War Stories

Return of the Madman Theory

Trump’s foreign policy is so erratic and unpredictable, it might just make the world more stable—for a very short time.

Donald Trump, Richard Nixon.
Donald Trump and Richard Nixon.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ron Sach/Pool/Getty Images, AFP/Getty Images.

President Donald Trump’s most nerve-racking trait—his unhinged impulsiveness, driven more by random stimuli and shifts in mood than by careful study or long-held principles—might be having an oddly stabilizing influence in the world’s crisis-strewn regions, at least for a little while.

Consider what Richard Nixon called “the Madman Theory.” In the early years of his presidency, he told his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, to warn the North Vietnamese that Nixon was crazy. Nixon is obsessed with Communism, Kissinger was supposed to say. He can’t be restrained when he’s angry, and for God’s sake, he has his hand on the nuclear button. In two days’ time, Nixon predicted, Ho Chi Minh will be “begging for peace.”

The ploy didn’t work, in part because the North Vietnamese didn’t believe it. Whatever the many other eccentricities that Nixon had displayed in a quarter-century of public life, he wasn’t a madman, at least not in that way.

Trump, on the other hand, really does seem to be, if not quite insane, at least erratic, unpredictable, prone to outbursts of violence detached from coherent policy (e.g., firing 59 cruise missiles at Syria, to little effect, followed by nothing) and drastic reversals of opinion (e.g., recent statements on NATO, China, Russia, Janet Yellen, and the Ex-Im Bank, to name a few).

I am not suggesting that Trump has intentionally adopted Nixon’s madman strategy (or any strategy at all). I am proposing, however, that his behavior might be having the effect that Nixon desired.

It may well be that certain world leaders, most notably Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, watch Trump in motion and, as a result, start acting cautiously—as well clamping down on their more antic-prone allies—because they just don’t know what this guy might be capable of. Xi, for instance, recently turned away a boatload of coal from North Korea, one of the country’s chief exports, as a further signal of displeasure over Kim Jong-un’s nuclear tests. We will see if Putin cracks the whip on Bashar al-Assad.

In his 1960 book On Thermonuclear War, the flamboyant nuclear strategist Herman Kahn likened certain kinds of conflict to the game of highway chicken. Two cars speed toward each other, head on, late at night. In the standard version of the game, there are three possible outcomes. One driver gets nervous and veers away; he loses. Both drivers veer away; the game’s a draw. They both keep zooming straight ahead; everybody dies. But Khan posited a fourth outcome and an unconventional way to win: One driver yanks the steering wheel from his dashboard and visibly throws it out the window; the other driver, seeing that his opponent can’t pull off the road, has no choice but to veer away himself.

In this analogy, Trump is the guy who’s thrown the steering wheel out the window, possibly without knowing what the steering wheel does. The other drivers, Russia or China, can’t be sure of his motives, but they’d better get out of the way anyway.

Trump may take this analogy as vindication of his approach to public relations. He has said that he wants to foment uncertainty in the minds of adversaries (or, sometimes he’s suggested, in the minds of all foreigners), to throw them off-guard. That may be happening to some extent, but the effect will likely wear off soon—or if it persists, the results will be grim for global stability and American interests.

The United States is fundamentally a status quo power. It helped create the international system that took hold at the end of World War II; and so it becomes stronger as the values, institutions, and processes of that system spread. (It has become weaker in the last quarter-century, since the end of the Cold War, in part because the system has broken down.) This being the case, America thrives, in large part, by being a guarantor of that system—and a guarantor of the security of the system’s members. In this role, an American president must appear to be reliable. There is a place for strategic ambiguity but not for uncertainty.

If no one knows what to expect of the United States, maybe, for a while, adversaries will grow cautious—but for the same reason, allies will get nervous, and they will turn to others for security. Maybe they’ll cut deals with one of the adversaries, or maybe they’ll form their own separate alliances. Either way, the United States will find itself cut out of the action—the basis of its strength and influence eroded.

Meanwhile, some who might at first have been cowed by Trump’s unpredictability are finding ways to exploit it for their own interests. This is because Trump’s version of the Madman Theory is entirely accidental; his erratic flips and eruptions stem not from strategic calculation but rather from sheer ignorance of the issues. He decided not to call China a “currency manipulator,” despite promising for more than a year that he would do so, because he just found out that China hasn’t been a currency manipulator for some time. He decided that NATO is no longer “obsolete” because it now has a counterterrorism policy, not knowing that the alliance has had a counterterrorism policy since 2001. And he’s suddenly learned that getting North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program is—like repealing and replacing Obamacare—more complicated than he’d realized.

Trump told the Wall Street Journal that he made this discovery in the course of an hourlong phone conversation with Chinese President Xi. Trump offered Xi a better trade deal if Xi would only hammer the pesky North Koreans on nukes, but then Xi gave him a history lesson on the politics between the two nations. “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Trump said. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power over North Korea. But it’s not what you would think.”

Actually, it is “what you would think” if “you” were someone who’d read up on the topic, but Trump clearly has not done that, not even a little bit. You would also think that his advisers might have briefed him on the subject right before a summit with the Chinese president, but they didn’t do that—or not at an adequate level of detail. The Pentagon and the State Department are still woefully understaffed; Trump has not so much as nominated a single assistant or undersecretary for either department. He has also insisted that his daily intelligence briefings consist of no more than three topics, no longer than one page per topic, with bold conclusions; if there are dissenting views from one agency or another, he doesn’t want to hear about them. As a result, it seems, he needs to get lessons on Asian geopolitics from the Chinese president himself. The next time they talk, will Xi lay out the reasons for China’s expansion into the South China Sea—and will Trump suddenly see the light from Beijing’s angle?

In short, Xi sees that the American president can be played. Trump is erratic in part because he knows so little and he has failed to build an administration that systematically fills the gaps in his knowledge. So Xi will fill them at key moments. Other leaders will follow suit if they can. Maybe Trump will learn enough that he screws the steering wheel back into the dashboard. The question, at that point, will be whose directions he takes on where to drive the car.