As the Oppenheimer buzz fades, the nuclear weapons threat remains

October 17, 2023

By Cesar Jaramillo

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer has been hailed as a potential catalyst for nuclear disarmament because of its ability to raise public awareness of the raw and devastating power of nuclear weapons. The buzz around it rekindled some interest in the history of these weapons and restarted conversations on the massive destruction that would result if they were used again. But the formidable challenges facing nuclear disarmament are such that it will take much more than a Hollywood blockbuster to forge a credible path to abolition.

Well before the movie was released, the world was already observing the growing spectre of nuclear catastrophe as the conflict in Ukraine evolved. We live with that shadow of doom today because of the many scenarios – often unforeseen – that could lead to nuclear escalation. For instance, we still don’t know the answer to a critical question: Supposing that Ukraine prevails on the battlefield, would Russian President Vladimir Putin accept military defeat while he has a nuclear arsenal at his disposal?

No doubt influenced by the heightened nuclear risk, this past January the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was set at 90 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been to doomsday and a stark symbol of the perilous state of our world. But the threat posed by nuclear weapons could yet intensify.

Such tensions should reinvigorate nuclear disarmament efforts but have not. Even during Russia’s ominous nuclear posturing, there was no discernible momentum toward nuclear disarmament. On the contrary, all signs pointed to the chilling stagnation of this vital endeavor.

Recent events, such as repeated failures related to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), have underscored the deep-seated structural difficulties in achieving nuclear disarmament. A sharp divide between nuclear-weapon states (NWS) and non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS), a lack of political will to credibly commit to nuclear disarmament, nuclear modernization efforts, and the lack of concrete goals and benchmarks all contribute to a disheartening picture.

Despite formally supporting the “eventual” goal of a world free of nuclear weapons in disarmament discussions, NWS have long been reluctant to commit to concrete disarmament measures. Instead, they have continued to emphasize nuclear deterrence in their security strategies. Moreover, NWS and their allies remain stubbornly reluctant to embrace the groundbreaking Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW),which has become a rallying point for an increasing number of NNWS clamouring for concrete progress in nuclear disarmament.

Ultimately, NWS and NNWS have fundamentally different views of the role of nuclear weapons. NWS see them as their supreme security guarantee while NNWS consider them a core threat to international security. This lack of common understanding impedes meaningful progress in nuclear disarmament efforts.

Russia’s explicit threats to employ nuclear weapons in the context of the Ukraine conflict have rightly sparked global condemnation. However, these threats did not create the risk of nuclear escalation. The danger exists because the weapons exist; the weapons continue to exist because of the inherently dangerous doctrine of nuclear deterrence.

The primary stakeholders involved in the Ukraine crisis, including Russia, the United States, and other nuclear-armed NATO members, collectively possess more than 95 per cent of the world’s nuclear arsenal. Despite policy and ideological differences, they all share a common belief that, under specific conditions, they would consider the use of nuclear weapons justifiable.

Were Russia to face decisive defeat in its most ambitious military endeavour in more than seven decades, it would likely interpret such an outcome as a direct threat to vital national interests. Putin, who has consistently portrayed the war as an existential struggle with the West, would probably see such a defeat as a severe smirch on his legacy. These circumstances would align dangerously with Russia’s historical stand on the use of nuclear weapons.

As the Oppenheimer buzz fades, the sobering reality is that the path to disarmament demands more than cultural attention; it requires unwavering political commitment, diplomacy, and multilateral efforts to overcome the obstacles that have hindered progress for decades. The failures within the NPT regime, the heightened risk of nuclear-weapons use in the context of the Ukraine conflict, and deep-rooted divisions between major power blocs all remind us of the challenges that lie ahead.

The road to nuclear disarmament remains fraught with complexities. Getting to the end of this road will require a concerted effort to address entrenched positions and geopolitical realities. The stakes could not be higher; the survival of humanity – indeed, all life on Earth – hangs precariously in the balance.

Photo: Trinity Test - Alamogordo, NM - July 16, 1945. The mushroom cloud starts to form at 2.0 seconds. Public Domain photo

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