‘One miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation’: U.N. chief warns of global conflict as Ukraine war pushes nuclear risk to highest level since the Cold War

August 1, 2022, 9:07 PM UTC
UN chief António Guterres
U.N. chief António Guterres warns of global conflict as Ukraine war pushes nuclear risk to highest level since the Cold War.
Angela Weiss—AFP/Getty Images

Recession talk reached a fever pitch last week after the federal government said the U.S. economy shrank for a second consecutive quarter. On Monday, the United Nations issued a far more dire warning than any economy-related commotion could ever match: The world is in danger of nuclear disaster. 

“Today, humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation,” said Antonio Guterres, the secretary general of the U.N., at a conference about upholding the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which went into effect in 1970.

Guterres specifically cited Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in his remarks, adding that the current threat of nuclear war hovers above several simultaneous crises, including “the climate crisis, stark inequalities, conflicts, and human rights violations, and the personal and economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

These crises, he said, are placing the world under stress “at a time of nuclear danger not seen since the height of the Cold War.” In the coming days, Guterres said he will be visiting Hiroshima to commemorate the first nuclear bombardment in history. 

Guterres also cited five “action areas” in his remarks. First, he said, international governments need to reaffirm the “77-year-old norm” against the use of nuclear weapons, referencing the end of World War II. The second action area is the specific elimination of nuclear weapons.

 He also outlined the need to address geopolitical tensions in the Middle East and Asia, promote nuclear technology as a sustainable energy source, and the overall need to continue maintaining the treaty. 

In referencing tensions in Asia, Guterres was likely referring, at least in part, to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s expected visit to Taiwan this week. The plan sparked immediate pushback from China and prompted the U.S. to confirm that the trip would have no policy implications.

China’s defensive stance, however, remains a cause for concern. “It does increase the risk of miscalculation, which could lead to unintended consequences,” a White House spokesperson said at a press briefing, echoing Guterres’s words from earlier in the day.

“The clouds that parted following the end of the Cold War are gathering once more,” said Guterres.

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Biden AdministrationUkraine InvasionInflationEnergyCybersecurity