The Madman Strategy of International Relations

The lessons that can be drawn towards the current Middle-East Peace Process

The nuclear alert was based on a diplomacy-supporting stratagem Nixon called the Madman Theory, or “the principle of the threat of excessive force.” Nixon was convinced that his power would be enhanced if his opponents thought he might use excessive force, even nuclear force. That, coupled with his reputation for ruthlessness, he believed, would suggest that he was dangerously unpredictable and win favorable conditions on the negotiation table during the Vietnam War. He and Henry Kissinger commanded the military in Vietnam during his term in the White House to “send anything that flies, against anything that moves.”

Nixon had credited his diplomatic learning from Nikita Khrushchev, who, Nixon claimed, was “the most brilliant world leader I have ever met,” because Khrushchev nurtured a reputation for rashness and unpredictability that “scared the hell out of people.” Nixon is right if he was referring to the Missile Crisis in Cuba, responsible by Khrushchev, which for 13 days scared the entire world with Nuclear Armageddon.

What Nixon, Kissinger, Khrushchev, and other top government officials did during the Cold War in International Relations, however “mad” it was, has cultivated a batch of modern disciples in the leadership of diplomatic relations. In 2002, for example, the George W. Bush administration openly touted its strategy of nuclear “ambiguity” and later that of conventional “shock and awe.” And his father, George W. Bush Sr., openly humiliated Iraq on the world stage with rhetoric such as ‘we will kick your ass, big time, with everything we got.’ In fact, since the start of the Cold War, the U.S. Nuclear and Conventional Diplomacy and rhetoric for war has always been pre-emptive strike. “Don’t wait!” The U.S. Nuclear force was always on full alert, ready to attack.

Another disciple of this kind of diplomatic leader on the international stage is the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is pursuing nuclear weapons, denying the Holocaust, and eagerly speaking of anticipating and maybe trying to accelerate the coming of Armageddon, as he publically speaks on the International stage.

“He [Ahmadinejad] has placed his trust in the arms of God. Just because it isn’t the God that many of us believe in does not detract from the sincerity or power of his faith. It is a faith that is real, all too real – gripping billions across the Muslim world in a new wave of fervor and fanaticism.” In these radical’s own words, “You Americans love life; we Muslims love death.” “All worries are past him [Ahmadinejad], all anxiety, all stress. ‘Peoples, driven by their divine nature, intrinsically seek good, virtue, perfection and beauty,’ Ahmadinejad said at the U.N. ‘Relying on our peoples, we can take giant steps towards reform and pave the road for human perfection. Whether we like it or not, justice, peace and virtue will sooner or later prevail in the world with the will of Almighty Allah.”

Venezuela’s President – Hugo Chavez – attacked the American President George W. Bush Jr. before the UN Assembly. And here I quote him: ‘I know that George Bush has been here recently. Because he is a Devil, and I can smell the sulfur that he left behind here last week…” Chavez has since led a coalition of anti-American countries in Latin America to backup his “mad” rhetoric.

The Head of State of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, recently test fired a nuclear bomb and a long range, 3 staged missile (landing just off the Western Coast of America) as a diplomatic gesture to the rest of the world.

Have these men (who are running the show on the international stage, representing us) to whom we entrusted our safety, wellbeing, civility, and future, all gone “mad?” Or is the world just simply a crazy place in general?

“On October 10, 2005, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced that it had awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences to Thomas C. Schelling and Robert J. Aumann for their separate work in having “enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis.” The Academy’s press release explained that Schelling’s contribution included his ideas about “uncertain retaliation”:

The concept of uncertain retaliation has to be placed in the context of Schelling’s critique of standard game-theory definitions of economic “rationality.” Schelling argued that in a bargaining or competitive situation one economic agent’s framework for rationality is not always necessarily another’s. If, for example, agent A does not act according to agent B’s conventional assumptions about the rules of the game, B will consider A’s behavior “irrational.” During the game, B will be uncertain about the trajectory of A’s behavior. From B’s point of view, A’s behavior is ambiguous and unpredictable. Thus, A’s irrationality might result in A winning the competition. If Agent A is not really irrational—or “mad”—but is using his/her unconventional behavior as part of a conscious bargaining or competitive strategy, then his/her so-called irrationality is effectively rational in relation to the game’s “payoffs.”1

Tyler Cowen, one of Schelling’s former students at Harvard University, explained Schelling’s irrational-behavior theory relative to nuclear deterrence this way:

Ever see Dr. Strangelove? Tom developed the idea that deterrence is never fully credible (why retaliate once you are wiped out?). The best deterrent might involve pre-commitment [e.g., the Doomsday Machine], some element of randomness [e.g., ambiguity about one’s deterrent strategy], or a partly crazy leader [e.g., a madman such as General Ripper]. I recall Tom telling me he was briefly an advisor to Kubrick.2

Michael Kinsley, another former student, recalled a classroom lecture of Schelling’s whose lesson Kinsley associated with the purposeful projection of “madness.”

So you’re standing at the edge of a cliff, chained by the ankle to someone else. You’ll be released, and one of you will get a large prize, as soon as the other gives in. How do you persuade the other guy to give in, when the only method at your disposal—threatening to push him off the cliff—would doom you both? . . . Answer: You start dancing, closer and closer to the edge. That way, you don’t have to convince him that you would do something totally irrational: plunge him and yourself off the cliff. You just have to convince him that you are prepared to take a higher risk than he is of accidentally falling off the cliff. If you can do that, you win. You have done it by using probability to divide a seemingly indivisible threat. And a smaller threat can be more effective than a bigger one. A threat to drag both of you off the cliff is not credible. A threat to take a 60 percent chance of that same thing might be credible. . . . Madness can be wickedly rational. If one of those two folks on the cliff can convince the other that he is just a bit nuts, that makes his threat to drag them both off the cliff much more plausible. Some defenders of Richard Nixon used to claim that the evidence of insanity that bothered a few Americans was actually a purposeful strategy to enhance the deterrent power of our nuclear arsenal.3

Jonathan Schell had made similar remarks in May 2003:

[Schelling argued that] if you visibly arranged to make yourself a little bit out of control, the foe would no longer be able to imagine that you might desist from nuclear war in a last-minute fit of sanity. They’d think that you might plunge into the abyss in spite of yourself. And so they would fear you, as hoped. . . . Another solution, also pioneered by Schelling, among others, was the deliberate cultivation of a reputation of irrationality. Schelling called this policy the “rationality of irrationality.” In this policy, the foe would believe in your self-destructive threats not because it thought you might slip on a banana peel, so to speak, at the brink but because it believed you just might be lunatic enough to go over the edge deliberately. Richard Nixon was one practitioner of this strategy. . . . He called the strategy the “madman theory.”4”


So, what is seen as “madness” in people and craziness in International Affair are actually a strategic bargaining chip and position. Yes, the world is “crazy” and full of “mad” men running it. But what is seen as ruthlessness, cruelty and excessive force are actually covers for deliberate attempts for a quick and swift, peaceful assault, sometimes. And as for “hard-liner” leaders, sometimes we, pacifists, have to give them some credit for protecting our interest, domestically and abroad – knowing what we know now: The world is crazy, which means you are crazy as well, at which point you can move on from all the madness around you.

Currently, the Middle-East Crisis is at a stalemate between the Palestinians and Israel. US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton can’t even get the 2 sides to talk to each other on a negotiation table between the Palestinians and Israelis. The use of “Baby steps” was how U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it recently in Jerusalem, the idea being to get the two sides talking at a lower level in the hope of generating some momentum.

But others see the stalemate as requiring a more forceful U.S. intervention — an international effort led by the U.S. to provide more detailed terms for a two-state solution, and press the two sides to accept it, as the Madman Theory depicts.

“The Oslo Accords expired 10 years ago, and we’re still trying to use their formula — getting Israelis and Palestinians to make ‘confidence-building’ gestures and sit across a table to agree on a formula for sharing the territory. But leaving it up to the two sides to negotiate a mutually acceptable solution is unlikely ever to produce a peace agreement.” Many politicians in Washington agrees with this.

If history of the Madman Theory can be a lesson in resolving stalemates — either in war or during peace talks, then perhaps it can be put into practice here. By impose a solution and enforcing it with excessive force on both side to the negotiation table (talking terms and both compromising in a GRIT fashion) and come to a consensus of peaceful and lasting term with each other on the land dispute and two-state settlement.

1 On Schelling’ s views about “irrational behavior,” see, e.g., his book The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), 16 ff. In Arms and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), Schelling also discussed diplomatic blackmail, “compellence,” and coercion.

2 Tyler Cowen, “Thomas Schelling: New Nobel Laureate,”October 10, 2005.

3 Michael Kinsley, “A Nobel Laureate Who’s Got Game,”Washington Post, October 12, 2005, p. A 17.

4 Jonathan Schell, ” Letter From Ground Zero: Madmen,” Nation, May 15, 2003. This op-ed was primarily a comment on the Bush administration’s nuclear-weapons policy.

5 On these others, see, e.g., Fred M. Kaplan, Wizards of Armageddon (Palo Alto: Standard University Press, 1991).

6 This also seems to be Kaplan’s view regarding Schelling’s position on nuclear deterrence; “All Pain, No Gain: Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling’s Little-Known Role in the Vietnam War,” Slate, October 11, 2005.

7 Kimball, The Vietnam War Files: Uncovering the Secret History of Nixon-Era Strategy ( Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 16. Also see, Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), chap. 4; and William Burr and Jeffrey Kimball, “Nixon’ s Secret Nuclear Alert: Vietnam War Diplomacy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Readiness Test, October 1969, ” Cold War History 3, 2 (January 2003): 113-156.

8 Quoted in “What the President Saw: A Nation Coming into Its Own,” Time, July 29, 1985, p. 51.

9 See, e.g., Kimball, “Is Bush Trying Out the Madman Theory,” February 28, 2005, History News Network.

Author: Charles L. Wang

I lived a good life - a hard one, but I sleep peacefully at night knowing that I have made a difference in someone's life... Oh by the way, I'm from China: Downtown, China... Read my full bio.

2 thoughts on “The Madman Strategy of International Relations

  1. Look at the current Administration’s policies that are been thwarted across the board: Afghanistan is a mess, Iran seems ready to scuttle the nuclear negotiations, there’s no progress in the Middle East, the Syrians and North Koreans remain recalcitrant, the Russians have been offered a freebie on missile defense, and the Chinese have been given a pass on human rights with no apparent quid pro quos.

    If we take only one lesson from WWII, it’s that “appeasement does not work.”

    But then again, if we can take one lesson away from George Bush’s cowboy styled, 8 years term as president — coining the “Axis of Evil”, it’s understandable why the administration is very cautious and acting moderately right now. Especially during a Global Financial Crisis that might collapse the Dollar and 2 run-away wars that are sucking in all the military might and economic resources of America.

    (No war in the history of United States has costed this much…)

    Our current situation in the States of International Relations is much more complicated right now.

    Thanks for Reading my article!

  2. Welcome Charles! Very interesting article. Look forward to many more.
    Just wish it didn’t come down to a case of society needing the guys who have the guts or who are crazy enough to dance at the edge of the ledge.

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