The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nuclear threat higher now than in Cold War, British official warns

Found under the Oyster-Adams school in Washington, a fallout shelter dating to 1962 is a reminder of the ever-present fear during the Cold War. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)
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Britain’s national security adviser has warned that a breakdown in dialogue among rival powers is raising the risk of nuclear war, with fewer safeguards now than during the Cold War.

Western nations had a greater “understanding of the Soviet doctrine and capabilities — and vice versa” at the time because they kept more negotiation channels open, Stephen Lovegrove said at an event in Washington on Wednesday.

“This gave us both a higher level of confidence that we would not miscalculate our way into nuclear war,” he said. “Today, we do not have the same foundations with others who may threaten us in the future — particularly with China.”

As such, he said, Britain strongly supports President Biden’s talking with Beijing.

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Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping spoke Thursday at a time of heightened friction, in part over a plan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to visit Taiwan and Biden’s comments that the U.S. military would defend the island — which the White House later downplayed. Beijing is warning against a Pelosi trip to the self-governing island that it claims as part of its territory.

The tensions have added to differences over trade, security and Russia’s war in Ukraine.

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According to Lovegrove’s assessment, the conflict in Ukraine is also “a manifestation of a much broader contest unfolding” over what comes next after the post-Cold War world order.

“We are entering a dangerous new age,” he added, citing the spread of advanced weapons and cyberwarfare.

As the war fuels fear of wider confrontations, an arms research group said last month that the world’s nuclear arsenal was set to increase over the next decade.

The Stockholm-based institute said that it saw a “very worrying trend,” with all nuclear-armed states upgrading their stockpiles and what appeared to be the end of the era of declining nuclear arsenals.

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At Wednesday’s event organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Lovegrove called on policymakers to focus on deterrence and arms control. He accused Moscow of worsening already growing “pathways to escalation” and China of showing “disdain” for engaging with arms control deals.

“The question is … finding a balance amongst unprecedented complexity so there can be no collapse into uncontrolled conflict.”

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