The Madman Theory; did Trump scare North Korea?

It has been a fascinating transition from 2017 to 2018. At the end of 2017 we were facing the possibility of war between a nuclear-armed North Korea and the United States with Hawaii testing its nuclear attack sirens for the first time in close to three decades (Jones and Kelleher, December 2nd 2017).

In the rising tensions between the US and North Korea, it was Hawaii, that as one of the US states closest to North Korea, alongside Guam, was, if the North Koreans are to be believed, within range of their Hwasong-15 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile with its range of 8,100 miles. This placed the US Pacific Command and the Naval base at Pearl Harbour, Oahu island, Hawaii and Andersen Air Force Base and Naval Base Guam within the reach of North Korea’s missile capabilities.  (deGrandpre, 11th August, 2017; Jones and Kelleher, December 2nd 2017).

Flashforward a few weeks and we are now talking about a renewal in North-South Korean high-level talks, the first in two years, the reopening of the emergency hotline between the two nations which has been down since February 2016 and North Korean participation in the February 2018 Winter Olympics (The BBC, 9th January 2018; McCurry, 9th January 2018).

How has this shift come about? Could the US under Trump have re-awakened the classic Nixon-Kissinger “Madman Theory” in an attempt to bring North Korea to heel and create this breakthrough?

The “Madman” Theory of Leadership

The “Madman” Theory of leadership related to the foreign policy approach taken by US President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. The theory was devised by Kissinger, who utilised the image of Nixon as an unpredictable and irrational President whose inclination was to exceed reasonable norms of international behaviour and who hated communism to the extent that he would use any and all forms of military threat to bring the Vietnam war to a close.   (Dumbrell, 2012 p. 108; Kimball, 1993 p. 155).

As part of the US strategy, it was argued that in order to resolve the conflict in Vietnam, the US might unleash irrational force against North Vietnam rather than utilise Soviet-Chinese diplomacy or “Vietnamisation” to resolve the conflict by forcing Hanoi to negotiate concessions (Dumbrell, 2012, p. 17, 108). The 1969 “secret” bombing of Cambodia, the Christmas Bombing of North Vietnam in 1972, the mining of North Vietnamese ports and destruction of dike systems as well as the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons and occupation of North Vietnam were part of this escalation strategy. It was argued that Nixon and Kissinger used this escalation strategy to pressure not only North Vietnam but its allies, the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union to move towards a peace settlement rather than risk Nixon escalating the conflict as a “madman” (LaFeber, 2008, p. 286; Dumbrell, 2012, p. 110-111).

In my opinion, the theory at its simplest level requires an actor to seek accommodation in the context of a crisis, making the other actor threaten disproportionate escalation that would result in the other side backing down as they would believe they were dealing with a “madman” and would not wish to call his/her bluff.

Could US President Donald Trump’s administration be utilising this theory of leadership against North Korea? Have we seen the coming of the Second “Madman”?

The Coming of the Second “Madman” In the Age of Digital Media

As a starting point lets make an assumption that there is a certain level of rationality within the functioning of the Trump Administration (that might appear difficult but run with it for a moment).

In my opinion, it would be fair to say, that Donald Trump’s Presidency has a reputation of unpredictability, apparent irrationality and an inclination to exceed reasonable and accepted norms of international behaviour (to put it one way) similar to that of Nixon. So, it would not be a stretch to imagine that the administration could utilise that reputation as a foreign policy tool. In the age of digital media and social media platforms like Twitter, it is far easier, I would argue, for the image of an unpredictable and irrational President to be spread across the world, applying pressure on multiple targets at once whilst carrying the weight of the President’s personal desires, particularly when that image is being communicated from the President’s own Twitter account.

Both before and after being elected President, Donald Trump widely utilised social media as a political tool both in terms of communicating domestic and foreign policy. Through the use of Twitter, Trump has made the Presidency far more personal than ever before, with Twitter becoming a “window not only into his thoughts and psyche, but into the kind of messages he wants to communicate” (Buncombe, 19th January 2018).

Trump joked about his “Nuclear button” being bigger, more powerful and more usable than that of North Korea’s Ki Jung-Un, having previously referred to the North Korean leader as a “little rocket man” and that the North Korean regime would not be “around much longer” (Gambino, 3rd January 2018: Allen, 24th September 2017). Such rhetoric I would argue has been used by Trump to communicate a message to the North Korean regime in terms not seen before: backdown because I’m prepared to go all the way.

In my opinion, such tweets in coordination with other speeches by Trump have been designed to demonstrate, in the context of the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear programme, that the President is unpredictable, irrational, inclined to exceed reasonable norms of international behaviour and happy to use any and all forms of military threat (in theory though with no practical examples on the ground) against North Korea. The options for the North Korean regime were simple: backdown and allow the situation to de-escalate or face the overwhelming power of the United States who is prepared to escalate the crisis, something which North Korea’s ally, the People’s Republic of China did not desire and would likely have advised the North Koreans against. Arguably North Korea chose the former and decided not to call Trump’s bluff quite possibly because they may have got the message (real or unreal) that there was no bluff.

So have we seen the resurrection of the “Madman” Theory of Leadership in US foreign policy? Maybe but the answer to that question really depends on whether you think Trump is a President pretending to be a “madman” or a “madman” pretending to be a President.


Allen, Julie, the Telegraph (24th September 2017), “Donald Trump warns Kim Jong-un ‘won’t be around much longer`” available at: [Accessed on the 19th January 2018]

Buncombe, Andrew, The Independent (18th January 2018) “Donald Trump one year on: How the Twitter President changed social media and the country’s top office” available at [Accessed on 19th January 2018)

deGrandpre, Andrew, The Washington Post (August 11th, 2017), “Guam Released Guidance to Prepare Residents for North Korean Nuclear Strike” available at: [Accessed on 9th January 2018]

Dumbrell, John (2012), Rethinking the Vietnam War (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke)

Gabino, Lauren, The Guardian (3rd January 2018), “Donald Trump boasts that his nuclear button is bigger than Kin Jong-uns” available at [Accessed on the 19th January 2018]

Jones, Caleb and Kelleher, Jennifer Sinco, The Independent (December 2nd 2017), “Hawaii sounds nuclear warning sirens for first time since 1980s” available at: [Accessed on 9th January 2018]

Kimball, Jeffery P., “Peace with Honor”, Richard Nixon and the Diplomacy of Threat and Symbolism”, in Anderson, David. (1993) ed. Shadow on the White House: Presidents and the Vietnam War, 1945-75(University Press of Kansas: Lawerence) pp. 152-183

LaFeber, Walter, (2008), “A New Containment: The Rise and Fall of Détente” in America, Russia and the Cold War, 1945-2006, Tenth Edition (McGraw-Hill: New York), pp. 266-298.

McCurry, Justin, The Guardian (9th January 2018), “North Korea agrees to send athletes to Winter Olympics after talks with South” available at: [Accessed 9th January 2018]

The BBC, (9th January 2018), “North Korea to send team to Winter Olympic Games” available at: [Accessed on 9th January 2018]

Article by David Wilcox

Photograph – The Indian Express

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