The president prizes "unpredictability," but history isn't on his side.
- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Donald Trump has repeatedly emphasized the value of being “unpredictable,” and has established a pattern of firing off ill-conceived threats that do make him appear slightly unhinged. His apparent hope is that this sort of behavior will persuade both allies and adversaries will do his bidding, for fear that this irrational and impulsive man will fly off the handle and do something terrible.
In other words, Trump appears to subscribe to the so-called madman theory of diplomacy. The best-known articulation of this idea was by former president Richard Nixon in the context of the Vietnam War. As Nixon explained it to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman:
“I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. 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.”
Trump’s fondness for this notion has already prompted a serious critique by Dani Nedal and Daniel Nexon and fueled concerns about Trump’s control over the United States’ nuclear arsenal. Indeed, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) have already introduced legislation that would restrict the president’s ability to launch a nuclear first strike without consulting Congress. Their bill is essentially symbolic and unlikely to pass, but it (and similar proposals) shows how uncomfortable people are with having a willfully unpredictable president with his finger on the nuclear trigger.
As a bargaining technique, the madman theory has a certain logical coherence to it. After all, if you see some large person ranting loudly on the sidewalk or in a bar, you’d sensibly try to stay out of their way, avoid eye contact, and wait for them to move on. But it’s not clear you’d do much more than that, and you certainly wouldn’t give them the keys to your car or the deed to your house just to avoid trouble.
More importantly, is there any evidence that this approach actually works in the real world of international diplomacy? If the madman theory were a useful guide to statecraft, then past world leaders with a well-deserved reputation for unpredictability, impulsiveness, irascibility, violence, and bizarre behavior should have been extremely successful at getting what they want. Is that in fact the case? What does the historical record show?
- Muammar al-Qaddafi. The late Col. Qaddafi was one wacky guy, whose outrageous behavior, bizarre uniforms, incomprehensible ideology, and inexplicable conduct left almost everyone who dealt with him mystified and concerned. He was able to use Libya’s oil wealth to cause a certain amount of trouble — including a number of acts of state terrorism — but what was the end result of Qaddafi’s unpredictable behavior? He was isolated and friendless by the end of his rule, Libya was a basket case despite its oil riches, strict international sanctions had forced him to abandon his failed attempts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and he eventually got murdered by a rebel mob. Mad, perhaps; a total failure, most definitely.
- Mao Zedong. Mao was not without abilities: He led a successful Communist revolution, helped defeat Japan in World War II, and successfully consolidated power after the Chinese Civil War. He also made famously cavalier statements about nuclear war (saying China’s vast population would allow it to survive even if hundreds of millions died), and U.S. leaders were genuinely worried about what he might do after China tested its own bomb in 1964. But equally important, Mao was a disastrous leader whose impulsive, unpredictable, self-centered, and ignorant policies (e.g., the disastrous “Great Leap Forward” or the chaotic Cultural Revolution) caused the needless deaths of millions of Chinese. In the end, Mao’s mercurial and unpredictable nature got him nowhere and held the country back for decades.
- Idi Amin. Anyone’s list of mad world leaders has to include Amin, whose violent, autocratic and bizarre behavior (such as declaring himself king of Scotland) convulsed Uganda from 1971 to 1979. Unpredictable he certainly was, if not quite mad, but his antics generated no noteworthy international benefits. On the contrary, an ill-advised clash with Tanzania led to his deposition in 1979, and he spent the rest of his life in exile in Saudi Arabia.
- Saddam Hussein. In the “unpredictable dictator” category, Saddam Hussein is a poster child. He was a ruthless tyrant, used chemical weapons against his own people and against Iran, and started (and lost) two costly wars. He tried to get nuclear weapons but never succeeded, was mostly isolated and mostly friendless in the Arab world, and he eventually got overthrown and executed after the U.S. invasion in 2003. Saddam’s “unpredictability” never benefited him in the slightest; in fact, it was one of the reasons hawks used to justify preventive war against him.
- Pol Pot. A clearer case of a murderous “madman” leader would be hard to find. As leader of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Pol Pot bears primary responsibility for one of the great mass killings of the post-World War II period. But being brutal, morally depraved, and unpredictable ultimately got him ousted by a North Vietnamese invasion. He is alleged to have committed suicide years later, upon learning he was about to be handed over to an international tribunal.
- Adolf Hitler. Arguably history’s greatest villain, Hitler fits the madman theory pretty well. He was unpredictable and willing to take enormous risks, and one could even argue that these qualities worked for him for a while. But not for long: In the end he ended up dead in a bunker in Berlin and the country he led was divided in two for more than four decades.
- The Kim family. The Kim dynasty in North Korea is routinely depicted as ruthless, risk-acceptant, and dangerously irrational. I personally think this characterization is overstated, and much of their behavior has actually been crudely effective at keeping the regime in power. But apart from that limited objective, it is hard to argue that their reputation for unpredictability has advanced North Korea’s cause very much. The nation is still isolated and poor, while their southern neighbors have become prosperous and respected around the world. Turns out being a successful “madman” still has its limits.
I could go on, but the key lesson is that there is little or no evidence that the madman theory of diplomacy actually works. In particular, leaders with a reputation for being mad or unpredictable haven’t been able to cow their opponents or extract valuable concessions from them. They consistently fail instead, often in spectacular fashion.
And when you think about it, this isn’t at all surprising. When other states deal with a powerful but unpredictable leader, they may tread carefully but they aren’t going to make big concessions. After all, if a madman is dangerous now, doing anything that makes them more powerful just makes them more dangerous later. Appeasement is sometimes a smart diplomatic strategy, but only if one believes that making concessions will remove grievances, reduce suspicions, make the other side more benign, and allow mutually beneficial relations to emerge. That approach is pointless when dealing with an unpredictable madman, however, because one cannot be confident they won’t do something bizarre or provocative tomorrow.
Moreover, unpredictable leaders also fail because they cannot attract or sustain reliable allied support. This problem isn’t surprising either; who would want to link their fates to an unpredictable, erratic, and hotheaded partner? It’s hardly surprising that most of the impulsive leaders discussed above ended up isolated and eventually became the targets of concerted and powerful opposition. And there’s a lesson here for President Trump: When a sensible, middle-of-the-road columnist like Gideon Rachman is calling the United States a “dangerous nation,” it shows you where having a reputation for being unpredictable leads.
Finally, madmen fail because they usually aren’t good at designing effective long-term strategies or managing the large organizations that make up a modern state. Madmen thrive on chaos, internal divisions, Game of Thrones-style intrigue, and other performance-killing pathologies. All you have to do is compare the George H.W. Bush White House — a model of disciplined policymaking — with the weird combination of soap opera and court intrigue that exists in the Trump administration to see the handicaps that unpredictable leaders impose.
The bottom line is clear: Being unpredictable may make sense in sports or poker, or even on a battlefield, but it’s a losing strategy for a great nation’s foreign policy. All we need to do now is convince our failing president. Good luck with that!
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