinese model, but it’s not like China’s out there trying to get everybody else to adopt the Chinese model. Instead, what seems to be happening, as you’ve alluded to, is globalization hasn’t delivered the goods. And a lot of the problems that we see seem to be coming from disaffected groups. And this same pattern is playing itself out across so many different societies.
You mentioned universal basic income. Do you see that potentially as a balm? Does it appeal to you as a possible approach? And do you see other approaches to heal individual societies? Because it seems like those we would have thought of as the elites (or the people running the show up until very recently) still want to cooperate. But in some cases, they’re just being denied the opportunity to do so by their own citizens.
Dani: Right. I think we have a lot of ideological disagreements, without having coherent ideologies. We definitely have socialism. European socialism was the most popular ideology chosen during the Cold War — not communism. It was the most popular in the world, and it still is. It hasn’t gone away. It has just lost its sheen. But it’s still there.
I think there are potential ways out of this — ways to reinvent liberal internationalism, with a more social democratic bent. That’s one of the few coherent approaches emerging out of the political discourse in the United States. The other, of course, is just straight-up nationalism. And that’s been embraced, not just in the U.S. by Trump, but also in China and in India. Hindu nationalism is a major political force in India. We also see nationalism in Brazil and other countries.
Nationalism is less content-rich than, say, liberalism, but not any more content-rich than fascism was. We tend to backward-induce a lot of coherence onto fascism. But there were very few points of contact between Italian, Japanese, and German fascism. Still, we saw a lot of cooperation happening among those countries, and we might see that again. We see a lot of transnational right-wing cooperation from this white nationalist, white supremacist movement in Hungary, Italy, Brazil, and elsewhere.
I don’t think you can discount that as a major threat to liberal or socialist internationalist projects. An ideology doesn’t have to propose a new set of institutions and a new order; it [just has to make it] harder to sustain the liberal internationalist project. it’s still something that we should be very concerned over.
Nathan: So, you’re saying there is no coherent goal, as far as you can tell, of these right-wing nationalist movements? Yet they cooperate to advance their own self-preservationist ends?
Dani: Yeah. They cooperate to advance their own national agendas, and they’ve been extremely successful in doing so. There’s a reason why Steve Bannon is traveling across Europe, helping fascists get elected in Italy and national militarists get elected in Brazil. There’s a reason why they’re cooperating, why the NRA is globally present, and so on. And there’s a transnational, right-wing, corporate movement that disagrees on a lot of the end goals, but agrees on a few things: they don’t want communism (whatever that means for them), pluralism, or diversity.
Nathan: I can’t end on that note. You mentioned that you would have more to say about the opportunity to shape fields of research. I wonder if you could speak a little bit about that. What might a field of research be [to address the issue we just talked about]?
Dani: One simple thing we can do is take a look at how we think about cooperation and conflict in the study of political science. There are huge amounts of research and money being funneled into understanding coercive modes of conflict and conflict resolution [for example, political violence]. There’s a lot of money in research being done on those things, and I’ve benefited from it. I’m part of the problem. I’ve done a lot of this work. I’m [seen as a part of] those communities.
There’s a lot less work being done on how to understand cooperation. What does it mean? How do we get good cooperation? How do we get lasting cooperation in different issue areas? How does diplomacy actually work? There’s some good work being done on this, but not nearly enough. Even the fact that diplomacy and cooperation are a lot more prevalent than conflict [is worth exploring]. We have a lot more of it, and we just don’t know how it works or how to produce more of it.
We can fund more efforts to collect data and conduct scientific studies on cooperation. Putting money into this and shaping the centers for scholars of international relations to take cooperation seriously — not as an afterthought, and not as the absence of war, but as the main thing that happens in international politics — would be terrific.
Nathan: Yes, that’s badly needed. Thank you very much, Dani.