The Madman Theory of diplomacy from Nixon to Trump: shrewd brinkmanship or dangerous naivety?

Richard M. Nixon
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In 1968, Richard Nixon was elected US President.  He ran with a foreign policy platform promising to end the internecine war in Vietnam and allow the US to withdraw from the quagmire in South East Asia.v

However, despite the administration’s best efforts, it seemed that there was no peaceful end in sight. Peace talks between the North and South Vietnamese remained at a standstill in the early 1970s. With the Soviets doing nothing to expedite the end of the war, Nixon decided to shift diplomacy strategies. With Henry Kissinger, his firebrand Secretary of State, he strove to end the Vietnam War in the shortest period of time with an unorthodox move.

Nixon himself had years of foreign policy experience. Under the tutelage of President Dwight Eisenhower, he saw first hand the art of Cold War brinkmanship with the USSR during his eight-year tenure as Vice President. He held grudging respect for the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s abilities to “scare the hell out of everybody” on the international stage.

These factors helped him arrive at his new strategy to end the Vietnam war and to minimise the Soviet threat: the Madman Theory. In essence, Nixon intended to convince Soviet commanders that he was mad, willing to escalate even the localised Vietnam war to the level of all-out nuclear warfare, in his crusade against the scourge of the Communist threat.

According to Nixon’s Chief of Staff, Robert Haldeman, Nixon himself had labelled his posturing as “the Madman Theory”, and stating to Haldeman,

“I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, “for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button” and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace”

Nixon was not the first articulation of such a logic. Machiavelli (the 16th century Italian political thinker) first aired this stratagem in his Discourses on Livy, writing, “at times it is a very wise thing to simulate madness.”

However, Nixon was practicing this thesis in the advent of nuclear warfare. It was a wholly risky endeavour, should the Soviets ever call his bluff and choose to strike first. He calculated various displays of unpredictable belligerence in response to the Vietnam war stalemate. These include: a bloody invasions and indiscriminate bombings of Cambodia and Laos, a pivot to engage with Mao’s China and the especially destructive 1972 December Raids of Hanoi. These raids were the largest bombing strikes launched by the US since the Second World War. To both the Soviets and the North Vietnamese, Kissinger broadcast actions such as the US invasion of Cambodia as a symptom of Nixon’s supposed instability. The December Raids were soon followed by the restarting of peace talks with Hanoi and Moscow in early January 1973.


Obama as an Anti-Nixon?

In complete contrast to this Nixonian approach, under the two-term tenure of US President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry, the Obama administration has been almost the antithesis of unpredictability, rashness or uncertainty. In response to the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, for example, Kerry displayed cool rationalism to the Kremlin by articulating, “We would like to see this conflict de-escalated. We are not looking for some major confrontation”. When asked about the option to send troops to Ukraine in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Obama argued,”We are not going to be getting into a military excursion in Ukraine”, thus taking the most extreme option off the table.


A new era of Mad Men?

In recent years, it appears there has been a resurgence in unpredictable leaders coming to the fore, departing significantly from the Obama style of diplomacy. The most extreme case is the regime of Kim Jong-un, ruling the isolated North Korea with unwavering authoritarianism. In a similar vein to his father,  Kim projects unpredictability on the global stage and cultivates a willingness to sustain high costs. According to a 2016 Pew poll, Americans rank North Korean nuclear arms development as the biggest threat facing the country’s national security Those fears are due to the overwhelming level of uncertainty and ambiguity regarding  Kim’s logic. In short, the Madman theory.

Similarly, Muammar Gaddafi, the President of Libya until his death in 2011, nurtured the image of an unhinged despot to both his citizens and repel potential threats to his hold on power from around the world.

Vladimir Putin propagates the view of himself as willing to incur any cost to achieve his revanchist goals and retain power of Russia, with the Ukraine conflict leading the country to suffer isolation and harsh economic sanctions. One ambassador to Moscow stated,

“There’s a rationale in being perceived as unpredictable […] Russian state television is aiding Putin by creating an atmosphere of collective psychosis. The Russian strategy is to scare the West by portraying Putin as unpredictable. If you’ve got a madman in power, a country’s nuclear weapons take on a completely new dimension”

Rodrigo Duterte was elected President of the Philippines in 2016. Unpredictability and rashness have been a hallmark of his tenure thus far. For example, in October 2016, Duterte broke with decades of close US-Philippines co-operation by announcing a “separation” from the United States in a statement that shocked many in Washington and indeed in Manila. Concurrently, Duterte broadcast his hopes for closer co-operation with China, signing thirteen memoranda of understanding and bilateral cooperation documents for closer economic and cultural connections.

One key factor of Madman theory is the idea that you are willing to risk great amounts to achieve your goal. Nixon projected an irrational willingness to risk nuclear war with the Soviets. In the case of Duterte, it is clear that the Philippines would suffer if it were to abrogate US military treaties: the Philippines depend so much on the US for their military hardware and assistance, as well as economic, humanitarian and educational support.

Of course, the pivot to China does not mean that observers in Washington or Beijing now know where President Duterte stands. First of all, Duterte has yet to back up his incendiary remarks with state actions. He would need Senate support to end the US military alliance treaty and many Philippines politicians have stated that there would be no support for this measure if Duterte were to bring it to a vote.

Furthermore, Duterte has made surprisingly hostile remarks to China, showing his willingness to risk war with Beijing over the South China sea dispute. In August 2016,  Duterte warned of starting a  “bloody” confrontation should China try to invade the contested terroritories. This second volte-face fits in with a Nixonian view of unpredictable Madman diplomacy.

Trying to make sense of Duterte’s unpredictable attempt at rebalancing the Philippines’ position toward the US and Chinese poles of influence is a difficult feat. One must be ever cognisant of that fact that Duterte is only four months into a six-year Presidential term. He was elected on a domestic-focused platform with radical proposals for Filipino society. With little to no foreign policy experience, one must take his brazen conjectures with a grain of salt.

In the end, the unpredictability of Duterte may not be as a result of shrewd geopolitical calculations, but rather as a result of naivity concerning international relations.

Which brings us to Donald J Trump, Republican nominee for US President.

In the 1970s, Nixon’s ultimate goal with his erratic brinkmanship theory was that he wanted his adversaries to continually entertain the idea that he was “madman” that eschewed predictability or even concern for the consequences of his radical actions. For Trump, many people already hold these views of the entertainer/property mogul, who holds no experience in politics or international relations, and whose pronouncements about his foreign policy proposals are concerning many.

Donald Trump prides himself on these unconventional qualities. As an “outsider” of Washington, he claims he will be a proverbial breath of fresh air and “drain the swap” of Washington inefficiency, corruption and elitism.

Regarding his unpredictability on the international stage, Trump stated, “I don’t want to broadcast my intentions … You want to have a certain amount of … you want to have a little bit of guess work for the enemy.” He has substantiated this proclivity to never rule out any military option when he refused to rule out the possibility of using nuclear weapons against ISIS or even America’s long time allies in Europe.

Some of his pronouncements indicate a level of unpredictability that is unconstrained by the Geneva Convention on war crimes, to which the US is beholden, by articulating his intentions on multiple occasions to kill family members of suspected terrorists – thereby advocating the killing of innocent children for the speculated crimes of their parents – and his positive appraisal of waterboarding as a desirable torture technique “and a hell of a lot worse”

In a speech outlining his foreign policy proposals, Trump summed up his foreign policy when he stated, “We must, as a nation, be more unpredictable” and with that, aligning himself right in the Nixonian school of thought.

In conclusion, President Obama – throughout his presidency – has been very transparent in his diplomatic endeavours, maybe to the extent that Putin has exploited them in Crimea. Putin has been pushing Obama just to the point where he knows Obama won’t retaliate. This has angered domestic audiences in the US who view Obama as too prudent and ultimately harming the credibility of US power.

During the Cold War, the Nixon administration engaged in a form of – sometimes reckless –  brinkmanship to ensure that if other nations believed he was an irrational decision-maker they would be less willing to engage in nuclear escalation. We see striking parallels between Nixonian and Trumpian lines of thought about the willingness to present an air of “madman” unpredictability to ensure the US goals are achieved.

However, Nixon was an ardent student of political philosophy and throughout his political career, he read extensively on the history of political power. Trump, on the other hand, is not as prolific a reader and does not have eight years in the White House as Vice President in his arsenal of experience – or any political experience.

Here’s hoping that Trump’s revival of the Madman doctrine is not just the reckless manifestation of unfettered, uninformed and outright dangerous naïvety.

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