The Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) aims to develop a better understanding of the most dangerous nuclear escalation pathways and identify and promote policy interventions to mitigate risks. In August 2023, the Longtermism Fund announced a grant of $52,000 USD to partially fund a project aiming to reduce the risk of a nuclear catastrophe.

What will this grant fund?

Over a 15 month period, likely starting in January 2024, CEIP will host a series of workshops on nuclear escalation to explore areas of expert consensus and disagreement. Following the workshops, CEIP will convert the findings and insights into actionable policy recommendations and further research priorities for reducing the risk of nuclear war.

Each workshop will concentrate on escalation risks within a particular dyad. These will most likely be: U.S.-North Korea, U.S.-China, and U.S.-Russia. Prior to these workshops, CEIP will host a “practice workshop” in Washington, DC to refine and improve its approach. The workshops will involve people from an array of backgrounds and expertise: nuclear strategists, arms controllers, conventional military experts, regional specialists, and catastrophic risk experts.

Before each workshop, CEIP will identify four possible pathways — two deliberate and two unintentional — through which a conventional conflict between the two states might escalate into a limited or all-out nuclear war. CEIP will ask participants to study these pathways and read articles outside of their own subject matter expertise. During the workshop, participants will discuss, amend, and select two escalation pathways to explore, attempt to estimate escalation probabilities, and identify factors that shape escalation risk. Comparing among the different potential risk mitigations along each escalation path, participants will identify trade-offs and common benefits to the different interventions. Some examples of the types of scenarios workshop participants might think through:

  • If Ukraine were to launch an attack that threatened Russia’s hold on Crimea, might Russia use tactical nuclear weapons to try to coerce Ukraine into stopping its advance? How might NATO respond to such an attack? What would be the prospects for further escalation? What opportunities exist to reduce the likelihood of both nuclear first use and subsequent escalation?
  • In a Taiwan invasion scenario, how would Chinese, U.S., and Taiwanese forces perform? What pressures would China face to end or ignore its “no first use” nuclear policy? To what degree would U.S. attacks on conventional Chinese air, missile, and submarine forces unintentionally threaten Beijing’s nuclear forces? How might China respond to such unintentional degradation? To what extent would Chinese attacks on U.S. command-and-control assets intended to undermine the United States’ ability to wage a conventional war also threaten the U.S. nuclear command-and-control system? How might the United States respond? How can escalation risks be reduced?

The research will culminate in a short final report that summarises areas of agreement among the participants. One goal is to pinpoint where the largest disagreements lie and to explore why these differences emerged. The report will also suggest potential research projects that could reduce uncertainty around these differences. CEIP plans to publish the report to benefit the national security and nuclear communities and will provide private briefings of findings and recommendations to government officials.

What evidence is there of the grant’s effectiveness?1.

Longview Philanthropy, which is one of Giving What We Can’s trusted evaluators and which recommended this grant, shared: “Given (project co-lead) Dr. Acton’s prior work and engagements with high level administration and defence officials, we believe this research will get a receptive audience.” Longview’s assessment also concluded that:

  • CEIP’s workshops are likely to be well designed and well run, given the team’s prior experience, scenario selection, and emphasis on getting feedback from participants in advance to improve the realism of its analysis.
  • The workshops are likely to produce unique, actionable recommendations that will inform further nuclear risk reduction research.
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