Cyprus Mail
CM Regular ColumnistOpinion

The madman theory of foreign policy

Head of the North Korean delegation, Ri Son Gwon shakes hands with South Korean counterpart Cho Myoung-gyon after their meeting this week

By Alper Ali Riza


The furore caused by Fire and Fury, the book about the White House and President Donald Trump’s state of mind, reminded me of the film Victoria and Abdul in which establishment figures at the palace become so exercised about Queen Victoria’s decision to bestow a knighthood on her young Indian servant Abdul, with whom she had become madly infatuated, they threaten to certify her as insane.

In the end she recants and dies peacefully with her grandson Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany in attendance. Her son Bertie succeeds her as Edward VII and Abdul returns to India after he is stripped of all traces of his friendship with the monarch.

Like Queen Victoria, Trump has his Abdul in Melana and like Victoria he is a bit quirky and obnoxious. There are no excuses; he is compos mentis. If he were not he would be removed under the twenty fifth amendment of the constitution that provides for the vice-president and a majority of the executive branch to remove a president if he is incapable of performing his duties as president and commander in chief. The American people and their electoral system are to blame for voting in a spoilt, immature and foolish TV billionaire with no political or military experience to be in charge of America’s huge nuclear arsenal. How they contain him is up to them and their system even if, unlike Saddam Hussein, he boasts weapons of mass destruction and threatens to use them.

There may even be method to the madness portrayed in Fire and Fury because it is not unreasonable to suspect that this could all be part of a stratagem to deal with North Korea in accordance with president Richard Nixon’s madman theory in foreign policy.

The madman theory, devised by Nixon and his national security adviser Dr Henry Kissinger, is that if America’s enemies are made to believe that the American president is mad and therefore irrational and unpredictable and reacts disproportionately to the slightest provocation, they would be more likely to do America’s bidding. Trump has actually said that he subscribes to the madman theory and it is not difficult to put it into effect if you are the president with access to a Twitter account.

According to Fire and Fury, whose author claims he was given access to the White House to write his book, everyone around Trump agrees that he is like a child – sometimes a four-year-old sometimes an eight-year-old but always a child. Which is fine – lots of leaders from Nero to Winston Churchill have been child-like – except that to a child nuclear weapons are ultimate boys’ toys and war games with nuclear toys is very appealing to the little devils. ‘My nuclear button is bigger than his and mine works,’ is what he tweeted upon hearing Kim Jung Un’s boast that he could nuke America by pressing a nuclear button on his desk. It was either an embarrassing Freudian slip or he is saying that he is prepared to take a calculated gamble that North Korea’s missiles will not work.

Has the madman theory worked is the question. Hardly had the revelations about Trump’s alleged madness died down when peace broke out between North and South Korea. A meeting was hastily organised in the buffer zone that divides the two Koreas. None had taken place for two years previously. Winter Olympics diplomacy then took over. Not only will North Korea take part in the Winter Olympics but the two Korean teams will march together in the opening ceremony which is great news.

South Korean commentators do not believe there was cause and effect between the practice of the madman theory by Trump and the rapprochement that followed the most recent ‘my button is bigger than yours’ tweet. And that far from having the desired effect, the opposite occurred, namely: the two Koreas had had enough of Trump’s irresponsible tweets and decided that they had more in common than divides them and that a nuclear holocaust in one Korea would seriously hurt the other. Both Koreas realised what every Asian knows deep down to be the case, that this American president in particular does not give a damn about either of them. Who knows? The fact is that for whatever reason, the threatening rhetoric between the two Koreas has evaporated and Trump is going to have to go and play with someone else.

But the ‘my nuclear button is bigger than yours’ exchange is worrying. It makes light of an existential problem – it is like making jokes about the Holocaust and should be deprecated. It is therefore hugely important for the world to know how a nuclear war could start and what mechanisms there are to ensure nuclear weapons are only accessible by responsible leaders for deterrent purposes in accordance with fail-safe procedures to prevent accidental or irrational deployment.

I cannot believe that President Trump could just retire to his room at six-thirty in the evening with a cheeseburger and a coke –  as is his wont –  and press the button and blow the world to smithereens because he wants to show off about it in a tweet in the morning.

The only time nuclear weapons were used for real was when Harry Truman, who succeeded Theodor Roosevelt as president in April 1945, gave the go ahead. Prime Minister Clement Attlee of Great Britain was informed and agreed despite being head of the most progressive government in British history – although to be fair he had just taken over from Churchill who had already gone along with their operational use by the Americans. It looks as though it was the American military who made that decision which president Truman rubber stamped.

Their assessment was that an invasion of Japan would have cost too many American lives and that proved decisive. They dropped two atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that killed 200,000 civilians rather than risk the estimated loss of 100,000 American soldiers in taking Japan by conventional means – a true dilemma for moral philosophers to chew over.

The facility of pressing the nuclear button came much later with the advent of inter continental ballistic missiles (ICBMS). In 1962 America and the Soviet Union came close to nuclear exchange over nuclear missiles the Soviets had secretly deployed in Cuba. In American eyes the deployment changed the strategic balance. Time is apparently of the essence in any nuclear exchange and missiles on Cuba were unacceptable to America as they disturbed the nuclear balance of power.

A launch of a nuclear attack is only a theoretical possibility as between two equally matched powers. It is not supposed to happen at all according to the principle known by the acronym MAD – mutually assured destruction. Also, no American president would risk a nuclear attack on New York or Los Angeles over some dispute in Korea either, even if it could annihilate the whole of North Korea in retaliation. In other words, partial assured destruction – PAD – is as unacceptable as MAD.

Not so long ago there was a programme on BBC TV about a pretend nuclear crisis with Russia. The scenario posited a crisis in one of the Baltic states in which Nato was called upon to respond and how this would play out in decision-making by the relevant government security committee in Britain. The committee comprised well known military, diplomatic and political figures who were consulted as the pretend crisis unfolded through various stages including the use of nuclear weapons. It all got very boring until a twist in the end.

The agenda at the last meeting had one piece of intelligence and one item for decision. The intelligence was that a nuclear attack had been launched against Britain and the item for decision was whether Britain should launch an immediate nuclear retaliation. The person chairing the committee took a vote from all members for a view on whether Britain should retaliate and they all said no emphatically.

Unless I misinterpreted what I heard I must confess that even a peace loving person like me was taken aback. I could see where everyone was coming from but not where they were going. I could see that if the whole idea of having nuclear weapons is deterrence, and that if deterrence failed there would be no point in plunging planet earth into nuclear darkness by a multiplicity of nuclear explosions, but why not make any victory likely to tempt anyone to launch a nuclear attack so Pyrrhic it would deter him. The logic of deterrence does not have a cut-off point.


Alper Ali Riza is a queen’s counsel in the UK and a part time judge

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