There's been ample interest in the probability that the Ukraine conflict escalates into a nuclear way, ranging from predictions on Metaculus, Manifold  and Polymarket to estimates by David Orr, myself and others. Aside from estimating this probability, what can we do to reduce it?

Current discourse is often framed as if there were only two options:  

  1. Be forceful
  2. Deescalate by appeasement, effectively capitulating to nuclear blackmail

This is misleading, because there's more than one way to stand strong (including going on the offense militarily):  (a) pursuing or (b) eschewing escalation that has negligible military value. Suppose a bully punches you. If you choose to stand strong, I'd encourage you not to combine it with spitting in his face, poking fun of his appearance and goading him to pull out that gun you see he has holstered. Unfortunately, the Ukraine conflict has seen many instances of analogous escalation without significant military benefit, and arguably not only from one side. Stigmatizing such reckless behavior can in my opinion reduce the risk of nuclear war without any appeasement or concessions. I'm therefore inviting you to join me and many others as a signatory on an open letter that aims both to de-normalize nuclear threats and to re-mainstream non-appeasing de-escalation strategies that reduce the risk of nuclear war without giving into blackmail.

Would you like to join as a signatory? This would be wonderful, because it would help reduce the probability of the greatest catastrophe in human historyTo read and potentially sign the open letter, please click here.

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24 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:37 PM

There have been "Nuclear first-use and threats or advocacy thereof" and those are easy to condemn. But as far as I know they are coming unilaterally from the Russian side and already being widely condemned by those not on the Russian side. But it sounds like you are looking for some broader consensus to condemn escalation on both sides.

Unfortunately neither this post nor the open letter you linked give any specifics about what other behaviours you are asking us to condemn. I'm reluctant to risk endorsing a false-equivalence argument by signing a blank check.

Is blowing up the Kerch bridge escalatory? Is Arestovich trolling the occupiers to sap their morale and bolster the morale of the defenders escalatory? I'm not qualified to determine whether the tactical or psychological benefit is justified by the escalatory risk of these sorts of actions and in the Kerch example, we don't even know if it was done by the Ukrainian government, provocateurs, or sympathizers acting independently.

I agree that it's not a binary choice between appeasement and escalation, and I am very curious about the non-appeasing de-escalation strategies you allude to. That's what we should be brainstorming and what you should lead with in your letter for it to be convincing.

I agree that specifics would be useful. It's bad to be too vague to be wrong. The more vague an open letter happens to be the easier it is to ignore it. 

As it stands the effects of the letter likely don't go beyond signaling because in the abstract anyone can agree with it, but that's not going to change anyone's actions.

When it comes to nuclear first use, the US does threaten Iran with a nuclear first strike by saying:

 US is "prepared to use all elements of its national power" to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

Nuclear first strikes capability is one element of US national power. As far as I know, past attempts to get the US to explicitely rule out using a nuclear first strike against Iran and North Korea always failed.

If you actually want the US to stop making nuclear first strike threats, being explicit about the threads against Iran not being okay would be taking a stance. You would likely get some opposition for taking the stance, but at least it's something concrete.

When it comes to "reckless escalation" I find it likely that neither the US nor Ukraine would say they engage in reckless escalation. If you want them to change what they are doing you likely need to be more concrete. 

Unfortunately no one from Russia has signed so far.

I signed it.

Pacifism is really not in trend. Both sides of the conflict are convinced that they are absolute right: paranoid Russia, and a defensive Ukraine.

Public pacifism is in the minority. Almost everyone has taken one side, or is silent and seeks safety. 

For an individual Ukrainian or Russian, it might be danger to sign this.

Like in ancient Roman Empire. People are either for Blue chariots or for Green ones. No one is interested in the opinion that death races are nonsense.

Anyway. It's irrational, but I signed

Are there any links we can read about non-appeasing de-escalation strategies?

Either theoretical ones or ones that have been tried in the past are fine.

If you choose to stand strong, I'd encourage you not to combine it with spitting in his face, poking fun of his appearance and goading him to pull out that gun you see he has holstered.

If you're sure you'll win, why not? Draw him out and knock him down, with as much force as the actions you've led him into will plainly justify to the witnesses.

I’m wondering why not just call for mutual disarmament under IAEA supervision? There’s an old, but now very relevant episode of 80000 hours with Daniel Ellsberg;

I didn’t keep the time stamps, but he gets in to the approximate number of warheads a state should need as a deterrent, and says it's probably not more than 100.

Luisa Rodriguez has an excellent post on the EA forum with fairly current estimates of the downstream effects of a nuclear exchange between US and Russia with the 2019 arsenal. She estimates a US-Russian nuclear exchange would result in a 5.1 to 58 Tg of schmutz entering the atmosphere, best guess is 31 Tg. (A NATO-Russia exchange would likey be more since would also involve France and the UK.)

31 Tg would put us in a "nuclear autum" but would be very close to a nuclear winter, just another couple Tg from a full NATO-Russia exchange would likely put us on the winter part of the sigmoid curve. (LW isn't letting post images in the comment like it usually does, but relevant graphs are in the paper).

Taking Statista’s numbers and assuming the megatons about average out
Russia (5,977), USA (5,428), China (350), France (290), United Kingdom (225), Pakistan (165), India (160), Israel (90), North Korea (20).

Let’s say we capped everyone at 100, there’s less than 900 warheads in the world, we’re well under nuclear winter if the exchange is between two states. Even if the US and Russia just come down to 350 for parity with China, we’ve still substantially reduced the risk.

The ultimate recklessness I see here is that we haven’t discussed mutual nuclear disarmament in earnest as part of this war. When are we going to have a better opportunity? And if Putin is asked and he does anything other than enthusiastically agree, doesn’t that tell us everything we need to know?

Unfortunately, the Ukraine conflict has seen many instances of analogous escalation without significant military benefit, and arguably not only from one side.

Can you give at least one example?

I have read this letter with pleasure. Pacifism in wartime is an extremely difficult position.

Survival rationality, humanity is extremely important!

It seems to me that the problem is very clearly revealed through compound percent (interest).

If in a particular year the probability of a catastrophe (man-made, biological, space, etc.) overall is 2%, then the probability of human survival in the next 100 years is 0.98 ^ 100 = 0.132,

That is 13.2%, this figure depresses me.

The ideas of unity and security are the only ones that are inside the discourse of red systems. Therefore, the ideas of security may well fundamentally hold together any parties. I think the idea of ​​human survival is a priority.

Because it is clear to everyone that the preservation of humanity and rationals is extremely important, regardless of the specific picture of the world.

world peace!

If we take 1000 and 10000 years, then the result is unambiguous, survival tends to 0.

Therefore, I would like not to miss the chances that humanity can get through Artificial Intelligence or through Decentralized Blockchain Evolution, or quantum computing, or other positive black swans. We really need a qualitative breakthrough in the field of decentralized balancing of all systems.

Nevertheless, 86% of this game is almost lost by humanity

As we can see, the chances are small. Therefore, future generations of intelligent species will probably be happy if there are some convenient manuals for deciphering human knowledge.

What does the map of the arks look like? Can you imagine how happy it will be for a rational chimpanzee to hold your manual and flip through the pages of distant ancestors?

And to be amazed at how such an aggressive subspecies, thanks to aggression, intelligence developed faster and they defeated themself.

It is unlikely that they will have English. Language is a very flexible thing.

Probably the basis should be that basic development of Feynman and Carl Sagan, I'm talking about a satellite with the decoding of humanity, from "H". I think on Earth you can pick up points for such arks.

Due to the variety of risks, it seems to me that intelligent life will logically arise again under water, especially due to the fact that there are internal energy sources. Are there scientific arks for dolphins?

world peace! Respect for each other. We need great leap in another Integrity and Sustainability Ecosystem Equilibrium. A common understanding that this is the last century for mankind when it can overcome its natural aggression. Well, do not forget about the heritage of the following species.

peace to you! , I would be glad if you tell me where I'm right and where I'm wrong! Kind Regards!


I am not sure if I should condemn the sabotage of Nord Stream. Selling gas is a major source of income for Russia, and its income is used to sponsor the war. And I'm not sure if it's really an escalation, because it's effect is similar to economic sanctions.

Fun fact: the russia placed nuclear weapons in Belarus and 0 f**ks given by signers of this letter 😸

We need to openly collaborate to save planet Earth.

it would help reduce the probability of the greatest catastrophe in human history

So far or ever? I suppose you mean that, if it happened, it would then become the worst thing that had happened so far. That's not an unreasonable position, but maybe what happened in 10,000 BC on this graph of quality-of-life was worse:

(This is an image from the Cold Takes blog post "Did life get better during the pre-industrial era? (Ehhhh)".)

Also, don't forget that even if it is worse, it would only be the worst thing to happen in human history so far! If MAD-style nuclear escalation does not lead to extinction (which I don't believe it would), then there's always the potential for far worse things later.

I'm curious, about what you makes you decide, that this is the place to discuss whether or not a nuclear war would be a smaller or bigger catastrophe than the invention of agriculture?

The sentence sticks out to me as not clearly true; and it seems like an important sentence.

Saying it's an important sentence implies to me like changing it to less extreme wording would change whether or not one is supposed to support the letter. 

It's hard for me to understand how someone might think it's important in that sense. 

No, I mean important for one's world-model. 

Similarly, suppose someone said that Apple is the most valuable company in history (current market cap of 2.14T), I would ask whether they knew about the East India Company that was so big it had its own armed forces of about 260,000 soldiers. They imply a bunch of different things about the shape of history. As does the claim about whether the worst catastrophe ever in history would be an all-out nuclear war, or whether something worse has happened.

I indeed meant only "worst so far", in the sense that it would probably kill more people than any previous disaster.

Russia escalates "nuclear threat" 2 times per week in their public TV per their neighborhood countries. How this letter encourages stopping their madness ?

Putin will lose, do not fail to comprehend this. It’s a question of physical-material resources of a tech-weapon superiority, sub-nuclear variety. The West has scared Putin from utilizing a tactical nuke, at present. The writing is on the wall: WWIII comes from China over Taiwan not Putin via Crimea. Do you think Zelenskyy will relinquish portions of Ukraine he is currently winning back via accurate/precise/munition resources Western provided? No. Xi fails to realize Taiwan was never a part of China but he’s too entrenched to manifest otherwise. Regardless, nuclear winter is demonstrably undesirable and I concur in a feeble manner befitting a passive bystander sympathetic to those oppressed via authoritarian regimes. God bless y’all! :-)

The West didn't really scare Putin from using a tactical nuke. The response is more like "So what? We'll just give Ukraine more weapons. Good luck with your relationship with India and China."

The problem with using a tactical nuke is that it wouldn't help Putin to win the war. He would actually need to deploy bigger nukes to have a significant effect on the battlefield.

Do you think Zelenskyy will relinquish portions of Ukraine he is currently winning back via accurate/precise/munition resources Western provided?

You underrate the impact of Western satellites on Ukraine's successes. While it isn't easy to recall weapons the West provided, we can easily stop the satellite support. 

Ukraine also can't pay its military without Western support. Zelensky is dependent on Western support so the West can essentially decide what war goals Ukraine can achieve. 

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