The Debate

What Groundhog Day Teaches Us About Nuclear Deterrence

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The Debate

What Groundhog Day Teaches Us About Nuclear Deterrence

The movie Groundhog Day teaches an important insight about the fragile underpinning of nuclear deterrence theory.

What Groundhog Day Teaches Us About Nuclear Deterrence
Credit: YouTube Still Shot

The 1993 fantasy-comedy Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, might not be the first choice for national security wonks to hone their understanding of the intricacies of nuclear deterrence and the political utility of nuclear weapons.

Rewatching the movie, however, I noticed that there is an interesting underlying theme that relates to the nature of deterrence theory when one examines Phil Connors’ (played by Bill Murray) evolving strategies to deal with his logic-defying situation and the fact he is forced to relive the same day over and over again.

Phil’s initial strategy, after he realizes that he is trapped in an eternally repeating time-loop in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, is to assume the role of a methodical analyst. Similar to the first nuclear strategists after 1945, Phil, when presented with a hitherto unknown complex and confounding problem, meticulously studies the situation and devises various strategies to escape his predicament or, if that proves impossible, to at least coexist with it.

The major plot running through the movie is Phil’s love interest in Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell) and his attempts to woo her. Phil tries to eliminate the element of chance in his human interaction with her and attempts to find a scientifically predictable way to influence, nay coerce, Rita into falling in love with him. Through a number of carefully planned actions and signals, Phil tries to socially engineer his way into the heart of Rita — for example, by trying to recreate the romantic moment following a snowball fight — only to be rejected by her time and again. No matter how many times he tries to spark romance between Rita and him through his methodical approach (e.g., ordering her favorite drink, reciting her favorite poem etc.) he fails.

What does this have to do with nuclear deterrence or nuclear war?

Since the inception of the nuclear age, nuclear strategists have essentially been trying to do what Phil did when he wooed Rita: Find a fool-proof scientific method that eliminates chance in order to assure that you accomplish your objective on your terms: Rita’s heart in the one instance, and ‘victory’ in a nuclear arms competition without having to fight a nuclear war in the other. Nuclear strategists tried to deter and coerce nuclear-armed opponents, through actions and words, backed up by operational research, game theory, computer science, and systems analysis.

However, these nuclear strategists, like Phil, ultimately failed to eliminate chance or fortuna, as Machiavelli would have called it. Like Phil, nuclear strategists had to realize the hard way that human interactions, including romance (but also deterrence), to a certain degree rest on accident or chance, which makes it ultimately not quantifiable. For example, there is a great probability, based on statistical analysis, that the works of nuclear strategists and their ideas of nuclear deterrence have contributed to the avoidance of nuclear war if we analyze nuclear crises of the past 70 years. Nonetheless there remains the chance that this was more due to luck. There is also the chance that the reverse is true: Their ideas of nuclear deterrence could have inadvertently contributed to increasing the likelihood of a nuclear exchange.

My major point is that we constantly need to re-examine our belief system. We continuously need to re-evaluate ideas and concepts that we have become accustomed to see as the ultimate bedrock of our national security, such as nuclear deterrence. This is especially true when discussing the actions and recommendations of the government and military planners (as, for example, outlined in today’s released Nuclear Posture Review) to maintain a credible deterrent. There is no foolproof method to avoid nuclear war as long as nuclear weapons are around.

As Dr. Strangelove noted: “Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy… the fear to attack.” It is an art, because we cannot scientifically measure fear, nor can we scientifically predict human actions as a consequence of fear. While we can make assumptions — for example, that states will not launch nuclear weapons if there is the chance that even one nuclear detonation on their territory will occur in retaliation — it would only take one nuclear missile to disprove the prevailing consensus on this subject.

Phil in the end realized that he could not eliminate chance and engineer a path for Rita to fall in love with him. He also accepted that he could not escape the time-loop and Punxsutawney. As a result, he became more human — and ultimately resolved his situation. It would be naïve to assume that nuclear-armed powers will get rid of their nuclear arsenals and abandon nuclear deterrence as their current modus operandi based on the proposition that the chance for something bad to happen cannot be eliminated; however, it may be the only way to guarantee that nuclear weapons are not used.