How Likely Is (Nuclear) War Between the United States and Russia?

Last week, Vox ran a long piece by Max Fisher claiming that “the prospect of a major war, even a nuclear war, in Europe has become thinkable, [experts] warn, even plausible.” Without ever clarifying what “thinkable” or “plausible” mean in this context, Fisher seems to be arguing that, while still unlikely, the probability of a nuclear war between the United States and Russia is no longer small and is rising.

I finished Fisher’s piece and wondered: Is that true? As someone who’s worked on a couple of projects (here and here) that use “wisdom of crowds” methods to make educated guesses about how likely various geopolitical events are, I know that one way to try to answer that question is to ask a bunch of informed people for their best estimates and then average them.

So, on Thursday morning, I went to SurveyMonkey and set up a two-question survey that asks respondents to assess the likelihood of war between the United States and Russia before 2020 and, if war were to happen, the likelihood that one or both sides would use nuclear weapons. To elicit responses, I tweeted the link once and posted it to the Conflict Research Group on Facebook and the IRstudies subreddit. The survey is still running [UPDATE: It’s now closed, because Survey Monkey won’t show me more than the first 100 responses without a paid subscription], but 100 people have taken it so far, and here are the results—first, on the risk of war:

wwiii.warrisk

And then on the risk that one or both sides would nuclear weapons, conditional on the occurrence of war:

wwiii.nukerisk

These results come from a convenience sample, so we shouldn’t put too much stock in them. Still, my confidence in their reliability got a boost when I learned yesterday that a recent survey of international-relations experts around the world asked an almost-identical question about the risk of a war and obtained similar results. In its 2014 survey, the TRIP project asked: “How likely is war between the United States and Russia over the next decade? Please use the 0–10 scale with 10 indicating that war will definitely occur.” They got 2,040 valid responses to that question, and here’s how they were distributed:

trip.warrisk

Those results are centered a little further to the right than the ones from my survey, but TRIP asked about a longer time period (“next decade” vs. “before 2020”), and those additional five years could explain the difference. It’s also important to note that the scales aren’t directly comparable; where the TRIP survey’s bins implicitly lie on a linear scale, mine were labeled to give respondents more options toward the extremes (e.g., “Certainly not” and “Almost certainly not”).

In light of that corroborating evidence, let’s assume for the moment that the responses to my survey are not junk. So then, how likely is a US/Russia war in the next several years, and how likely is it that such a war would go nuclear if it happened? To get to estimated probabilities of those events, I did two things:

  1. Assuming that the likelihoods implicit my survey’s labels follow a logistic curve, I converted them to predicted probabilities as follows: p(war) = exp(response – 5)/(1 + exp(response – 5)). That rule produces the following sequence for the 0–10 bins: 0.007, 0.018, 0.047, 0.119, 0.269, 0.500, 0.731, 0.881, 0.953, 0.982, 0.993.

  2. I calculated the unweighted average of those predicted probabilities.

Here are the estimates that process produced, rounded up to the nearest whole percentage point:

  • Probability of war: 11%
  • Probability that one or both sides will use nuclear weapons, conditional on war: 18%

To translate those figures into a single number representing the crowd’s estimate of the probability of nuclear war between the US and Russia before 2020, we take their product: 2%.

Is that number different from what Max Fisher had in mind when he wrote that a nuclear war between the US and Russia is now “thinkable,” “plausible,” and “more likely than you think”? I don’t know. To me, “thinkable” and “plausible” seem about as specific as “possible,” a descriptor that applies to almost any geopolitical event you can imagine. I think Max’s chief concern in writing that piece was to draw attention to a risk that he believes to be dangerously under-appreciated, but it would be nice if he had asked his sources to be more specific about just how likely they think this calamity is.

More important, is that estimate “true”? As Ralph Atkins argued in a recent Financial Times piece about estimating the odds of Grexit, it’s impossible to say. For unprecedented and at least partially unique events like these—an exit from the euro zone, or a nuclear war between major powers—we can never know the event-generating process well enough to estimate their probabilities with high confidence. What we get instead are summaries of peoples’ current beliefs about those events’ likelihood. That’s highly imperfect, but it’s still informative in its own way.

Advertisements

Watching the States Get Made

The part of the world the US State Department calls “the Near East” is beset right now with a series of interlinked civil wars that threaten to cohere into a wider and even-worse regional conflagration. As it happens, this disorder is exposing the constitution and construction of the contemporary international system to a degree we don’t often see.

In fact, it’s all there in a single passage from a Reuters story on Yemen today (here). The passage starts like this:

[Yemeni President] Hadi’s flight to Aden has raised the prospect of armed confrontation between rival governments based in the north and south, creating chaos that could be exploited by the Yemen-based regional wing of al Qaeda.

Fighting is spreading across Yemen, and 137 people were killed on Friday in the bombings of two Shi’ite mosques in Sanaa. The bombings were claimed by Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that controls large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria and said it was also behind an attack that killed 23 people in Tunisia on Wednesday.

As this opening implies, the crisis in Yemen is not “just” a civil war—as if that weren’t bad enough for the people who live there. In addition, the state has almost-completely collapsed.

The contemporary international system is organized around the principle of sovereignty vested in organizations we call states. On paper, every swath of territory is legitimately claimed by one and only one government, and that government enjoys final authority over all political doings in its patch of earth (and airspace and, when relevant, coastal waters).

In much of Yemen right now, though, at least two rival factions lay claim to political authority in the same territory. They are actively fighting over those competing claims, but no faction is strong enough to win the struggle, so, effectively, there is no sovereign. What’s more, at least one of those factions isn’t just trying to seize control of part or all of an existing state. Instead, it is trying to create a new state of sorts that cuts across the borders of several extant ones.

Okay, so now what? The passage continues:

In [a recent] letter to [the UN] Security Council, Hadi called for a [UN Security Council] resolution to “deter the Houthi militias and their allies, to stop their aggression against all governorates, especially the city of Aden, and to support the legitimate authority”.

Here we see that, to help its cause, one faction is appealing for help to the organization that sits atop the existing system—the UN Security Council. Led for now by President Hadi, that faction bases its appeal on its purported legitimacy.

If asked, the leaders of that faction would probably say that their legitimacy flows from their victory in Yemen’s last national elections. Now, those elections weren’t exactly the freest and fairest on record, and the ongoing civil war makes plain that some segments of the population in the territory claimed by Yemen’s national government don’t recognize the election winners as their rightful sovereign. Those elections were also conducted with significant support from the UN and other governments. So, although they are construed as an internal source of legitimation, they could not have occurred without external intervention. Never mind, too, that the faction making this appeal also happens to be the one that has continued to permit the most powerful state in that system, the USA, to conduct drone strikes and other operations on its territory against one of that faction’s chief rivals in Yemen’s civil war.

Never mind all that. Elections are the mechanism that the organization sitting atop this system formally recognizes as the only rightful source of political authority, so the appeal makes sense.

So, how is the UN responding?

U.N. mediator Jamal Benomar is likely to brief the council on Sunday via video link, diplomats said. The Security Council is negotiating a statement on Yemen that could be adopted during the meeting, diplomats said.

“We join all of the other members of the Security Council in underscoring that President Hadi is the legitimate authority in Yemen,” Rathke said in a statement released in Washington.

Unsurprisingly, we see that the UN responds positively to an appeal that implicitly and explicitly reinforce the order it was established to protect and deepen. Even less surprising, we see this positive response in a case where the party making the appeal happens to be the faction favored by the states that wield the most power in that system. In his statement, UN mediator Benomar implies that the positive response reflects the domestic legitimacy of Hadi’s authority. In fact, the whole exchange reveals how sovereignty flows from the system to its parts as much as the other way around.

Finally, the passage concludes:

[Benomar] called on the Houthis and “their allies to stop their violent incitement” but made no mention of Iran, whose backing for the Houthis has raised U.S. concerns.

Hadi held open the door to a negotiated settlement with a call for the Houthis and other groups to attend peace talks in Saudi Arabia.

I think this bit is especially fascinating, because it shows how governments simultaneously play by and against the rules, and how the intergovernmental organizations constituted to codify and enforce those rules try to mitigate the damage by pretending this double-dealing isn’t happening. Iran is the only state specifically described as a transgressor here, but the passage also mentions Saudi Arabia, which has forever meddled in Yemeni affairs, and the US, which has done a lot more meddling in Yemen over the past 10 years or so as part of its so-called Global War on Terror. Talking openly of these double-dealings would underscore how prevalent they are, but these routines contradict the formal rules, so the defenders of the extant order try to minimize those behaviors’ corrosive effects by not speaking of them.

In our daily doings, many of us take for granted the organization of human society into a series of states whose boundaries have already been properly established and whose governments receive their political authority from the tacit or explicit consent of the people they rule. Meanwhile, when events conspire to pull back the curtain a bit, we see a messier scene in which powerful organizations continually engage in rituals and sometimes forceful actions that mostly but not always work to sustain that system; in which authority flows from power as much or more than the reverse; and in which upstarts keep trying (and mostly failing) to get in on the action or overturn the table.

“No One Stayed to Count the Bodies”

If you want to understand and appreciate why, even in the age of the Internet and satellites and near-ubiquitous mobile telephony, it remains impossible to measure even the coarsest manifestations of political violence with any precision, read this blog post by Phil Hazlewood, AFP’s bureau chief in Lagos. (Warning: graphic. H/t to Ryan Cummings on Twitter.)

Hazlewood’s post focuses on killings perpetrated by Boko Haram, but the same issues arise in measuring violence committed by states. Violence sometimes eliminates some people who might describe the acts involved, and it intentionally scares many others. If you hear or see details of what happened, that’s often because the killers or their rivals for power wanted you to hear or see those details. We cannot sharply distinguish between the communication of those facts and the political intentions expressed in the violence or the reactions to it. The conversation is the message, and the violence is part of the conversation.

When you see or hear things in spite of those efforts to conceal them, you have to wonder how selection effects limit or distort the information that gets through. North Korea’s gulag system apparently contains thousands and kills some untold numbers each year. Defectors are the outside world’s main source of information about that system, but those defectors are not a random sample of victims, nor are they mechanical recording devices. Instead, they are human beings who have somehow escaped that country and who are now seeking to draw attention to and destroy that system. I do not doubt the basic truth of the gulags’ existence and the horrible things done there, but as a social scientist, I have to consider how those selection processes and motivations shape what we think we know. In the United States, we lack reliable data on fatal encounters with police. That’s partly because different jurisdictions have different capabilities for recording and reporting these incidents, but it’s also partly because some people in that system do not want us to see what they do.

For a previous post of mine on this topic, see “The Fog of War Is Patchy“.

 

How Democracy Actually Developed

How did democracy become a good thing? This might sound like a silly question to (most) contemporary American ears, but the coupling of a belief in the propriety of popular sovereignty with an inclusive definition of who qualifies as “the people” didn’t dominate the idea space until pretty recently. In a post on The Junto (here, H/T Adam Elkus), Tom Cutterham offers this explanation:

The story of modern democracy is one in which democracy lost its social and economic content at the very moment it gained political ascendancy.

What happened was the separation of the “economic” and the “political” into separate spheres. It was only under the conditions of this separation that a widely dispersed political power, through the universal suffrage, began to appear possible. Power relations, which had hitherto been fundamentally political issues, of lordship and so on—like who owed what to whom, and who could do what to whom, and who could make whom do what they wanted—were transformed into fundamentally economic issues, having to to do with ownership and contract. So if you want to know why democracy—defined basically as a diffusion of formal political power among the people—went from being bad to good, from being not only impossible but undesirable to not only desirable but possible, one way of answering the question is actually extremely straightforward: the real power wasn’t in politics any more; it was somewhere else, in the newly separate sphere of the economy.

This more jaundiced view of democracy’s ascendancy reminded me of a recent Monkey Cage guest post by Corrine McConnaughy about the path to women’s suffrage in the United States (here). Summarizing evidence from her recent book, McConnaughy argues that the suffrage movement had less influence on the expansion of women’s right to vote than the prevailing narrative implies. Instead,

Women’s voting rights were not a direct response to [suffrage] movement activism.  They were political concessions to the already enfranchised allies of the movement, delivered under partisan duress.

Put the two posts together, and you get a rather different take on American “progress” than the one we encounter in most social-studies curricula. What we call democracy today is not the product of a slow but steady awakening of virtue. Instead, it is the accumulation of many cynical ploys in the endless struggle over wealth and power, and the form that less virtuous process has produced is, in some crucial ways, a hollow one. In their influential 2006 book, Acemoglu and Robinson argued (p. xiii) that

Democracy then arises as a credible commitment to pro-citizen policies (e.g., high taxation) by transferring political power between groups (from the elite to the citizens)… The elite must democratize—create a credible commitment to future majoritarian policies—if it wishes to avoid more radical outcomes.

Cutterham’s and McConnaughy’s posts imply that this isn’t quite right. Expansions of democracy aren’t always motivated by threats of revolution, and they don’t automatically commit societies to majoritarian policies. By working to limit the scope of politics with one hand while conceding some formal political power with the other, incumbent elites and their descendants have often managed to retain a remarkable amount of their wealth and influence in spite of those concessions and the “people power” they supposedly produce.

This other understanding of democratic development will already be familiar to anyone who’s read Sean Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy (or, for that matter, watched the last season of Deadwood), but it bears repeating, in part because it helps explain how we got here.

  • Author

  • Follow me on Twitter

  • Follow Dart-Throwing Chimp on WordPress.com
  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 13,643 other followers

  • Archives

  • Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: