Call me, maybe? Hotlines and global catastrophic risk report

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▲ Photo by Miryam León on Unsplash

This is an executive summary of our investigation into hotlines

Read the full report

Crisis-communication links or “hotlines” between states are a subset of crisis management tools intended to help leaders defuse the worst possible crises and to limit or terminate war (especially nuclear war) when it does break out. Despite a clear theory of change, however, there is high uncertainty about their effectiveness and little empirical evidence. The most important dyadic adversarial relationships (e.g., U.S.-China, U.S.-Russia, Pakistan-India, India-China) already have existing hotlines between them, and forming new hotlines is an unlikely candidate for effective philanthropy. Along with high uncertainty about hotline effectiveness in crisis management, the highest stakes application of hotlines (i.e., WMD conflict limitation and termination) remains untested, and dedicated crisis-communications channels may have an important fail-safe role in the event of conflict.

War limitation- and termination-enabling hotlines have high expected value even with very low probability of success, because of the distribution of fatalities in WMD-related conflicts. Importantly, it appears that existing hotlines — cobbled together from legacy Cold-War systems and modern technology — are not resilient to the very conflicts they are supposed to control, and may fail in the event of nuclear war, electro-magnetic pulse, cyber operations and some natural catastrophic risks, like solar flares. Additionally, there are political and institutional obstacles to hotline use, including China’s repeated failure to answer in crisis situations.

Philanthropists interested in crisis management tools like hotlines could pursue a number of interventions, including:

  • Funding work and dialogues to establish new hotlines
  • Funding work and dialogues on hotline resilience (including technical work on hotlines in communications-denied environments);
  • Funding more rigorous studies of hotline effectiveness;
  • Funding track II dialogues between the U.S. and China (and potentially other powerful states) focused on hotlines to understand different conceptions of crisis communication.

We believe that the marginal value of establishing new hotlines is likely to be low. The other interventions likely need to be sequenced — before investing in hotline resilience, we ought to better understand whether hotlines work, and what political and institutional issues affect their function. Crucially for avoiding great power conflict, we recommend investing in understanding why China does not “pick up” crisis communications channels in times of crisis.

About the author


Christian Ruhl

Senior Researcher & Global Catastrophic Risks Fund Manager

Christian Ruhl is a Senior Researcher at Founders Pledge. Christian’s work focuses on understanding, forecasting, and mitigating global catastrophic risks, including risks from great power conflict and weapons of mass destruction.