Is Trump Posing as a Madman to Get His Own Way?

Donald Trump in New York City on July 6. The authors write that Richard Nixon had sought to be viewed as irrational in order to gain greater international bargaining leverage. In the case of Trump, it remains to be seen whether the volatility he demonstrates is genuine or an act. Andrew H. Walker/Getty

This article first appeared on the London School of Economics and Political Science site.

What will President Donald Trump mean for U.S. foreign policy?

Some commentators and media reports have speculated that Trump might be able to achieve foreign policy successes due to the "madman theory"—a term coined by Richard Nixon for the strategy of seeking to be viewed as irrational in order to gain greater international bargaining leverage.

Using new data on public perceptions of leaders, we tested the madman theory and found little support for it.

At the same time, the madman theory does have some basis in academic thought. Rationalist explanations for war emphasize that conflict is costly. Thus, rational leaders face an impediment to making credible threats, particularly when the expense of war is high and the benefits are lower.

However, if a leader is considered mad, in the sense of not weighing costs rationally, the leader's threats might be considered more credible. Adversaries might prefer yielding to the demands of a "mad" leader rather than risk war.

Nobel Prize–winning nuclear strategist Thomas Schelling wrote in Arms and Influence that a "paradox of deterrence is that it does not always help to be, or to be believed to be, fully rational, cool-headed, and in control of oneself."

Despite the apparent madman "advantage," the perception of madness may also have its downsides. As emphasized by Andrew Kydd and Roseanne McManus, in order to make successful threats, it's not only necessary for a leader to convince an adversary that he/she is willing to use force if the adversary does not comply with demands, but also that he/she will not use force if the adversary does comply.

If the adversary believes they will be attacked regardless, they have no incentive to acquiesce to demands. Therefore, if a leader is considered a madman who does not respond to rational incentives, other countries may see little gain in making concessions and more to gain in standing firm or even attacking preemptively.

One perspective suggests that being viewed as a madman may be helpful in foreign relations, while another perspective indicates it may be detrimental. In order to determine which persepctive has more support, we did a systematic search of news reports from 1986 to 2005 in order to identify leaders who were most often described as crazy, insane, irrational, unpredictable or erratic.

We used this new data to examine the effect of perceived madness on the initiation and outcome of militarized interstate disputes, which include actual uses of force as well as threats or displays of force (such as deploying troops or sending a ship into disputed waters).

Our statistical models control for other factors that might be relevant, including leaders' previous conflict history and the frequency with which leaders are described as using another set of adjectives associated with toughness.

Our first statistical models examined the relationship between perceived leader madness and dispute initiation. Figure 1 shows that perceived madmen are more likely to initiate military disputes and are also more likely to be the target of disputes initiated by others.

This is particularly true of "really mad" leaders, identified as those ranking in the top 20 percent for the frequency with which they are described as crazy, insane, irrational, unpredictable, or erratic (based on lagged averages).

"Slightly mad" leaders, who are described using these adjectives less frequently, are more likely to be targeted in disputes, but not significantly more likely to initiate them.

Figure 1 – Military Dispute Probabilities


Thus, it appears that having a "madman" leader increases a country's involvement in military disputes. A volatile leader seems to be a drawback in this regard, however, it could be argued that it's worthwhile to engage in disputes if it advances national interests. For this reason, we also considered the outcome of a leader's involvement in military disputes.

First, we used a new statistical model to predict dispute reciprocation. Figure 2 illustrates that perceived madness reduces the probability of reciprocation. If a "sane" leader initiates a dispute against another country, there is a 57 percent probability that the targeted country will reciprocate by making its own threat, show or use of force against the initiator.

By contrast, if a "really mad" leader initiates a dispute, there is only a 43 percent probability of reciprocation—meaning, in other words, that the target is more likely to passively accept the initiator's provocation.

Figure 2 – Predicted probabilities of reciprocation and winning


On the other hand, when we looked at the ultimate outcome of disputes in another statistical model, Figure 2 shows that "really mad" leaders who initiate disputes are about two-thirds less likely than "sane" or "slightly mad" leaders to obtain a winning outcome, in which the status quo changes favorably and/or the other party clearly yields.

This finding suggests that while "really mad" leaders may get away with some provocations, they are not often able to shift the status quo in their country's interest in a tangible way.

What does this mean for the "madman theory" and the Trump presidency?

The results offer some support for the madman theory, while other results suggest that being perceived as mad is disadvantageous. One complicating factor in interpreting the results is the relationship between the perception of madness and true madness.

While the perception of madness may possibly have its benefits, true madness is likely to cause leaders to make strategic errors. In the case of Trump, it remains to be seen whether the volatility he demonstrates is genuine or an act. Thus, this research cannot offer a definitive prediction for Trump's presidency.

However, these findings suggest it is not very common for leaders to be able to use the perception of madness to great advantage.

Roseanne McManus is an assistant professor in the political science department at Baruch College, City University of New York.

Eileen Gerard is a sophomore at Baruch College majoring in biological sciences.

Vinuri Ranaweera is a freshman majoring in economics at Baruch College.

Olivia Sztanga is an undergraduate at the City University of New York's Macaulay Honors College at Baruch College, where she studies economics and political science.

This article is based on the working paper "Crazy Like a Fox? Do Leaders Perceived as Mentally Unstable Achieve Better Conflict Outcomes?" It offers the views of the authors and is not the position of USAPP– American Politics and Policy, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science.