The 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean, features a game played by Californian teenagers involving stolen cars being driven towards a cliff edge. The driver who jumped out first was branded as a “chicken”.
A few years later, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, then campaigning hard for nuclear disarmament, compared the destructive practices of the superpowers with this game played by “youthful degenerates”, except that he described it as involving two cars being driven at speed towards each other. The one who swerved first would be the chicken. “The game may be played without misfortune a few times,” observed Russell when talking about international crises, “but sooner or later it will come to be felt that loss of face is more dreadful than nuclear annihilation.”
It was a cleverly chosen metaphor. Game theorists predicted that both players would swerve, because humiliation would be preferable to death. Yet the possibility of miscalculation was inherent in the game (perhaps underlined by how, in the movie, one driver goes over the cliff edge because his sleeve gets caught in the car door; meanwhile, Dean died before the film was released, after driving his car at an estimated 100 miles per hour).
There was a more disturbing feature of the metaphor. The logic of the game encouraged behaviour that aggravated the dangers. In addition to attempts to intimidate the opponent by simple boasting, there were temptations to go further. It could be rational to appear irrational, perhaps by feigning drunkenness or even throwing the steering wheel out of the window. A reputation for craziness would be a help; by the same token, that of being weak-willed might encourage the opponent to take imprudent risks.
Russell linked the metaphor to the term “brinkmanship”, already in use to describe the hard-line recklessness associated with the US secretary of state John Foster Dulles. In a 1956 interview, Dulles had described the “necessary art” of securing American interests during the Cold War as one of getting “to the verge without getting into the war”. The greater danger was a paralysing fear of war that would simply embolden America’s enemies: “If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.” The Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson turned this round to emphasise the danger of Dulles’s approach, talking of brinkmanship as the “art of bringing us to the edge of the nuclear abyss”.
It was one thing to conceptualise international crises in this way but public opinion would take some convincing that a government should enter any crisis with anything other than a steady hand. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis was described at the time as being like a game of chicken: brinkmanship in practice as the world waited to see if Soviet ships would dare to challenge the US blockade of Cuba. When the Soviet ships held back, Dean Rusk, President Kennedy’s secretary of state, using language derived from his childhood games of resolve, observed: “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”
We now know that John F Kennedy was always determined to prevent the crisis getting out of control. That he managed to achieve his main objective – of getting Soviet missiles out of Cuba – while avoiding war is why this is taken as an example of clever crisis management. Most importantly, this involved communication with the Soviet leadership and proposals for diplomatic solutions, as well as simply a display of toughness.
The idea that the appearance of being a bit crazy might lead an opponent to make concessions never went away. In 1969, Richard Nixon explained to his administrative chief of staff his “madman theory”. To get Hanoi to agree on his terms for a settlement to the Vietnam War, he suggested: “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.’”
There is some evidence that the strategy was implemented, when the US nuclear alert status was raised surreptitiously; it was enough for the Soviet Union and its North Vietnamese allies to notice, but not enough to scare the American people. There is no evidence, however, that this had much effect on Hanoi’s calculations.
By the end of his presidency, with Nixon drinking heavily, the thought that he might now use his supreme authority as commander-in-chief to issue irrational demands led to those around him taking steps to ensure that no orders to launch nuclear weapons would be followed automatically.
It has become a commonplace that Donald Trump does not need to put on an act to revive the “madman theory”. During the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton asked whether Trump could be trusted with “access to the nuclear codes”. His capricious, narcissistic behaviour since the election has only added to such concerns.
In unscripted remarks about the developing challenge posed by North Korea’s nuclear programme, Trump warned of “fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before”, getting low marks from diplomats who would prefer their threats to be careful and calibrated. Trump and Kim are seen as winding each other up, competing in bombast, and so capable of a rhetorical escalation that could turn into something truly unpleasant. That is why this episode has revived talk of brinkmanship and games of chicken.
Yet a case can also be made that, just as its past behaviour and its aura of fanaticism has led to North Korea being approached with caution, this may also be true with the US under Trump: it is possible that the “madman theory” may have encouraged the North Koreans to act with more restraint. Pyongyang’s response to Trump’s threatening tone was a deliberately specific and credible threat to Guam rather than the usual boasts, indicating that it felt a need to reinforce deterrence. The crisis appeared to calm down after the exchange of threats, and US officials suggested that the North Koreans were cowed. Yet a desire to demonstrate that this was not the case may have led Kim Jong-un to order another missile test on 29 August, this time over Japan.
The problem with the madman strategy is that if it can be turned on and off, it loses its credibility, while if it is wholly natural, it becomes dangerous. Allies as well as adversaries are starting to handle Trump as one would an unexploded bomb. The challenge in the US government has become one of limiting the impact of the president’s words and sticking (as with Afghanistan) to foreign policy orthodoxy. Trump’s inarticulacy, inconsistency and short attention span, combined with the constant efforts of his staff to provide a reassuring gloss on whatever he has said, are encouraging a tendency to ignore his statements. Instead, we wait until his senior advisers have spoken.
Evidence of actual craziness might help win a game of chicken, but at the risk of the driver going over the brink. This is why, when a leader is tempted by the game, it is best not to let him into the car. It is hard to do too much damage in a golf buggy.
Lawrence Freedman is emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London
This article appears in the 30 Aug 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire