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Trump’s “Madman” Foreign Policy Strategy

Posted May 10th, 2016 at 11:39 am (UTC-4)
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by James Kirchick

Perhaps the secret to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is that he actually wants the world to believe he’s crazy.

The presumptive Republican nominee’s promise of a return to an “America First” foreign policy isn’t the only aspect of his worldview hearkening back to the past. He also appears to be mimicking the “madman theory” of President Richard Nixon.

“I call it the Madman theory,” the 37th president of the United States told his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman. “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.”

Trump isn’t even his party’s nominee (never mind president), but he’s already acting out Nixon’s model of strategic ambiguity, and on a variety of issues. Throughout the campaign, Trump has reversed himself so many times, on so many different topics, that it’s become difficult to keep track of just what precisely his position is on any given subject.



In a widely-watched speech delivered in Washington, D.C. last month, Trump declared it his intention to craft an American foreign policy that “replaces randomness with purpose.” That’s a bit like the Pope declaring he will convert to Scientology. From his announcement in the lobby of Trump Tower last summer to his utterly baseless accusation that erstwhile rival Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination, the man’s entire campaign has been a deliberately unpredictable carnival.

Contradicting himself just a few minutes later, Trump revealed a more accurate impression of what his foreign policy might look like when he said, “We must, as a nation, be more unpredictable.” Here was Trump unleashing his inner Nixon. The rest of the speech confirmed that, when it comes to dealing with the world, Trump will be anything but predictable.

If one had to boil Trump’s foreign policy agenda down into one line, it would probably be: “We are getting out of the nation-building business, and instead focusing on creating stability in the world.” Such isolationism is a tried-and-true (if hardly successful) impulse of American politicians, and it’s the sort of line that routinely wins applause at political gatherings.

Trump claims he’ll be able to create international stability by rebuilding America’s diplomatic relationships. But if the madman theory was designed to counter adversaries, it isn’t equipped very well to deal with allies. “Our friends are beginning to think they can’t depend on us,” Trump said, an entirely valid criticism. Indeed, there is much to criticize in the Obama administration’s handling of world affairs over the past eight years, from its alienation of allies and emboldening of adversaries, its failure to follow-through in Libya to its incoherent responses to the Arab Spring and disastrous decision to let the Syrian civil war continue on unabated.

But it’s difficult to take seriously a man promising that “our friends” will “depend on us” who, in the same breath, threatens to withdraw from NATO, launch a trade war with China, build a wall with Mexico and release Japan and South Korean out from under our defense umbrella. Elsewhere, Trump talks about working with “Muslim allies” to fight terrorism – would these be the same “Muslim allies” he has threatened to prevent from entering the United States?

Trump also says he wants to achieve a “deal” with Russia? About what? Human rights? Further cuts in nuclear arms stockpiles? The fate of the Baltic States, whose security America has a treaty obligation to protect? Trump never says.

“Our goal is peace and prosperity, not war and destruction,” Trump says. It’s a line that could have been written by a kindergartner. And maybe that’s exactly what Donald Trump wants us to think – until he doesn’t.

James Kirchick is an American journalist, a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Initiative and writes for The Daily Beast, Tablet Magazine and VOA

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