The Return of the Madman Theory
Is Donald Trump reviving the "madman theory" of diplomacy, introduced by Richard Nixon to instill fear in America's adversaries? North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's description of Trump as "mentally deranged" suggests that such a ploy might be working – or else Kim is more right than he, or the rest of us, would like.
MOSCOW – In the 1970s, US President Richard Nixon instructed Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to convince the leaders of hostile communist countries that he could be erratic and volatile, particularly when under pressure. Kissinger, a shrewd practitioner of Realpolitik, saw the potential in this approach, which he readily implemented. With that, the “madman theory” of diplomacy was born.
Nixon was far from mad, though his heavy drinking at the height of the Watergate scandal prompted Kissinger and Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger to establish a way to monitor his control of the nuclear codes. Nixon’s goal in trumpeting his supposed erratic nature was to stoke fear among his foreign adversaries that making him angry or stressed could result in an irrational – even nuclear – response, thereby impelling them to check their own behavior.
Today, with Donald Trump leading the United States, the madman doctrine is back with a vengeance. But, this time around, it is far less clear that it’s just an act, and that Trump would not really decide, in a fit of rage or frustration, to attack, or even nuke, his opponents.
Exhibit A in a hearing on Trump’s sanity would have to be his recent address to the United Nations General Assembly, which resembled the lunatic ramblings of Aerys Targaryen, the “mad king” in the television show “Game of Thrones.” Putting his own spin on Targaryen’s infamous line “burn them all,” Trump threatened that the US would “totally destroy” North Korea if it continues to develop its nuclear program.
In the same speech, Trump also savaged the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran. As he spoke, his chief of staff, retired US Marine Corps General John Kelly, who was appointed in July to bring order and a degree of stability to Trump’s White House sanitarium, could be seen with his head in his hands, as if in shock or despair.
Many Americans have perhaps grown desensitized to Trump’s off-the-wall tirades, having endured months of his late-night Twitter assaults on the press, his opponents and fellow Republicans, even his own cabinet members. The famously thin-skinned Trump has shown that, when provoked or insulted, he can be counted on to retaliate.
But, unlike many of Trump’s previous unhinged ramblings, the UN speech was read from a teleprompter, which means that it was vetted ahead of time. Those who thought that the “grownups” in Trump’s administration – Kelly, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster – would keep US security strategy within the bounds of reason might need to think again.
Perhaps the maddest part of all is Trump’s apparent calculation that North Korea’s boy-king Kim Jong-un might cower in the face of his threats. After President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” in 1983, he was advised not to repeat it, in the interest of improving the bilateral relationship. Recognizing the importance of such an improvement for mitigating the nuclear threat, Reagan followed his advisers’ counsel. The same cannot be said of Trump, who surely has been warned of the dangers of hurling insults like “Rocket Man” at the brutal and inexperienced Kim.
When Nixon adopted his own “mad” persona, he was in some ways drawing on the example of Nikita Khrushchev, my grandfather and Nixon’s adversary during his tenure as US vice president. In the so-called “kitchen debate” of 1959 – one of the Cold War’s weirdest moments – Nixon sparred with Khrushchev in Moscow over the superiority of capitalism over socialism.
A year later, at the UN General Assembly in New York, Khrushchev made quite the appearance. Cuba’s new revolutionary leader Fidel Castro was, as was his wont, flamboyantly issuing extravagant threats. Not to be outdone, “Hurricane Nikita” used every opportunity to stir the diplomatic pot, whistling and banging his fists – and even, allegedly, his shoe – on the desk.
There was abundant evidence that Western powers had been trying to hoodwink the Soviet Union. A U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, which President Dwight Eisenhower had denied existed, had been shot down over Soviet territory. Moreover, the US had demanded that the Soviet Union respect the Monroe Doctrine, which assigned Latin America to America’s sphere of interest, but was unwilling to accept Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe. And it had dismissed a Soviet-initiated disarmament plan, the first official attempt at peaceful coexistence, out of hand.
The West, Khrushchev thought, didn’t take him seriously. This is why he acted so outrageously at the UN. He behaved, he explained later, as the early Bolsheviks would: when you disagree with an opponent, you must make your argument loud and clear – and drown theirs with noise.
In 1962, Khrushchev took this approach a step further, testing the young President John F. Kennedy with a “mad” plan to install nuclear missiles in Cuba. The move triggered the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most dangerous standoff of the Cold War. But JFK did not cower, nor did he respond with bluster. Instead, he cleverly ignored Khrushchev’s threats, and instead responded to a letter that showed the Soviet premier as a rational leader negotiating for parity in world affairs. That cool calculation enabled JFK and Khrushchev to defuse tensions, saving the world from nuclear conflict.
The world must now hope that Trump can begin to act as coolly in assessing Kim as JFK was dealing with Khrushchev. Kim responded to Trump’s UN speech by calling him “mentally deranged” and a “dotard.” Either Trump’s madman act is working, or Kim is more right than he – or the rest of us – would like.
Trump on the Warpath
The US suffers from an arrogance of military power disconnected from today’s geopolitical realities. The US is on this path again, heading for a collision with a nuclear-armed adversary, and it will remain on it unless other countries, other American leaders, and public opinion block the way.
NEW YORK – Fifteen years after George W. Bush declared that Iraq, Iran, and North Korea formed “an axis of evil,” Donald Trump, in his maiden address to the United Nations, denounced Iran and North Korea in similarly vitriolic terms. Words have consequences, and Trump’s constitute a dire and immediate threat to global peace, just as Bush’s words did in 2002.
Back then, Bush was widely praised for his response to the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. It’s easy to rally the public to war, and that was especially true after 9/11. Yet, on every front – Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea – US militarism squandered global trust, lives, finances, and precious time. And Trump’s approach is far more belligerent – and dangerous – than Bush’s.
For Trump, as for Bush, there is Good (America) and Evil (Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iran, North Korea, and Iraq under Saddam Hussein). America the Good makes demands on the evildoers. If the evildoers do not comply, America can exercise the “military option” or impose punitive sanctions to enforce “justice” as the United States defines it.
Bush applied the logic of force vis-à-vis Afghanistan and the “axis of evil,” with disastrous results. The US quickly overthrew the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2002 but could not secure order. Fifteen years on, the Taliban controls considerable territory, and Trump has just ordered an increase in troops. America has spent roughly $800 billion in direct military outlays in Afghanistan, and indeed has been at war there almost non-stop since the CIA covertly intervened in 1979, helping to provoke the Soviet invasion of that country.
The response to Iraq was even worse. The US invaded in 2003 on false pretenses (Saddam’s alleged but nonexistent weapons of mass destruction), squandered another $800 billion in direct military outlays, destabilized the country, caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, and, contrary to stated US objectives, plunged the region into turmoil. The indirect costs of the two wars (including the long-term costs of veterans’ disabilities) roughly equal the direct costs.
Bush’s hardline approach toward Iran also produced none of the envisioned results. Iran’s regional influence – particularly in Iraq, but also in Syria and Lebanon – is stronger today than 15 years ago. Its ballistic missile development is much further advanced. And the halt in its development of nuclear weapons is due entirely to President Barack Obama’s diplomacy, not Bush’s militarism and threats.
Bush’s approach vis-à-vis North Korea was similarly unsuccessful. At the start of 2002, a fragile 1994 agreement between the US and North Korea was still restraining the North’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons, though the US had dragged its feet on several parts of the agreement. Scorned by Bush administration hardliners, the agreement collapsed in mutual recrimination in 2002. In January 2003, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and resumed full-scale weapons-development efforts. Now the country has thermonuclear bombs and ballistic missiles.
All four cases reflect the same US failing. The US has repeatedly disdained negotiation as a sign of weakness and appeasement. The hardline approach is initially popular with much of the US public, but invariably ends in grief.
Trump is doubling down. He has all but declared his intention to abandon the nuclear agreement with Iran, signed not only by the US but also by the other four permanent Security Council members (China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom) and Germany. Abandoning the 2015 deal would parallel Bush’s abandonment of the nuclear agreement with North Korea. Israel and Saudi Arabia recklessly encourage Trump’s Iran policy, but both countries stand to lose grievously if the deal falls apart.
In the case of North Korea, Trump’s approach is even more reckless, threatening that the US will “totally destroy” the country if it does not agree to abandon its nuclear program. The probability that North Korea will accede to the US demand is close to zero. The probability of provoking a nuclear war is high and rising. Indeed, North Korea has asserted that the US has effectively declared war, though the White House has denied that interpretation.
Trump, like Bush, has turned President John F. Kennedy’s famous dictum on its head. JFK told Americans that they should never negotiate out of fear, but never fear to negotiate. Trump, like Bush, rejects negotiations, for fear of appearing weak, in favor of unilateral demands backed by the threat or reality of force.
With some vision, it would not be hard to see Iran and the US cooperating on many fronts, instead of facing off with threats of war. Achieving the two-state solution in Israel and Palestine would also help to defuse Iran’s anti-Israel stance.
In the case of North Korea, the regime is seeking a nuclear arsenal to deter a US-led attempt at regime change. Those fears are not completely misplaced. The US has, after all, overthrown or at least tried to overthrow non-nuclear regimes that it opposes, including in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and (unsuccessfully) Syria. The North Korean regime has declared explicitly that it seeks “military equilibrium” with the US in order to avert a similar scenario.
The US suffers from an arrogance of military power disconnected from today’s geopolitical realities. Militarism has failed time and again – and is more dangerous than ever. Trump, a malignant narcissist, is seeking instant gratification and a political “win.” America’s recent wars have provided such immediate gratification, before quickly giving way to grief – the ultimate quick high followed by a very deep low. The US is on this path again, heading for a collision with a nuclear-armed adversary, and it will remain on it unless other countries, other American leaders, and public opinion block the way.
There is a better path: negotiations with Iran and North Korea over mutual security interests that are direct, transparent, objective, and free of US military threats. The same is true regarding the conflicts in Syria, Libya, Israel-Palestine, Yemen, and elsewhere. And there is a venue for this: the UN Security Council, created in 1945 to negotiate solutions when the world hovers between war and peace.
Trump’s Chaos Theory of Government
In the weeks since Donald Trump’s inauguration as US president, it has become clear that he and his chief adviser, Stephen Bannon, intend to roll back liberal egalitarianism – and not just in America. Their ideological project should worry progressives and conservatives alike.
WARSAW – In the weeks since Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States, it has become clear that he intends to roll back the progressive-egalitarian agenda that is commonly associated with “political correctness” to the starting block – not just in the United States, but globally. Stephen Bannon, Trump’s White House Svengali and former CEO of the extreme right Breitbart News, has long pursued this ideological project, and we now know that what he or Trump says must be taken both seriously and literally.
Trump’s transition was initially reassuring, because he nominated many undeniably serious (if also seriously well-heeled) people to his cabinet. But, after the inauguration, all hell broke loose as Trump and Bannon began to implement their project in earnest.
First, Trump appointed Bannon to the National Security Council’s highest body, the principals committee. Then he nominated Ted Malloch, an obscure business studies professor at the University of Reading, in England, as US Ambassador to the European Union. Malloch recently expressed a desire to “short the euro,” and predicted that the currency will not survive another 18 months. Trump has also increased the likelihood of a trade war with Mexico, and he has been willing to confront major US corporations over his executive order banning travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries.
The ideological project that Trump and Bannon will seek to carry out could have far-reaching geopolitical and economic implications that should worry not only progressives, but also dyed-in-the-wool conservatives like me. To understand how far they are willing to go, one must understand their ultimate aims.
Most disturbingly, Trump and Bannon’s agenda seems likely to entail policies to weaken, destabilize, or even ultimately dismantle the EU. No motive other than ideology can explain Trump’s open hostility to the bloc, his bizarre ambassadorial appointment, or his notorious question to EU President Donald Tusk: “What country is next to leave?”
In conventional geostrategic terms, the EU is almost a costless extension of US political and military power. Owing to NATO’s significant military superiority, and the EU’s role as a barrier to Russian expansion, the US can avoid becoming entangled in a “hot war” with Russia. Meanwhile, the EU – together with Japan – is a dependable economic and military ally, whose friendship allows the US to speak for the “international community.”
There are no circumstances in which dismantling the Western international order is in America’s national interest – even when perceived through a nationalist lens. A truly “America first” administration would rightly expect its allies to pull their weight within NATO, and to defer to US foreign policies on non-European issues. But it would never gratuitously dismantle an essentially free multiplier of US power, as Trump’s foreign policy threatens to do.
If I am right about Trump and Bannon’s ideological agenda, we can expect them to find a way to support far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election this year, and to encourage a “hard Brexit” for the United Kingdom (only to leave it in the lurch afterwards). Trump will also likely lift the sanctions that the US imposed on Russia after its 2014 annexation of Crimea. After all, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Bannon are ideological twins.
Moreover, we should not put much stock in any security assurances that Secretary of Defense James Mattis may have offered to South Korea and Japan during his East Asia trip. Such promises are worth as little as Trump’s pledge to Polish President Andrzej Duda that “Poland can count on America.”
Domestically, Americans should be prepared to watch the administration dismiss officials who do not defend its agenda, and disregard court orders that inhibit its actions. In fact, we have already seen early signs of this when complaints emerged that immigration agents in New York were ignoring a federal judge’s emergency stay on Trump’s travel ban.
The prospects for business are just as sobering. Sooner or later, Trump’s destabilizing foreign policy will lead to global economic turbulence, uncertainty, and reduced investment – even barring full-scale trade wars. And domestically, his weakening of the rule of law will negate any potential economic benefits from tax cuts and deregulation.
Implementing this project is undoubtedly a dangerous strategy for Trump. By polarizing the American public to such an extent, he and the Republicans could suffer defeat in the 2018 midterm elections or in the 2020 presidential election; and he could even expose himself to the risk of impeachment.
There are two possible explanations for why Trump would take these risks. The first is that divisiveness has worked for him so far, by winning him the Republican nomination and the presidency. Politicians tend to stick with what works – until it fails.
The second explanation is that Bannon is calling the political shots, and is more interested in building a permanent populist “movement” than he is in getting Trump reelected. If Bannon wants to transform the American political landscape, an impeached or defeated Trump could become an ideal martyr for his movement.
That may not bode well for Trump himself; but, in this scenario, Trump’s fate will not weigh heavily on Bannon, who has set his sights on achieving goals that will leave America and the world very different from how he and his putative boss found them.
Trump’s UN Hypocrisy
US President Donald Trump’s tone in his maiden address to the United Nations was that of a dissatisfied tenant, blaming the landlord for his home’s poor state of repair. But the UN is only as good as those who inhabit it, not least the US itself.
DENVER – US President Donald Trump’s first address to the United Nations General Assembly will be remembered, above all, for its bizarre language, and its descriptions of North Korea as “depraved,” Iran as “murderous,” and Cuba and Venezuela as “corrupt.” And, beyond calling out miscreant member states by name, Trump also offered a fervent defense of his “America First” agenda.
But while Trump’s particular choice of words was new to the UN, his arguments were not. He pointed out, with some justification, that other countries also put their own national interests first. And he reprised a longstanding complaint within US foreign-policymaking circles: that it is somehow excessive and unfair to expect American taxpayers to pay for 22% of the UN’s total budget.
After calling on the General Assembly to do its part to implement and then enforce sanctions against North Korea, Trump said, “Let’s see how they do.” But referring to the UN as “they” implies that it is something apart from the US. Trump’s tone was that of a dissatisfied tenant, blaming the landlord for his home’s poor state of repair. But the UN is only as good as those who inhabit it, not least the US itself.
In his speech, Trump listed America’s many contributions to the world, and suggested that it keeps the UN around as a sort of favor to other countries in need of an international forum. He assumed no US responsibility for the UN’s fortunes, failures, or even its achievements. But, in addition to contributing more than any other country to the UN budget, the US also plays an outsize role within the institution. The US can thus claim credit for many of the UN’s successes; but it is also responsible for many of its failures.
It is worth remembering that no UN secretary-general assumes office without US support. And, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the US has veto power over any UN action, including sanctions, deployments of peacekeepers, and official condemnations of other member states. Even if the UN’s large institutional bureaucracy can be unwieldy at times, its effectiveness ultimately depends on its most influential members.
Consider the Bosnian conflict in the early 1990s, when the Security Council decided to send in UN peacekeepers, rather than deploying a more robust multilateral presence, as would have been allowed under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. The United Kingdom and France, which contributed the bulk of the peacekeeping force, insisted on a peacekeeping mandate, because they did not want to put their troops in harm’s way.
The US, for its part, refused to contribute any troops at all, and thus had no right to call for a stronger mandate that would have allowed UN forces to step in to end the violence. Although many Americans had witnessed the carnage from their living rooms and wanted the UN to do more to stop it, neither they nor their leaders – first George H.W. Bush and then Bill Clinton – had any interest in sending American troops to be a part of a Bosnian peacekeeping force. The result, as we now know, was that the killing continued, sometimes in the presence of UN peacekeepers whose countries had not given them a strong enough mandate to intervene.
By the time the US-led Dayton Accords had put an end to the war, in December 1995, the UN’s peacekeeping capacity had been so thoroughly discredited that NATO war-fighting troops were sent in to take over from the UN Protection Force. In other words, when the situation required war fighters, peacekeepers were dispatched; and when the situation called for peacekeepers, war fighters were sent. None of this apparent dysfunction had anything to do with the UN. It was a direct result of UN member states’ decision-making.
Even Trump’s dystopian and dyspeptic speech conceded that the UN makes valuable contributions to world peace, through peacekeeping missions and other forms of assistance. More often than not, this work is done in far-flung countries, where direct US involvement would be unpalatable to many American politicians’ constituents.
The UN is far from perfect. But, rather than bash it, American leaders, starting with Trump, should understand that its actions and decisions are often an extension of their own.