Former President Richard Nixon once confided to his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, about a doctrine that he established as a cornerstone of his foreign policy.
Dubbed the “Madman Theory,” Nixon stated that his goal in creating and implementing this approach was two-fold. First, he would make his top diplomats spread false information to North Vietnamese and Communist officials. This information stated that he was a capricious madman and that his actions were completely unpredictable. Then, U.S. diplomats were to emphasize that Nixon, when angry, immediately goes for the nuclear codes.
His primary objective was to get the North Vietnamese and Communist Bloc states to falsely believe that he was desperate to end the conflict in Vietnam and willing to resort to extreme measures. Nixon also hoped that the Eastern Bloc would believe that he would do anything to prevent the dissemination of the communist ideology in non-communist states further than it already had in the years prior.
Ultimately, the theory proved to be a failure, as Communist officials called Nixon on his bluff. Nixon’s bold prediction that “Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace” did not come into fruition, illustrating the impracticality of the theory, at least in that particular juncture of time.
Fast forward to the modern day and it looks almost as if President Donald Trump is attempting to revive the Madman Theory and implement it into his foreign policy.
Nixon’s sporadic but calculated changes in opinion and unpredictable actions were meant to have a precise effect on the opposition. Trump’s inconsistency seems to be far from that. Though he has spoken at length about his stances on foreign affairs during his entire campaign, it is still safe to say that he is an incredibly mercurial figure whose actions are quite unpredictable.
Trump’s views have switched time and again on a wide selection of issues, ranging from his stances on NATO’s purpose and the United States’ role within the organization, Hong Kong’s sovereignty and the Israel-Palestine conflict, to name a few.
Other instances of his erratic behavior include the deployment of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles into the Shayrat air base in Syria as retaliation for President Bashar al-Assad regime’s sarin gas attacks on the Syrian people. This massive show of force was a one-off incident, with no follow-up or further action taking place. What, at first glance, looks to be Nixonian strategic unpredictability is just the actions of a madman who changes his opinions and makes orders that may have drastic consequences without a second thought as to what the consequences of his actions may be.
Beyond just the “crazy” element of Trump’s iteration of the Madman Theory, the doctrine may also prove deadly in a volatile and unpredictable, modern world. During the Cold War, Nixon employed the Madman Theory against Eastern Bloc states such as the Soviet Union and North Vietnam. While these nations were dangerous and hostile toward the United States, their foreign policies were more or less predictable. They would respond logically to aggression, and their future actions could be predicted based on their past responses to actions taken by the United States. No longer does this principle hold true. Several nations exist today whose foreign policy is just as unpredictable as Trump’s.
North Korea is a good example. North Korea has shown time and again that it does not play by the same rules as the rest of the international community. The nation’s rogue and mercurial leader, Kim Jong-un, has established that he cares little for the repercussions of his actions. He has continued to test ballistic missiles, ignoring threats and sanctions from the international community that have left the North Korean economy in ruins and its people in suffering. A doctrine like the Madman Theory would have little to no effect on North Korea. If anything, the already dire situation would be further aggravated and could even lead to a further-escalated conflict where North Korean might target neighbors such as South Korea or Japan with its network of heavy artillery and medium range ballistic missiles, many of which are nuclear-capable.
Nixon employed his Madman Theory with the type of cold calculation that Donald Trump severely lacks. Nixon’s actions, while bold and unpredictable to enemies, were clinical in nature. Each action ultimately served a greater purpose, which was to confuse the opposition and leave those countries on edge, pondering over what he would do next. Conversely, Trump’s actions just seem to be the changes in opinion of a man whose power can affect events on a global scale.