The Buzz

Trump, Putin and Kim Jong-un Walk Into a Deterrence Bar

Republican frontrunner Donald Trump recently handed North Korean potentate Kim Jong-un a dollop of praise for the “amazing” way he murders rivals. This utterance followed similar plaudits for Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Should we wring our hands and roll our eyes in the face of such Trumpisms? Or has “The Donald” captured an essential truth about the art of leadership and the deterrence of naked aggression?

In fact, all Donald Trump is doing is tipping his “Make America Great Again!” cap to the power of the “Madman Theory” first espoused in American politics by President Richard Nixon.  This theory is a well-known staple of game theory, and one of the most important tools used to analyze various strategies to deter aggression and prevent the use of nuclear weapons.

In Nixon’s case, he deliberately feigned angry and erratic behavior as a strategy to convince the North Vietnamese to agree to American terms during the Paris peace negotiations. In describing his “Madman Theory” to an aide, Nixon revealed:

“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 the word to them that, ‘for God's sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can't restrain him when he's angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”

Of course, in this particular negotiation, Nixon’s feigning of madness failed miserably in deterring North Vietnam’s aggression. Indeed, North Vietnamese negotiators knew full well that Nixon was more desperate than mad. That left Henry Kissinger with little leverage in Paris, and North Vietnam took Nixon and Kissinger to the negotiating cleaners—ultimately taking South Vietnam from an America in full retreat.

The failure of Nixon’s madman ruse notwithstanding, the importance of madness versus rationality in deterring ruthless and “crazy” guys like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un can be highlighted by taking a page out of the book of game theorist Thomas Schelling.  Here’s how Schelling might put the current North Korean conundrum:

“If North Korea’s Kim Jong-un does not act according to America’s conventional assumptions and international norms of behavior, America will consider Kim’s behavior “irrational,” and Kim’s perceived irrationality might result in him winning the competition. However, if Kim is not really irrational but simply but simply using his madman behavior as part of a conscious bargaining or competitive strategy to get more food and fuel from the West while holding on to his nukes, then this so-called irrationality is effectively rational in relation to the game’s ‘payoffs.’”

In other words, the feigning of “madness” can be “wickedly rational.”

As to how this applies to any American president dealing with the likes of Putin and Kim, here’s the obvious deterrence problem: Both Putin and especially Kim Jong-un project a willingness to start a nuclear war to get their way. Since that would mean the end of the world as we know it, many political leaders in the West perceive this behavior as irrational.

So far the “rational” response of the Obama White House to Putin’s particular brand of brinkmanship and “craziness” has been to use economic sanctions as a means of forcing Russia to cease its revanchist aggression. With Putin not fearing any military intervention—because he believes President Obama fears any such intervention might lead to nuclear war—Putin continues to have his ruthless, revanchist and really quite rational way with Ukraine and parts of Eastern Europe. And that is exactly what Donald Trump is seeing in “Vladimir the Great” and why he admires Putin—certainly not for his aggression but at least for his rational madman cunning.