USA vs. Hypothetical USSR: 2012 Edition

In the spirit of the recently concluded Olympics, let’s rekindle the great Olympic rivalry between the American and the Soviets. Spurred on by a fun piece in Foreign Policy, the general count has the Soviet Union with 163 medals (adjusted for disqualifications) and the United States with their 104 medals.[1] That count gives the competition to the Soviets in a runaway victory but it seems to be a little high seeing as how the only time the Soviet Union ever won so many medals was in 1980 when the United States boycotted the Olympics and the Soviets won 195 medals.

Here’s the problem with doing strict medal addition: there would have been a whole bunch of athletes that wouldn’t have been there in the first place. For instance:

  • They would automatically lose one medal from rhythmic gymnastics where Russia got gold and Belarus got silver because they can’t send two teams.
  • The former Soviet states sent 43 weightlifters, or 33 more than the ten lifters a country is allowed. They would have had to have left some of the 18 medalists at home.
  • They would automatically lose six medals from men’s boxing and two from women’s boxing simply because each country is only allowed one boxer per event.
  • They would lose four medals from the Canoe Slalom where they would have only been allowed to enter one boat per event.[2]

I feel comfortable saying that there are a decent number of gold medalists that could have been passed over; just because an athlete wins a gold medal doesn’t mean that they were considered the best chance to do so when the national team was put together/were able to win qualifying tournaments. For example, a quick perusal of weightlifting shows that three of the five gold medals won by former Soviet states were won by athletes that finished behind other athletes from former Soviet states at the 2011 World Weightlifting Championship.[3] In Judo, at least two of Russia’s gold medalists finished behind other athletes from former Soviet states at the 2011 Judo World Championship.[4] There’s no guarantee that any of these athletes would have made the national team.

As for team sports, the argument is that taking all the best players from the various national teams would undoubtedly make the Soviet national team better. However, I’d like to point out the 2004 US men’s basketball team; just because you have a team comprised of highly skilled players doesn’t mean the team will be good. Further more, changing the team can sometimes force a change in strategy that isn’t always for the best. For instance, if you added Jonas Valanciunas (from Lithuania) to the Russian men’s basketball team, it could have forced a change in their style of play (less driving to the basket and more half-court offense run through the post). I’m not saying that they couldn’t have still won the bronze medal, but I don’t think that it would be a lock either.

Consequently, the Soviet Union loses 38 medals simply due to qualification rules, lowering their overall count from 163 to 125. Now it’s impossible to know which countries would pick up various numbers these 38 medals, but I think it’s a safe bet to think that America would pick up a decent number of these medals, especially since nearly 25 of them would come from wrestling and boxing events where there is a better chance to actually pick up a medal (since four medals are awarded in most, if not all, of the “fighting” events).

[1] The 163 medals comes from adding up the medal counts of the former Soviet states:Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Lithuania, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Latvia, Estonia, Moldova, and Tajikistan.

[2] A full list:

  • 4 medals lost in canoe events
  • 6 medals lost in men’s boxing
  • 2 medals lost in women’s boxing
  • 1 medal lost in gymnastics
  • 1 medal lost in men’s weightlifting
  • 7 medals lost in women’s weightlifting
  • 1 medal lost in women’s wrestling
  • 15 medals lost in men’s wrestling
  • 1 medal lost in men’s judo

[3]Oleksiy Torokhtiy (Ukr)- Men’s 105 kg,  Maiya Maneza (Kaz)- Women’s 63 kg, and Svetlana Podobedova (Kaz)- Women’s 75 kg. Now, concievably, someone from the Soviet Union could have still won the gold medal. In the women’s 63 kg event, Tsarukaeva from Russia was second after Maneza. But there are times that the likely representative doesn’t medal, like in the Women’s 75 kg where Nadezhda Yevstyukhina from Russia, the reigning world champion, failed to record a valid lift.

[4]]Arsen Galstyan and Mansu Isev

Cross-posted at Blogging at the Buzzer.

Pakistan’s Growing Nuclear Stockpile

I’ve seen this article from the Bulletin of American Scientists floating around lately, along with questions as to why Pakistan is growing it’s nuclear stockpile. It’s a relatively cash-strapped country that’s reached a certain level of nuclear parity with it’s chief rival, India, so why bother? The problem is that, in certain cases, parity isn’t enough; sometimes, nuclear deterrence requires more than having “just enough” nuclear weapons.

Nuclear deterrence works on the idea that if one country strikes a second country, the second country will retaliate with either a proportional or larger nuclear strike on the first country. The problem with that is, when a country has such a small nuclear stockpile, they run the risk of having a large part of their nuclear weapons destroyed by another country’s first strike. So in order to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent, a country like Pakistan is forced to do one of two things:

  1. Develop a secured second-strike capability. This is the practice of creating submarine-launched ballistic missiles and nuclear bombers, the theory being that it’s highly unlikely that an enemy can take out such mobile, and hard to find, targets with any amount of certainty.
  2. Build up a bigger stockpile of land-based nuclear weapons, with the idea being that more nuclear weapons will make it through any first strike.

Pakistan doesn’t really have the money or the technological capabilities to pursue option one so, in an effort to maintain an effective nuclear deterrent, they’re forced to simply grow their stockpile

A Nuclear Iran and Terrorism: What Kind of Threat?

One of the biggest stated concerns with the possibility of Iran reaching a point where they can enrich nuclear material to the point where it would be weapons-grade is that it increases the chances of a terrorist group gaining access to a nuclear weapon. But how likely is that concern really? Would Iran hand over a nuclear weapon to a terrorist group? Probably not.

Of course, that being said, it’s still a little more likely than I generally find comfortable when talking about nuclear weapons.[1] Speaking generally for a moment, a state usually deals with non-state actors for one of three reasons:

  1. The state wants to have plausible deniability. There is some action that the state wants have happen but is unwilling to accept some of the costs that would result because of said action.
  2. The state simply doesn’t have the capability to carry out an action, either because they lack the physical means to carry it out or because they don’t have the political capital to get it done, and so they essentially out-source it to a (hopefully) reliable group to take care of it for them.
  3. For the money.

In the case of Iran, supplying a nuclear weapon to a non-state actor becomes kind of pointless because it doesn’t really mesh with any of those reasons:

  1. Plausible deniability doesn’t really exist in the world of nuclear weapons. Each nuclear weapon’s nuclear material can pretty much be traced back to either the facility that enriched/refined it or where it was mined.[2] Even if the exact isotope can’t be completely traced, there aren’t many places where it could have come from and not be able to be traced.[3] Additionally, not many people would find it particularly believable that a country so fundamentally misplaced a nuclear weapon and all of the means of command-and-control to the point that a non-state actor was able to take it and use it. Once plausible deniability is gone, a country like Iran would be looking at nuclear retaliation, which isn’t exactly fun.[4]
  2. Non-state actors don’t have more advanced infrastructure for deploying, and dealing with, nuclear weapons than countries that have built nuclear weapons programs. Terrorist groups, by rule, don’t generally have expensive, technically advanced, immobile, and easily traceable missile programs. Giving a nuclear weapon to a non-state actor almost certainly guarantees a method of delivery that is much more intricate and much more likely to fail than Iran simply firing a nuclear missile.[5]
  3. It really better be an absurdly large amount of money to risk getting nuked for Iran to simply sell a nuclear weapon. I mean an absolutely absurd amount of money.

The more conceivable situation in which Iran allows a terrorist group to get their hands on a nuclear weapon is if the current government just absolutely collapses and the incoming government simply fails to plan for safeguarding what are now their nuclear weapons. It’s not impossible for a non-state actor to get their hands on a nuclear weapon, or nuclear material, amid all the chaos. It’s one of the more problematic things about countries with unstable governments pursuing a nuclear weapons program, that there might come a point in time when there’s nobody whose priority it is to actually keep the weapons secure. But bottom line, it’s pretty unlikely that Iran would just outright give a non-state actor a nuclear weapon; the risks are too high to outweigh any potential gains.

[1] If I had to put a number on it, it would probably be somewhere between a very small decimal number that’s pretty close to 0% and maybe 5%. Nothing that’s necessarily alarming, but I generally prefer, like most people, to have as many things regarding nuclear weapons to be as close to zero as practically possible.

[2] Tracing  the remains of a nuclear explosion, it can take anywhere from a few  days to a couple of weeks, but you can work backwards from the nuclear  isotopes left behind in an explosion and get a reasonably good idea of  where the nuclear material was refined/enriched/mined. By taking samples  of fission fragments and doing various radiochemical analyses, you can  determine various things (e.g. plutonium vs. highly-enriched uranium,  how long ago it was made, what types of chemicals were used to treat the  plutonium, etc.) which, along with the various trace concentrations and  isotopic compositions, can give you a pretty good idea of where the  nuclear material came from.

[3] It’s pretty hard to produce completely  untraceable nuclear material. You have to enrich uranium or create  plutonium somehow, and even if you managed to keep the specific facility  a secret so as to prevent other countries from getting an exact  understanding of the isotopic composition of the nuclear material said  secret facility produces, it’s highly unlikely that you also used both a completely separate method to enrich uranium/create plutonium and a completely separate and secret source of nuclear material (i.e. the  uranium you actually take out of the ground). Using a similar process or  similar starting material will give you a relatively similar signature,  and it’s not at all easy to simply change either one, let alone both. And  even if you actually managed to create completely untraceable materials  (which is pretty unlikely), you’re left with the problem that there  aren’t a heck of a lot of countries that can create nuclear weapons in  the first place, let alone enrich untraceable, weapons-grade fissile  materials. It’s not like this is something that a terrorist group could  do themselves, and so you can eventually start winnowing away countries  that it’s not. And since the list of countries that it could have been  wasn’t very big to begin with, it makes the whole prospect extremely  risky, risk which is multiplied since the cost (i.e. getting hit with a  retaliatory nuclear strike) is so high

[4] And once you’ve reached the point that you’re going to get nuked either way, why even bother to mess around with a middle-man who could just botch everything to begin with.

[5]Any  infrastructure that a terrorist group has to deliver a nuclear weapon (like putting it in a truck and driving it somewhere to detonate it), a  state either already has or can easily acquire. As mentioned earlier, giving a nuclear weapon  to a middle-man when there isn’t much of a chance of plausible  deniability raises the possibility that something will happen which wasn’t the original intent of the nuclear state. If you’re going to get bomb, you might as well do everything you can to make sure that what you really want to do gets done in the first place.

Nuclear Proliferation and Non-Proliferation Regimes

With talks on Iran’s nuclear program becoming a pervasive news story, it’s a good time to take a step back and look at the larger process of halting nuclear proliferation. Of the nine countries that posses nuclear weapons, five do so under the auspices of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia), three do so having never been signatories to the NPT in the first place (Israel, India, and Pakistan), and one (North Korea) withdrew from the NPT.

Current international regimes (i.e. nuclear-weapon-free zones, restrictions on the sale of dual-use technology, international inspections, etc.) aimed at tackling nuclear proliferation, on the whole, do a pretty good job. Are there well publicized failures? Sure, North Korea’s development of a nuclear weapon and Iran’s strongly suspected nuclear weapons program are two incidences in which proliferation has failed, but I would argue that these two cases are less an indictment of current non-proliferation policies and more an example of the basic reality of how hard it is to prevent something like this in a highly technological and highly globalized world. There are just as many examples of non-proliferation successes as there are of failures; Argentina and Brazil both had serious nuclear weapons programs going but both abandoned them, while South Africa managed to build six nuclear weapons before giving up its nuclear weapons program.

The bottom line is that once the idea for the nuclear weapon is out there, it’s kind of hard to get back and the only measures that countries can take is restrict the use/sale of things that can go be used to make nuclear weapons; the knowledge behind it, which is really the most important part, can’t be removed from human consciousness or sufficiently isolated from specific countries or groups of people. It’s even hard in today’s world to try and restrict/limit the sale of items that can be used to make nuclear weapons because so many of them are dual-use technologies that have more mundane purposes. For example, lightly enriched uranium can be used for nuclear power plants (and generally tends to be more preferable for the purposes of non-proliferation*), which most people agree is/should be a suitable and legal use for uranium, but the infrastructure needed to enrich uranium for use in power plants is the same stuff needed to enrich uranium for use in bombs. The process that is used to create plutonium also creates radioisotopes that are used for medical purposes. There’s a piece of medical equipment that uses ultrasonic waves to break kidney stones apart that can also be used as a detonator in a nuclear weapon. And the list goes on. Complicating matters is the fact that there are almost always ways around restrictions and limitations (e.g. non-compliant countries, countries whose customs agency have minimal capacity to implement policies, re-routing shipments, etc.) and so nothing can ever realistically be 100% effective.

The most effective way to actually stop nuclear proliferation is eventually the same way most societies stop murders; by stigmatizing the act and creating a strong disincentive towards engaging in the act. This is a process, though, that has to start at the top. One of the reasons that there is a disregard towards non-proliferation in certain countries is because there has been a relative lack serious disarmament by nuclear weapon states and so, the argument goes, if one country can have it, another one can too.** Creating a top-down change regarding the attitude towards, and the culture around, nuclear weapons and combining that with sanctions that are enforced seriously and effectively is becoming the only way to realistically limit nuclear proliferation more than the current international regimes already do.

* Nuclear power plants can use either lightly enriched uranium or natural uranium, but plants that use natural uranium need to use heavy water (H2O molecules whose hydrogen atoms are actually deuterium isotopes and already have a neutron and prevent released neutrons in the nuclear fission chain from bonding to water molecules allowing the use of natural uranium which has less fissile material) BUT natural uranium has a higher quantity of uranium-238 than enriched uranium and so it results in more plutonium-239 (uranium-238 molecules absorb random neutrons during the fission process and become uranium-239, of which plutonium-239 is a byproduct) which is a much more efficient source of fissile material than uranium.

** Or, more accurately, if the nuclear powers that signed the NPT aren’t going to live up to their agreement to make significant efforts to dramatically reduce the number of nuclear weapons they have, why should another country live up to its promise of non-proliferation.

Nuclear Weapons and Failed States

Amid all the concerns caused by Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program vis-a-visits relationship with Israel, ties to terrorist groups, its possible disregard for the idea of non-proliferation, etc. there is little conversation regarding the stability of Iran’s government and how that relates to ownership of nuclear weapons (stability in the sense of long-term sustainability). Nuclear weapons in the hands of an unstable governments creates a whole host of problems. What do you do if the government falls? Do you just trust that the new government will maintain the safety and security of such dangerous weapons? What about in the time between a collapse of the government and the formation of a new one? Can soldiers be counted on to guard stockpiles without pay or support?

Take, for instance, Pakistan; a state that is seemingly always teetering on the verge of collapse. What can the United States do in order to prevent a catastrophic scenario from possibly occurring? How successful can a plan be?

There are really two main parts that a country will have to do when trying to do something like decommissioning another country’s nuclear stockpile:

  1. They have to determine the various locations of the nuclear weapons.
  2. They then have to physically secure those locations and remove, at the very least, the nuclear material.

Each part presents its own difficulties. Determining the various locations of any country’s nuclear stockpile is not at all an easy task for a few reasons. First, most countries, especially countries with small stockpiles, change the locations that they store their nuclear weapons with a certain amount of frequency in order to prevent other countries (India, in Pakistan’s case) from being able to know where specifically to target if they wanted to take away the country’s ability to launch a nuclear strike. Additionally, a country like Pakistan moves its nuclear weapons in order to prevent internal extremist/anti-government groups from being able to get their hands on a nuclear weapon (a point which I’ll come back to later on). The task of finding nuclear weapons is made harder by the fact that they aren’t particularly easy to find, even with all of our advanced technology. There’s a reason that nobody was asking why the Bush administration why they didn’t have a satellite image or evidence from a fly-over that showed Iraq’s nuclear weapons (besides, of course, the obvious reason that Iraq didn’t actually have any to find). Even if there were nuclear weapons to be found, it’s pretty hard to find them using such casual means. The Alpha particles, Beta particles, and Gamma rays that the weapons give off are, obviously, harder to detect from farther away (and, in truth, don’t tend to travel that far anyway) and are easily obscured with some thick lead shielding.

But let’s say that the United States figured out exactly where all of the weapons were. Even once that task is complete, plans still must be made to secure and remove the weapons. There are two ways to do this; either through multiple air strikes to destroy targets or with the use of ground forces (either a full scale invasion or the insertion of special ops forces). Air strikes are undesirable simply because you can’t guarantee that everything will be destroyed and because there are simply some targets that aren’t practical to actually hit. Te ground forces option has its own logistical problems. Depending on the number of places nuclear weapons are stockpiled within Pakistan, the ability to secure and extract nuclear material from sites can tax not just the logistical capabilities of not just the US Armed Forces, but the capabilities of allied forces as well (i.e. there are only so many units that are trained to do these sorts of things and only so much equipment that would be needed for a mission like this to go around), making it a situation that requires a series of coordinated incursions into a dangerous environment. Finally, returning to a point from earlier, the United States would be competing against various non-state actors, all of whom would love to get their hands on a nuclear device. This competition only adds to the level of complexity since it requires not only to have intelligence on where the nuclear weapons are stored and whether they are guarded by hostile forces, but also intelligence on the movements and plans of the various non-state actor groups in order to try and beat them to their targets.

The bottom line is that a failed nuclear state presents a whole host of logistical and tactical issues for the United States (and the other nuclear states for that matter), and that’s only regarding the issue of securing the nuclear weapons.  Even if the primary weapons are render non-functional and their nuclear material secured, there are still secondary issues that are no less problematic and only slightly less important such as dealing with the nuclear state’s nuclear enrichment facilities and figuring out what to do with their nuclear weapons brain-trust (scientists, engineers, etc.) who have the nuclear weapons know-how that is still incredibly dangerous in the wrong hands, but suddenly find themselves out of a job.

Man’s Search for Meaning (in Missile Tests)- Part II

Not all missile tests are done mostly as a technical test of the missile, however. Unlike India’s recent missile test, the message implied by Pakistan’s subsequent missile test is less subtext and more billboard-on-the-side-of-the-road. Whereas India’s Agni-V missile made major advancements in terms of range (5,000km to the Agni-IV’s 3,500km) and design (their first three-stage rocket on a missile) over previous missiles, Pakistan’s missile test was of a new variant of an existing missile that mostly saw upgrades limited to an improved range. While these improvements should not be treated as unimportant, the limited improvements and close proximity to India’s missile test bring the subtext of the missile test front and center.

Economic Sanctions

With word news out about the possible impact of economic sanctions on Iran, the conversation will begin to turn to what action might be taken by the international community next. A whole range of solutions will be talked about (with varying degrees of seriousness); from invasion to airstrikes to a more serious economic embargo, a wide range of options will be put forth and most dismissed. The most likely outcome seems to be, at this time, the implementation of additional economic sanctions, but how helpful will it be?

The effectiveness of economic sanctions really depends on a multitude of factors. First, economic sanctions take time to plan and implement, and even more time for their effect to truly be felt. If the act that would bring about the sanctioning can be completed or nearly completed before the impact of sanctions are felt (like, say, quick military action to end an uprising), than sanctions are, in effect, a PR tool rather than an actual attempt to bring meaningful change.

 Second, the effectiveness of sanctions largely depends on how many people are actually willing to follow them to the letter. For instance, while there have been numerous sanctions on Iran for some time due to their nuclear program, there has not been universal acceptance of, or adherence to, these sanctions. So while the United States and much of the western world may be engaged in economically sanctioning Iran, the effects are dampened by the fact that countries like China are not. Cuba, despite an American sanction, is still a communist country because very few countries in the world actually care about the sanctions on the island country anymore (and even when they did, the Soviet Union didn’t and was able to keep the island going, even going so far as to buy all the sugar that the United States used to purchase). Iran has countries that would be willing to, for the time being, buck significant pressure from prominent countries in order to be able to access significant markets and keep trade flowing, depending on the consequences. Developing countries are more apt to sacrifice long-term strategic goals for short-term economic advancement and so countries like India or China are still possible partners for Iranian economic transactions.

Third, the targets of the sanctions can hinder of improve the effectiveness of economic sanctions. If a small group of people are targeted, the sanctions aren’t going to work as well because those people can usually get what they want from other people in the country. For instance, sanctions against Gaddafi, while a good talking point, are of questionable effectiveness; a) because he has little against stealing what he needs from his own people, and b) because if he were to do what was required in order to lift the sanctions, he would probably lose the ability to keep reaping the benefits of what the sanctions take away. Sanctions are, however, largely better at convincing larger groups of lower-level officials and the population at-large to either switch sides or put upward pressure on leaders since they generally will have access to the items that are being sanctioned once sanctions are lifted and have little way of getting them until the sanctions are lifted.

 More often then not, sanctions will often not achieve their intended goal of their own accord because of one of the three issues above (most often, the second issue gets in the way; in today’s global environment, it’s hard to get enough of the big players to go along with each other). But sometimes you get lucky and they will achieve their goals all on their own and so they remain a good tool to keep in your back pocket.

So Tom Ricks said it, and I agree…..

The idea to reinstate a draft for military service is one of those constantly percolating ideas in the American political sphere. Appearing, disappearing, and reappearing at various intervals, it never goes anywhere but it never goes away forever. And while it’s not back yet, Thomas Ricks is looking to take the head off the “draft zombie.”

While there are some arguments that those who would like to reinstate the draft make that I am sympathetic to (mainly the ethical dilemma that an all-volunteer army insulates a great deal of the country from having to feel the sacrifice of war and, thus, causes a disproportionate amount of suffering in upon certain sections of our populations), there is one argument that draft-proponents make that I absolutely cannot stand: that reinstating the draft would lead to better foreign policy decisions.

First, would it change the way that American foreign policy is made and debated? Maybe.

It would undeniably change they way we, as a country, decide on the use of military force, but it may not completely change how many aspects of foreign policy are decided because most aspects of foreign policy either have little to nothing to do with the use of force, or only rely on the theoretical capability of the use of force.

To the question, would it make U.S decision making better with regard to foreign policy? I am skeptical that it would.

Look, I agree that it would have been much harder to convince people to send an military force filled with draftees to Iraq and, looking back on it nearly a decade later, that it’s something that most people now wish the country could take back. But the problem with a draftee-filled military is that, while it makes it easier for people to want to stop decision makers from implementing bad policy involving the use of force, it also makes it harder for decision makers to implement good policy involving the use of force; the introduction of draftees into the equation doesn’t only affect bad decisions, it affects all decisions. The use of military force is already politicized enough in this country with political careers made or broken on the perceived successes or failures of military operations, I don’t think that politicizing them more by adding the element of draftees would automatically result in decision makers making better decisions. Popular decisions are not always correct decisions and the more that the use of force can be insulated from the ebbs and flows of popular opinion (not that I want it to be completely insulated, of course) the more comfortable I’d feel.

Man’s Search for Meaning (in Missile Tests)- Part I

In the realm of International relations, one can find a great deal of double-talk, underlying meaning, and quiet messages. It’s an arena in which subtext abounds and the implied message is often just as important, if not more so, than the actual message. So when a country like India tests a new missile, the logical reaction is to ask what the “hidden meaning” is.

Mostly, the recent missile test was really about testing the missile. For most countries, these tests are really about technical objectives with the implicit messages being something of a secondary objective that is really more of a by-product than the primary reason for the test. Believe it or not, but testing weapons systems is kind of important and ballistic missiles are weapons that, due to the nature of their payload and mission, aren’t exactly systems that a country just wants to trust works. Additionally when you’re a country that, like India, has a limited history of rocket development, you test things as often as you can to learn as much as you can to make advances as quickly as you can.

Now, of course, the Agni-V test can’t be viewed only in terms of a technical test. Any time something like this happens, their are underlying “messages” that exist. These messages, while not always intended, are innate; other countries have a tendency to look at something and draw their own conclusions from these sorts of things. So, whether or not India intended these messages, India’s missile test was not viewed in a vacuum, but rather in the context of larger, geopolitical realities (as India itself very well knows). There was the implicit message to China as a reminder them that India isn’t just another country in Asia that China can hope to push around in the future, that India’s a regional player too. There was the obligatory message to Pakistan to remind them that India is still slightly ahead in missile technology. Beyond those two “messages,” India’s missile test had very little say because it wasn’t about the sending of a message, and beyond the two, ever-present, basic regional concerns (i.e. how China and Pakistan view India’s actions), it was simply a technical test of a missile system.

United States vs. China: How likely is conflict? (Hint: not very)

A friend asked me pretty recently how likely the United States and China were going to be involved in some sort of life-threatening conflict withing the next decade.

And while I’m never one to say no to some wild speculation, I needed a slightly clearer picture of what he was asking.  “It depends on what you mean by ‘life-threatening’,” I responded. If you mean life-threatening worldwide (akin to Cold War-era fears): 0%. First of all, even if the idea of MAD didn’t hold up, China wouldn’t get into that sort of war because they just don’t have that many nuclear missiles (and China isn’t going to spend a lot of defense money that it would take to close the gap on that over the next decade). Second of all, MAD still holds up pretty well; nobody in the two countries would like to start a war that they wouldn’t experience a victory worth having (not to mention actually making it to the victory).

If you mean life-threatening to the average person in China or the United States: maybe around 5%, maybe? China lacks the capability to project enough force to invade the United States and they won’t really be able to modernize their military quickly enough to be able to do it by the end of the decade. On the other side, we in the United States have seen what it takes to invade and hold a country that’s smaller than Alaska with a population around the size of Texas. We’re not exactly looking to get into a country that’s roughly the size of our country populated with a billion people. There’s the off chance that the United States bombs something in China or China bombs something in Taiwan or Japan but that would lead the two countries down a road to war that neither particularly want to go down.

If you mean a serious combat situation between American and Chinese armed forces: maybe somewhere around 15-20%? Again not at all likely, but it is conceivable that the two countries’ navies bump heads in or around the South China Sea and somebody has an itchy trigger finger and does something which calls for a retaliation. It’s not likely because of the escalation of the conflict’s scale that would ensue, but it could be this decade’s version of the downed U-2 over Cuba during the missile crisis.

On the whole, the higher the threshold for “life-threatening,” the lower the probability of occurrence. There’s still a massive disparity in military power between these two countries and an even larger disparity in logistical capacity. With China still outmatched, and the United States still dealing with the long-term effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. neither country is going out of its way to be antagonistic.