UN chief sounds alarm on rising nuclear threat

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Antonio Guterres, UN, Soviet Union

In a stark warning to the global community, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has declared that the risk of a nuclear conflict is at its highest since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Speaking at the annual Arms Control Association meeting in Washington, Guterres highlighted the convergence of technological advances and escalating geopolitical tensions as critical factors driving the world closer to a potential nuclear catastrophe.

“Humanity is on a knife’s edge,” Guterres stated in a recorded speech presented at the meeting. “The risk of a nuclear weapon being used has reached heights not seen since the Cold War.” His remarks underscore the grave concerns over a “qualitative arms race,” where countries are leveraging advanced technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), to enhance their military capabilities and readiness for conflict.

Guterres pointed out that technological innovations are exacerbating the dangers associated with nuclear weapons. The integration of AI into military strategies and weapons systems is particularly alarming, as it could lead to scenarios where decisions on the use of nuclear weapons are made by machines or algorithms, rather than human judgment. Such developments, he warned, are “multiplying the danger” of a nuclear confrontation.

This technological dimension adds a new layer of complexity to the already volatile global security environment. The last remaining arms control agreement between the US and Russia, the New START treaty, is set to expire in 2026. Without a successor in place, the world could enter a new era of unchecked nuclear arms competition, further heightening the risks.

In his impassioned plea, Guterres called for immediate and decisive action to move away from the brink of nuclear war. He emphasized the need for disarmament and conflict prevention, which are central to his disarmament agenda launched in 2018 and the New Agenda for Peace aimed at reforming global peace and security architectures.

“All countries need to step up, but nuclear weapons states must lead the way,” he asserted. He outlined several key measures for nuclear-armed states:

Resuming dialogue and committing to prevent any use of nuclear weapons.

Agreeing that none will be the first to launch a nuclear strike.

Reaffirming a moratorium on nuclear testing.

Accelerating the implementation of disarmament commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Guterres also urged the United States and Russia to return to the negotiating table, fully implement the New START treaty, and work towards a new agreement before its expiration. Furthermore, he stressed that all countries should ensure that any decision regarding the use of nuclear weapons is made by humans, not machines or algorithms.

Guterres’ comments come amid heightened fears of a broader, potentially nuclear conflict as the US and its NATO allies continue to support Ukraine in its ongoing war with Russia. The situation has led to accusations of nuclear saber-rattling from both sides. Western nations have accused Moscow of threatening nuclear catastrophe, while Russian leaders argue that the deepening involvement of the West in the Ukraine conflict could lead to dangerous escalations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, reiterated that Russia would consider using nuclear weapons only if its sovereignty or territorial integrity were under threat. He added, “I do not believe that is the case now,” emphasizing that Russia has not been the first to employ aggressive nuclear rhetoric.

Despite these assurances, Guterres highlighted the resurgence of “nuclear blackmail” and the reckless threats of nuclear catastrophe by some states. He called on nuclear-armed countries to lead the way in forging new nonproliferation commitments, including a pledge not to launch a first strike and a reaffirmation of a moratorium on nuclear testing.

The global nonproliferation regime, designed to prevent the use, testing, and proliferation of nuclear weapons, is showing signs of weakening. In 2022, US President Joe Biden approved a new national defense posture that leaves the possibility of a nuclear first strike open, reversing a campaign pledge to narrow the potential uses of America’s nuclear arsenal.

China, meanwhile, has advocated for a “no-first-use” treaty and has ruled out the possibility of a first strike. However, US officials have questioned Beijing’s sincerity, citing the alleged buildup of its nuclear weapons program. Additionally, Moscow has suspended its participation in the New START accord, pointing to US efforts to strategically defeat Russia by arming Ukraine.

The potential role of AI in nuclear warfare has been a subject of significant concern among experts. A 2018 report by the Rand Corporation warned that the development of AI could increase the risk of nuclear war by improving the ability of militaries to locate, track, target, and destroy a rival’s nuclear-deterrent forces.

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has also weighed in on the debate, comparing the significance of AI to that of nuclear weapons but noting its unpredictability. He argued that the risks associated with AI could be managed through international cooperation and regulation.

Guterres’ address underscores the urgent need for renewed international efforts to prevent the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear conflict. The UN chief’s call to action emphasizes the importance of disarmament, conflict prevention, and the responsible use of emerging technologies like AI.

The road ahead requires a concerted effort from all nations, especially those with nuclear capabilities, to engage in meaningful dialogue, adhere to nonproliferation commitments, and prioritize human judgment over automated systems in decisions of such magnitude. As Guterres poignantly stated, “Let’s continue working to achieve a secure and peaceful world every country wants.”

Guterres’ warning serves as a critical reminder of the precarious state of global security. The convergence of technological advancements and geopolitical tensions demands a robust and proactive approach to disarmament and conflict prevention. The international community must heed this call and work collaboratively to ensure a safer, nuclear-free world for future generations.

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