In his response to the threat posed by North Korea, US president Donald Trump has achieved a worldwide consensus. From German chancellor Angela Merkel to China’s president Xi Jinping, leaders across the political spectrum are of one mind: Mr Trump’s methods are borderline insane.
Yet among political scientists, his scarily off-hand tweets and trash-talk are prompting discussion of an even more bizarre possibility. Perhaps there is Nobel-prizewinning method behind the apparent madness.
Given his notorious impatience with pointy-heads, it’s unlikely Mr Trump is familiar with the works of the late Thomas Schelling, the American foreign policy expert who in 2005 won the Nobel memorial prize in economics for his work on conflict and cooperation.
It is, however, entirely possible that Trump discovered for himself the concept for which Professor Schelling became famous. After all, it can be found in the works of Niccolo Machiavelli, author of that notorious 16th century guide to political strategy, The Prince.
Half a millennium ago, the Italian diplomat to whom Trump has so often been likened, put it bluntly: “It is a very wise thing to simulate craziness at the right time”.
And according to Prof Schelling, the right time can be when you are locked in a high-stakes conflict – like a potential nuclear stand-off.
His disturbing advocacy of what he called “rational irrationality” has its origins in Game Theory, a mathematical bag of tricks invented in the 1920s to find the best strategies for playing card games. By the 1950s, its potential applications to far more serious “games” had attracted the interest of US think-tanks and the Pentagon.
Brilliant theorists like Schelling and John Nash (the focus of the 2001 Oscar-winning biopic A Beautiful Mind) analysed a host of situations where adversaries had to work out optimal outcomes without knowing what the other side was planning.
The most infamous was the game of Chicken, in which two drivers head for a cliff-edge, the winner being the one who bails out last.
Clearly, the best collective outcome is for both drivers to do the same thing and “chicken out” at the same moment. But for each driver separately, the winning strategy is to drive on, and hope the other bails first.
The problem, of course, lies in ensuring that the other driver does so before you both go over the cliff-edge. But how can that be guaranteed?
Early Game Theory was based on the idea that, ultimately, everyone is rational, and wants the best outcome – but not at any price. So although you might not know exactly what the other “player” is planning, you can at least count on them being rational.
But theorists like Schelling realised this could be flipped into a whole new way to win games like Chicken: convince your opponent you’re insane. No longer sure you’re playing rationally, they will opt to play safe, and bail before you do.
In 1960, Prof Schelling published The Strategy of Conflict in which he applied these kinds of insights to real-life conflicts and negotiations.
And in one scenario, he described how to improve a negotiating position by playing Chicken – but tearing off the steering wheel and waving it at the opposition to show you’re no longer in control of events.
However, Prof Schelling came to have second thoughts about “rational irrationality” when it was put into practice by perhaps the only US president to match Trump for divisiveness: Richard Nixon.
Coming to power in 1968, Nixon set about trying to secure “Peace with honour” in Vietnam. The problem was everyone knew the US had no hope of winning – so some way was needed to dissuade North Vietnam and its allies from pressing on. Nixon believed the answer lay in creating the impression he was obsessed with achieving his goal – and would risk everything to achieve it.
The result was a series of intense air attacks on North Vietnam, culminating in the notorious Christmas Bombings of 1972.
The raids sparked international outrage, and headlines condemning them as “Savage and senseless”. Even so, by early January 1973 Nixon’s policy appeared to have been vindicated, with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords.
In reality, what he himself called his “Madman Theory” achieved neither peace nor honour. The Accords were violated by both sides, and South Vietnam fell into Communist hands – precisely what the US had sought to prevent.
Schelling and other theorists sought to distance themselves from Nixon’s strategy. In fact, Nixon seems to have taken his cue from studies of other world leaders faced with tough decisions.
In his memoirs, he mentions how one had taught him “the importance of being unpredictable when dealing with the Communists”. The advice had come from Syngman Rhee – first president of South Korea.
Can the Madman Theory work with North Korea? Some would argue all bets are off, as this time there are madmen on both sides. Either way, president Trump may be about to test the idea literally to destruction.
Robert Matthews is Visiting Professor of Science at Aston University, Birmingham, UK