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.

The Talk

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.

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