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Why Oppenheimer’s Nuclear Fears Are Just as Relevant Today

5 minute read
Mary Robinson is a former President of Ireland and Chair of The Elders, the group of independent global leaders founded by Nelson Mandela.

Robert J. Oppenheimer’s shadow has stretched well into the 21st century. We are still living in the nuclear age he helped create in 1945, and still confronted with the same moral and political dilemmas he wrestled with about how to manage the threats posed by weapons of mass destruction.

Christopher Nolan’s new film about Oppenheimer’s life and legacy offers a new chance to reinvigorate public debate about the nuclear threat. Oppenheimer was horrified by the terrible power of the technology he had helped create. His story should sound as a wake-up call to global leaders and citizens alike who continue to exhibit alarming complacency and fatalism about the existential risk of nuclear annihilation.

Read More: A Multifaceted Look at the Man Behind the Atomic Bomb

Russia’s war on Ukraine has heightened this risk, and in the short-term rendered much more difficult the prospect of meaningful U.S.-Russian dialogue on arms reduction, as had been hoped for in the summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin in Geneva in June 2021.

The absence of U.S.-Russian dialogue makes it all the more imperative that Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping put reducing nuclear risks at the top of their agenda whenever they next meet. Progress here could help ease Sino-U.S. mistrust and improve wider geopolitical stability.

But when the nuclear threat is greater than at any time since the height of the Cold War, all leaders in all states bear responsibility.

As a young woman, I marched alongside hundreds of thousands of protesters against “the Bomb.” Now a grandmother, I am appalled that my grandchildren still face the same specter of nuclear war, and I ask myself: “Where are today’s marchers?”

The silence is intolerable. The hands of the Doomsday Clock stand at 90 seconds to midnight. The erosion of the taboo against using nuclear weapons (including from Putin’s open threats to do so), the near total breakdown of the remaining nuclear arms control architecture between Russia and the U.S., and the emergence of potentially destabilizing new technologies (including Artificial Intelligence), have raised the risk level to frightening heights.

China’s apparent decision to significantly expand its arsenal, political instability in Pakistan, North Korea’s defiance of the U.N. Security Council, and instability in the Middle East add further dangerous pressures.

The record of close calls over the last 80 years suggests that it has been more through luck than great statesmanship that we have avoided catastrophe.

The only guarantee against the use of nuclear weapons is their complete abolition. Yet the world’s nuclear powers continue to expand and modernize their arsenals as well as reaffirm the role of nuclear weapons within their security planning.

Read More: Fighting for a Future Free of Nuclear Weapons

The U.S. and Russia bear particular responsibility for this. They possess around 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons and have taken dangerous steps to undermine nuclear arms control over the past two decades. But other nuclear states, including China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and the U.K., are also expanding their capabilities.

In this context, total nuclear disarmament is not realistic in the near future. The immediate focus should therefore be on getting buy-in from nuclear states on reducing the threat of nuclear catastrophe. The first steps are to establish a new U.S.-China risk reduction dialogue, and restart U.S.-Russia nuclear dialogue. The Elders, the NGO that I currently lead, have proposed a nuclear minimization agenda that we believe could provide a helpful framework for making progress.

It will be very difficult to tackle the nuclear threat unless there is sustained international pressure on the governments of nuclear states. This requires greater public engagement and grassroots activism to challenge the questionable assumptions that underpin the thinking of the nuclear establishment. I hope the release of a major motion picture about the origins of the nuclear bomb will spur a wider debate about the issue.

While there is good reason to be alarmed about the current dangers, we must not drift into despair. History shows us that progress can be made to reduce nuclear risks through international cooperation, as Oppenheimer hoped.

The number of nuclear weapons has declined from around 65,000 in the mid-1980s to around 12,500 today, thanks to the landmark Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons penned 50 years ago. With global leadership and dialogue, further progress is still possible.

In Oppenheimer’s farewell address to the Association of Las Alamos scientists in November 1945, he told them that “atomic weapons are a peril which affects everyone in the world… I think that in order to handle this common problem there must be a complete sense of community responsibility.”

These prescient words remain relevant. They must drive our collective efforts to contain nuclear risks, if we are to prevent the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from being repeated at a scale beyond even what Oppenheimer could have feared.

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