Those who are trying to figure out what, exactly, the North Koreans are doing right now might want to take a moment to remember a certain foreign policy theory generated by a former Republican president of the United States – the theory that it is a good idea to keep other countries guessing as to the sanity of the leaders of a country, as it’s harder to predict what the bottom-line “rational” interests of a nation-state when that nation-state seems not to acknowledge having any “rational” interests.
One of the problems with adopting Richard Nixon’s “madman theory” as a serious diplomatic strategy is that sometimes it is truly difficult to distinguish the difference between a national leader who is trying to make it seem like he’s bonkers and…well…a national leader who is basically bonkers. When Nixon employed this theory, he used it to justify the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. That, in the rear-view mirror, looks more like genuine nutsy than wise and only role-played-nutsy subterfuge. The idea was for Nixon to expand the war, at a time when most Americans were starting to question its utility for any rational objective, and then send Henry Kissinger out into the world saying “[Y]ou know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button[.]” (Note my quote marks here – I am actually quoting President Nixon describing to Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman what his plan was…this is not speculation on my part, this is Nixon describing how his plan would go down.)
In any case, there is little to indicate that Nixon’s madman-theory ever did anything to improve the US negotiating position with respect to the talks ending the Vietnam War – in 1975, the country was abandoned to the Communists. At best, it gave US right-wingers a bizarre “Don’t mess with us” swagger that seemed at odds with the string of losses handed to them in world diplomatic circles – in other words, this was more about pleasing certain extremist domestic constituencies than solving any foreign policy problems.
I suspect the same is true with respect to North Korea. The “rational” bottom line in North Korea remains that this is a country that cannot seem to manage feeding its own people, and in which there exists a moribund, autarkic economy desperately in need of injections of capital from more affluent trading partners. North Korea may act like it doesn’t recognise those are the bottom lines, but of course, they remain the bottom lines. There is a danger of North Korea trying to create small-scale incidents with very real loss of life associated with them (like the 2010 and 2011 attacks on South Korea), but they are not “madmen” in reality – their endgame remains going back to the bargaining table, to negotiate food aid and trading deals they still desperately need.
The world called Nixon’s bluff. It should call the North Korean bluff as well. Indeed, it costs us nothing to try – we can prepare for the possibility the North Koreans might really be crackers at the same time.
The reality of this is that diplomacy can handle this. Every once in a while the North Korean leadership gets it into its head that it has to create an incident to prove it is somehow independent and not beholden to its food aid and trade suppliers. That’s what this is – an attempt to work up some Cold War street cred. But in the end North Korea is what it is, because it has yet to show any desire to be something better. Nixonian foreign policy won’t save them from that, surely. It didn’t even save Nixon.