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Nuclear weapons: "Oppenheimer" won’t make a difference, but Australia can

Published in Lowy Institute: The Interpreter, 27 July 2023

The movie missed a chance to galvanise a renewed campaign, to better protect against existential danger than rely on sheer dumb luck.

Oppenheimer is a big disappointment for those of us who hoped that this super-hyped, all-star-cast new movie might give new life to the nuclear disarmament cause, creating new awareness of nuclear risks and energising popular support for their elimination – maybe even influencing senior policymakers in the way that the 1983 telemovie The Day After was, famously, an epiphany for Ronald Reagan.

The film does have many attractions, if one can cope with all the relentless time-shifting, jump-cutting, ear-splitting, coherent narrative-challenging, post-modern chaos of Christopher Nolan’s direction, better appreciated by generations less geriatric than mine. They include uniformly fine acting, great Los Alamos scene-setting, spectacular pyrotechnics in depicting the Trinity test, chilling evocations of early Cold War Washington paranoia, and a compelling character study of the flawed brilliance of J. Robert Oppenheimer himself.

But, while making clear that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were big bangs, and the Edward Teller’s anticipated H-bomb much bigger still, it is no part of the film’s mission to convey the sheer flesh and blood horror of these most indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever devised.

Oppenheimer’s moral qualms about massive civilian death tolls, and the catastrophic potential of an internationally unregulated post-war nuclear arms race, are not as clearly or forcefully explained as they could be. And the film takes it as given that the bomb-dropping (not the Soviet Union’s almost simultaneous declaration of war) was the decisive factor in Japan’s surrender – an historically flawed storyline, but one that remains critical to this day in keeping alive belief in the utility of nuclear weapons.

So, with no new help from the cinema, it’s back to the same old frustrating drawing board for nuclear risk reduction and disarmament campaigners.

The need for effective advocacy and action here has never been more compelling. Nearly 13,000 nuclear warheads are still in existence, with a combined destructive capability of close to 100,000 Hiroshima- or Nagasaki-sized bombs, and stockpiles, especially in our own Indo-Pacific region, now growing again. The taboo against their deliberate use is weakening, with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin talking up this prospect in language not heard since the height of the Cold War. Longstanding nuclear arms control agreements are now either dead (ABM, INF, Open Skies) or on life support (New START).

Moreover, the risk of use through human or system error or miscalculation is greater than ever, not least given new developments in AI and cyber-offence capability. That we have not had a nuclear weapon used for nearly 80 years is not a result of statesmanship, system integrity and infallibility, or the inherent stability of nuclear deterrence. It has been sheer dumb luck, and it is utterly wishful thinking to believe that this luck can continue in perpetuity.

In the present international environment it is unrealistic to hope for the complete global elimination of nuclear weapons within any kind of reasonably foreseeable time-frame. The recently negotiated Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons – supported by a majority of UN members, but none of them nuclear-armed states or their allies and partners – is a welcome normative advance, but one lacking any practical teeth. But what can reasonably be hoped for, and sooner rather than later, is a serious global commitment to nuclear risk reduction.

Australia has a more useful role in this enterprise than many may imagine, with our generally strong record on arms control – including bringing to conclusion the Chemical Weapons Convention – and our nuclear credentials burnished by the ground-breaking Keating government-initiated Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, the Howard Government’s role in getting the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to a vote, and the more recent Rudd government-initiated Australia-Japan International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.

The most commonly proposed risk-reduction measures – and central elements in the Australia–Japan commission’s proposed “minimisation” agenda – may be described as the “4 Ds”. They are Doctrine (getting universal buy-in for a No First Use (NFU) commitment), Deployment (drastically reducing the number of weapons ready for immediate use), De-alerting (taking weapons off high-alert, launch-on warning readiness) and Decreased numbers (reducing the overall global stockpile to less than 2,000 weapons).

A world with low numbers of nuclear weapons, with very few of them physically deployed, with practically none of them on high-alert launch status, and with every nuclear-armed state visibly committed to never being the first to use them, would still be very far from perfect. But one that could achieve these objectives would be a very much safer world than we live in now.

What has been most depressing about Australia’s performance in recent years, which it is very much to be hoped will now change, is that even these realistic objectives have not been actively supported. Australia’s status as a close US ally and, as such, one of the “nuclear umbrella” states, gives us a particularly significant potential role in advancing some key elements of the risk-reduction agenda just described.

The most immediately useful step we could take would be to support the growing international movement for the universal adoption of No First Use doctrine by the nuclear-armed states. US Presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden were both personally attracted to going down this path (or at least its functional equivalent of a “sole purpose” declaration), but were dissuaded from doing so by their nervous East European and Asia-Pacific allies, Australia included. At the NPT Review Conference concluded in New York in August 2022, a great deal of support was evident for such No First Use commitments as part of a larger risk reduction agenda. But the delegation of our new Labor government made no contribution to that debate. I live in hope that that position will change.

Gareth Evans was Australian Foreign Minister 1988-96 and President of the International Crisis Group 2000-09. He initiated the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons (1996), co-chaired the Australia-Japan International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (2009), was founding convenor in 2011 of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN), and co-authored Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play (ANU, 2013 and 2015).

This article was originally published in Lowy Institute: The Interpreter on 27 July 2023