It is very wise to stimulate madness at the right time.
—Machiavelli, The Discourses on Levy
RICHARD Nixon is arguably one of the most strategic presidents the US ever had. Perhaps this owe greatly to having Henry Kissinger as his National Security Adviser. Whatever our moral judgment about Kissinger is, one cannot deny that he is brilliant.
Nixon wanted badly to end the war in Vietnam. Yet Nixon and Kissinger knew that it would be difficult to do it militarily. It was not because North Vietnam was militarily stronger than the US. It was because North Vietnam was relentless and passionate; they had an “iron will” to continue the war until they achieved victory, no matter what the cost.
As Le Duc Tho, the head of the central organizing commission of the Communist Party of Vietnam, told Kissinger in Paris in 1970:
“If our generation cannot win, then our sons and nephews will continue. We will sacrifice everything, but we will not again have slavery. This is our iron will. We have been fighting for 25 years, the French and you. You wanted to quench our spirit with bombs and shells. But they cannot force us to submit.”
Furthermore, unlike the US, North Vietnam’s leadership wasn’t that sensitive to public opinion. Democratic control is a bane to war.
American presidents get elected every four years. If they want to be re-elected, they must heed the wishes of the public. On the other hand, the US Congress could tighten the purse that finances the war with enough public pressure. As bodies of American soldiers pile up and as the amount the US government uses to finance the war gets publicly known, the discontent of the American public piles up. They often seek to end the war and America’s military entanglement with conflicts elsewhere in the world.
The US isn’t like North Vietnam. It won’t risk losing more lives and money to fight a war that’s not in its own backyard. So, what did Nixon and Kissinger do? The Madman Strategy.
The Madman Strategy derives its insights from a strategic game devised by Thomas Schelling in his game theory class in Harvard. The game goes something like this: You are standing at the edge of a building, chained to another prisoner. If anyone of you curses at the other person, you’ll both be released and the one who remained silent would get a prize.
Your goal is to make the other person curse at you and also win the prize for yourself. You aren’t allowed to negotiate. So how do you do it? You feign madness. You tease the other party by inching closer and closer to the edge, appearing that you’ll be mad enough to jump off the building, and kill both of you in the process. The other party, for fear of falling down the building with you, would surely curse at you.
Applying this strategic insight, Nixon and Kissinger wanted to bring peace to Vietnam by making it appear that Nixon would not hesitate to use everything, including nuclear weapons. However, military strategists know that nukes are only good as deterrents and not for anything else. But if you aren’t a rational leader, you wouldn’t know that. Thus, Nixon and Kissinger devised a way to make Nixon look like a madman, an irrational leader who wouldn’t give a damn about the cost just to win the war.
The strategy contains the following elements:
1) Send a message to the Soviet Union, which was assisting North Vietnam, that Nixon won’t hesitate to use any means against their ally.
2) Give an ultimatum to North Vietnam and make them believe that Nixon was mad enough to use nukes.
Nixon and Kissinger didn’t pursue the strategy to the hilt. Kissinger explained why: Anti-war protests would “undercut the credibility of the ultimatum…It would be very hard to hold the country together while pursuing a military solution.”
Trump might be trying to emulate Nixon, and hoping that he would make it work with North Korea. We can already sense the semblance:
1) Trump telling China to deal with North Korea, otherwise he would do it.
2) Trump has constantly said that nuclear weapons aren’t off the table.
3) Trump’s ultimatum against North Korea
Will Trump succeed? North Korea, like North Vietnam, won’t be dissuaded by these threats. To begin with, years of economic embargo against North Korea, which even resulted in famine, didn’t prevent Pyongyang from developing its nuclear arsenal. That indicates that North Korea won’t really care if it loses a lot of lives to fend off foreign invasion.
Trump’s attempt to use China assumes that North Korea would listen to China. If North Korea does, then good.
But North Korea might just see China as pandering to the wishes of the US. Pyongyang might perceive China as nothing but a pawn of the US rather than a trusted ally. Thus, North Korea might just as well cut off its ties with Beijing and fight a war with the US that it has been preparing for a long time already. It might be suicidal for North Korea, but like North Vietnam, Pyongyang might be thinking: “If our generation cannot win, then our sons and nephews will continue. We will sacrifice everything, but we will not again have slavery.”