Luigi Di Maio, Leader of 5-Star Movement Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

Madmen in Authority

With concerns about Italy's public debt growing, Italian populists have taken a page from US President Donald Trump's playbook and threatened to blow up the eurozone if they don't get their way. The European Union must resist the temptation to engage in a dangerous game of chicken.

PRINCETON – In The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, John Maynard Keynes famously worried that, “Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

Yet even without prescriptive theories, feigning “frenzy” or madness can also be a plausible, powerful, and rather contagious negotiating strategy. In the early 1970s, US President Richard Nixon adopted the tactic to convince the North Vietnamese that he had his finger on the “nuclear button,” and that they had better negotiate a deal to end the war – or else. And in 1986, President Ronald Reagan met with Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik and surprised him by proposing that the United States and the Soviet Union both destroy all of their nuclear weapons.

Whether a crisis is escalating or de-escalating, the madman strategy’s effectiveness seems to depend on the extent to which a political leader’s “insanity” is ambiguous – so much so that even historians won’t know where to draw the line between sincerity and artifice.

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