Trump UN speech Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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.

We hope you're enjoying Project Syndicate.

To continue reading, subscribe now.

Subscribe

Get unlimited access to PS premium content, including in-depth commentaries, book reviews, exclusive interviews, On Point, the Big Picture, the PS Archive, and our annual year-ahead magazine.

http://prosyn.org/MGw46EL;

Handpicked to read next

Cookies and Privacy

We use cookies to improve your experience on our website. To find out more, read our updated cookie policy and privacy policy.