Is it possible that Bashar al-Assad is simply just crazy? Of course, it is always more likely than not that a political leader is in fact rational – even for the likes of Kim Jong-un, Muammar Gaddafi, and Saddam Hussein. But can we always be 100% certain that a given policymaker is rational? The odds that he or she is crazy may be low – like 5%, 1% or even a tenth of a percent – but they are not 0% for every leader.
In an article recently published by the journal Political Science Research and Methods, we explore the implications of this uncertainty. We find that the consequences of supposedly crazy types of leaders for the behavior of rational types have been under-explored in the formal literature on international relations. Our main idea is that it may be rational to feign irrationality.
The notion that pretending to be crazy may be a useful tactic goes back in history to ancient times. Nicolò Machiavelli, for example, extoled its benefits in his famous Discourses on Livy. In modern international relations, the tactic is most often credited to President Richard Nixon, who explained his “madman theory” to his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, as follows:
“I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.” (from the memoirs of H.R. Haldeman, The Ends of Power, New York, 1978)
Nixon ordered a secret operation called “Giant Lance” in which 18 B-52 bombers were loaded with nuclear weapons and flown towards the Soviet Union to get the Russians to think he was possibly mad and might be willing to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam. All because he thought he could end the war on better terms for the United States and the South Vietnamese.
Our research provides a game theoretic foundation for the madman theory and other extreme forms of strategic posturing in international relations. This enables us to derive implications for the likelihood that conflicts start and escalate. We show that the more a leader is perceived to be crazy by his opponents, the more he might behave as if he is crazy, even when he is not. This is because the leader thinks that his adversaries will be more likely to give in to his crazy demands rather than to escalate tensions with someone they think might be a lunatic.
Our work further suggests that since rational leaders may pretend to be crazy, crazy behavior might be observed with significantly higher odds than otherwise. For instance, even if a leader is perceived to be crazy only with probability 1%, he may behave crazily in not just 1% of his interactions, but in 10% percent of them. In this example, the initial odds of craziness get amplified by a factor of ten to determine the odds of actual crazy behavior.
Our results hold if leaders think that their opponents perceive them to be possibly crazy. This means that when Wikileaks released documents back in 2010 indicating that a US army general perceived Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be “unbalanced, crazy even,” this might have given Ahmadinejad reason to behave as if he were crazy, even if he was not.
Similarly, if Kim Jong-un believes that the South Koreans and the Japanese see him as a madman, this might lead him to fly more missiles over Japan and sink more South Korean ships. (Recall the 2010 sinking of a South Korean Navy ship, the ROKS Cheonan, by a North Korean torpedo, and the missiles fired over Japan in 2009.) He might even start a war. As a consequence, it might, in fact, be beneficial for the South Koreans and the Japanese if their leaders, public figures, and journalists tried to minimize the expectation that the North Korean leader is crazy.
The bottom line is this: You deal with the kind of leader that you expect to deal with. Give Kim Jong-un the impression that you think he’s rational, and he might not do as many crazy things.