PS21 Survey: Experts see increased risk of nuclear war


  • Poll of 50 experts predict 6.8 percent risk of catastrophic nuclear war in next 20 years.
  • India-Pakistan seen most likely conflict. Iran, North Korea also eyed.
  • “Asymmetric”, “ambiguous” confrontation between great powers rising. Conventional wars between major states also more likely.
  • Up to 21 percent chance of NATO fighting Russia, 4 percent chance of nuclear war.
  • Experts see 14 percent chance US and China will fight, 19 percent Japan and China.
Leading national security experts see a rising risk of a nuclear conflict, a survey conducted by the Project for Study of the 21st Century shows. A poll of 50 national security experts from around the world showed 60 percent concluding the risk had grown over the last decade. Overall, they predicted a 6.8 percent probability of a major nuclear conflict in the next 25 years killing more people than the Second World War (roughly 80,000,000 at upper estimates).
The survey featured 50 individuals including leading international relations academics, former senior military officials and private sector political risk specialists. Participants came from the UK, US, India, Pakistan, South Africa, the Middle East, Russia, France and elsewhere.
The poll showed 52 percent saying the risk of great power nuclear conflict would grow further over the coming 10 years. In addition, 80 percent said they expected proxy confrontations and other forms of “ambiguous warfare” to also increase.
“This is the first survey we know of like this,” said Peter Apps, executive director at the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21). “There has been plenty of talk of rising tensions with Russia and China in particular but it’s very rare to try and put numbers on that. The responses we received were, frankly, very varied. The aggregate figures show that most major potential nuclear or conventional wars seem broadly unlikely — but the numbers are still high enough to be worrying. Clearly this is a risk that cannot be entirely discounted.”
Participants were also asked to rate the likelihood of a variety of different potential conflicts. They saw a 21 percent chance of conflict between Russia and NATO over the next 20 years with a 4 percent chance of Russia-NATO nuclear war. The risk of war between the US and China was seen at 14 percent with a 2 percent chance of nuclear conflict.
India and Pakistan were seen as the major states most likely to fight with a 40 percent chance of conflict and a 9 percent chance of nuclear exchangeDespite this year’s nuclear deal between Iran and the major powers, the poll predicted a 27 percent chance of conflict between Iran and its enemies (either the US, Israel or Gulf states) with a 6 percent chance of nuclear release. They saw a 17 percent chance North Korea and the US would fight with again a 6 percent chance of nuclear release.
Great power conflict might not necessarily involve the United States. The survey showed a 19 percent chance of conflict between Japan and China with a 2 percent chance of nuclear exchange. It also showed a 7 percent chance of Russia and China fighting with a 1 percent chance of nuclear war. Respondents saw a 17 percent chance of a non-state actor detonating a nuclear device over the next 20 years. They also saw a 38 percent chance of a state and a 48 percent chance of a non-state actor carrying out a cyber attack that killed more than 100 people over the same period.
Mark Fitzpatrick,, former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nonproliferation at the US State Department, now Director of the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies
“The survey accurately captures the Zeitgeist of renewed concern about the potential for great power conflict.While the prospect for major war is considered to be less than 50-50 over the next two decades, there is a significant chance of it happening.”
Nikolas Gvosdev, Professor of National Security Studies, US Naval War College
“These results mark a shift from the prevailing mood a decade ago, when the emphasis was on the threat posed by non-state actors inside failed or failing states to the fabric of the global order. Now, we see a return to a focus on state-on-state conflict, and a corresponding erosion of confidence that globalization and the prosperity it has engendered has dis-incentivized clashes among the leading global and regional powers.
Bernie de Haldevang, founder of the Cross Border Risk Agency and former head of financial and political risk lines at a major global insurance firm
“This is a credible study and the methodology used to arrive at its conclusions makes logical sense. It is important to remember what it is; the product of individuals’ assessments of geopolitical reality as they see it from where they are. The world has not yet found a new equilibrium nor the inherent stability that existed when the then two superpowers were locked together in a mutual armlock.”
For more information, e-mail or call Peter Apps on +44 7990 560586. Methodology and list of participants available on request.
The Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21) is a new global think tank for a new global century.

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