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.
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.