Trump is emulating Nixon’s Madman Theory.
Insofar as Donald Trump is implementing something that legitimately might be seen as a strategy in the cases of North Korea and Iran—as opposed to mere bellicosity, impulsivity, egomania, ignorance and the desire to undo everything accomplished by President Obama—it is possible the strategy could work. That is, North Korea and Iran might fold. Kim Jong-un’s peace offensive, if that’s what it is, no doubt has been at least partly motivated by the fear that if North Korea doesn’t find a way to convince Trump that it is “denuclearizing,” whatever that might mean, Trump might actually start a war that could escalate to the nuclear level.
As well, the Iranian regime, already in deep economic straits and facing growing domestic discontent, might indeed collapse—the real goal of the administration—and be replaced by a more moderate government, which would end its foreign interventions and decline to restart a nuclear-weapons program. Obviously other outcomes are possible, up to and including war with both North Korea and Iran, but it cannot be denied that the Trump administration’s gambles could succeed.
If the strategies do work, then Trump will surely be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, as has already been proposed by Republican congressmen and by President Moon Jae-in of South Korea. In light of the history of strange Nobel peace awards, he might even get it—but he would not deserve it.
A review of “the madman theory of the presidency” illustrates why not. In the 1950s prestigious academic nuclear strategists, particularly Thomas Schelling and Herman Kahn, argued that seemingly irrational behavior might make sense in international conflicts: they called this “the rationality of irrationality.” Taking off from Machiavelli’s sixteenth-century suggestion that sometimes it could be “a very wise thing to simulate madness,” strategists argued that national leaders might succeed in their objectives if they convinced adversaries they were so irrational they might start wars that made no sense in terms of rational national interests. As Kahn put it in a 1962 book: you might be able to intimidate an adversary if you deliberately decide “to look a little crazy.”