Is there a method to the madness?
Based on President Trump’s stated policy of unpredictability and instability, it’s difficult to say what his end-goals may be—or if he even has them. The administration seems to favor a realpolitik approach to global affairs—with an increasingly transactional form of diplomacy.
Trump himself is certainly no ideologue, nor is he a micromanager. The president prides himself on being a delegator—details aren’t his forte. Based on the fact that he frequently contradicts himself, changing his stance on a given policy from one week to the next, the President appears to be a communications channel for which the various spheres of influence within West Wing compete for access.
The defining feature of Trump’s self-professed success in negotiating is unpredictability. To put it in his words: “I don’t want to broadcast my intentions…You want to have a little bit of guess work for the enemy.”
Many have compared his behavior to Richard Nixon’s, particularly during talks with the North Vietnamese, and in his manipulation of tensions between China and the U.S.S.R. to the benefit of American commercial and national security interests.
The concept of ruthless perseverance in the pursuit of political objectives has been discussed and debated for over a half a millennia. In Discourses on Livy, Niccolò Machiavelli dedicated an entire chapter to the benefits of irrationality in politics, labeling it, “How at times it is a very wise thing to stimulate madness.” Centuries later, Richard Nixon put this theory into practice.
Richard’s Nixon’s Madman Theory
Nixon based his foreign and military policy on what he called “madman theory.” To show the North Vietnamese that there was no end to his hostility, he ordered the indiscriminate carpet-bombing of North Vietnam and Cambodia.
“I want [the North Vietnamese] to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip word to them that ‘Nixon is obsessed about communism…and he has his hand on the nuclear button.’”
These tactics, along with unpredictable changes to U.S. foreign policy initiated by Nixon led to a thaw in relations with the Soviet Union, then led by Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev, like Nixon, was a proponent of brinkmanship—employing posturing and political doctrine to support a policy of mutually assured destruction when it came to relations between the two superpowers.
Both men believed that peace rested on an elaborate system of triggers that would guarantee nuclear holocaust in the event of any first strike. It was a combination of the absolute nature of this destruction with the instability of the peace that prevented it, it was argued, which guaranteed that no power would dare carry out a first-strike attack.
Nevertheless, some continue to argue that these negotiation tactics led to the development of a joint space exploration program, increased commercial ties, and, most importantly, nuclear détente.
Madman Theory 2.0: The Trump Doctrine
Trump, however, is not the prolific reader of foreign policy and political science that Nixon was. There are, however, some senior advisors, like National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who are heavily informed on matters of military history and theory and have significant experience at the strategic level. Mattis’ Defense Department, more importantly, has been given near-complete autonomy with regards military authority.
In any case, an attempt at forming a Moscow-Washington axis could have unintended consequences. Many of the president-elect’s cabinet and advisor appointees are virulently anti-Iran, which doesn’t exactly align with Russia’s long-standing relationship with the Islamic Republic.
Given Trump’s prior statements on the matter, his seeming attraction to nuclear weapons also underscores the notion of his employing some form of madman theory, be it intentionally or otherwise.
One could even perceive Trump’s rhetoric as condoning—even encouraging—the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Syria. When asked by MSNBC‘s Chris Matthews whether he would support the use of nuclear weapons against ISIS, he answered:
“I would never take any of my cards off the table.”