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The Hamlet Question Returns: Is Donald Trump Merely Playing Crazy Or. . .?

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Playing crazy can get you far in diplomacy, but is Trump really ‘playing’ it?

It is a sign of times we live in that at least one student of geostrategy recently found himself contemplating, in tandem, game theory, minutiae from Cold-War history, and Hamlet. This was not a simple and idle exercise in “interdisciplinary thinking” – whatever that means. Rather, the reason to revisit that depressive prince from Denmark during working hours was to find suitable analogies for the behaviour of – you guessed it – Donald J. Trump.

The context was this. Soon after being elected, Trump spoke to the President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, in a major break with US diplomatic practice since Richard Nixon reached out to Beijing in 1972. The American 'One-China' policy – which recognizes the People's Republic as the sole international voice of China – was to become a bargaining chip in the hands of the dealmaker extraordinaire, pundits speculated. The thinking went something like this. By publicly questioning the efficacy of this policy in securing good behaviour from PRC, Trump would gain an upper hand in any future give-and-take with that country. But just as abruptly, in a phone call with Xi Jinping a couple of weeks ago, Trump reaffirmed the US commitment to its 'One-China' policy.

So what gives? Is this Trump finally learning from his sober Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that impulsive behaviour may not be the best card to play when it comes to negotiating with an increasingly prickly China? Or is this yet another example of Trump fashioning himself as a Richard Nixon-style madman whose unpredictability – along with willingness to go to any extreme – is a strategic asset?

Dramatic change in leadership style often makes pundits rummage through the dark alleys of history for analogies of behaviour. Soon after Trump's election, many foreign-policy scholars saw glimpses of Richard Nixon in Trump. Like Trump, Nixon too had a penchant for springing surprises, relied on a small coterie of experts, and was instinctively suspicious of D.C. elites. (The analogies, however, end here. Nixon’s NSA, Henry Kissinger, went on to become his Secretary of State, and a darling of the American media and public. Trump’s NSA, Michael Flynn, resigned after a month in office, and is now a focus of a wide-ranging investigation on his links with Russian intelligence.)

When Trump signalled his willingness to bring Taiwan back to the triangular table, many were reminded of an incident nine months into Nixon's first term. In October 1969, Nixon ordered the US Strategic Air Command to fly 18 B-52 bombers armed with powerful nuclear weapons towards the Soviet Union. The bombers flew close to Soviet airspace enough for Kremlin to notice them and having conveyed American resolve to start a nuclear war if needed, they returned to their bases.

The target of this coercive diplomacy – the imperfect art of achieving political objectives through military threats – was, however, not the Soviets alone. Instead, it was also a signal to the North Vietnamese who were waging a bloody war with the US half way across the world. The thinking went something like this. If the Soviets were made to believe that US would be willing to go to any length to end the Vietnam war – including risking a nuclear war with the USSR – then Ho Chi Minh might just see the need to end the war on terms set by the Americans.

But this was no ordinary act of coercion. Nuclear strategy takes, as a given, the fact that no side will start a nuclear war in face of certain retaliation in kind. Indeed, the fact that nuclear powers will not act in a manner which tantamount to national suicide is one of the hallmarks of rational behaviour. By signalling that Nixon was indeed to risk thermonuclear war, he sought to convey to his opponents in Hanoi and Moscow that he was not bound to this basic premise.

As such, the strategy of apparent irrationality had long been advocated by many nuclear strategists before Nixon was elected to office. His own NSA Kissinger was one of them. And so was Thomas Schelling – a brilliant economist-turned-military-strategist who would go on to win a Nobel Prize in economics in 2005. (Schelling, who passed way in December last year, was subject of a December 22 Swarajya profile.) But it was one theorist who would do the most to promote this idea of Schelling.

Daniel Ellsberg could have been a character out of Mad Men. A brilliant mathematical economist with a Harvard PhD, he was a rising star in the Pentagon-academia circuit in the 1960s before becoming an enemy of the state, hunted by Nixon Administration for leaking a trove of top-secret Vietnam-related papers to the press. Vain and mercurial – his 2001 biography by Tom Wells was called the Wild Man – Ellsberg was fascinated by his own intellect, and the inability of others to appreciate it in full measure, in equal parts. Sexually promiscuous and charming, when the time came for a biopic on him, he was played – very aptly – by James Spader.

In 1959, Ellsberg was a Junior Fellow at the exalted Harvard Society of Fellows when he delivered a set of lectures at the Boston Public Library. The series was titled “The Art of Coercion: A Study of Threats in Economic Conflict and War.” In them, Ellsberg built simple mathematical models to outline conditions in which coercion is likely to be most successful. A fundamental premise for him was equating coercion with blackmail. In Ellsberg’s eyes, Hitler was a successful blackmailer because he was “convincingly mad.” Indeed, Ellsberg’s second lecture was called “The Political Uses of Madness” where madness (defined as breaking away from predictable rationality opponents expect) strengthens one’s hands by disrupting the opponent’s cost-benefit calculations.

In time, Richard Nixon would become the premier practitioner of this ‘Mad Man diplomacy’ with uncertain consequences. For one, his 1969 alerting of US nuclear bombers had very little effect on Hanoi. Ultimately, it was painstaking back-channel diplomacy by Kissinger – coupled with calibrated bombings as well as willingness to cut one’s losses – that led to the 1973 Paris Peace Accords between the US and North Vietnam. Practitioners of madman diplomacy since have learnt that convincing the adversary of one’s irrationality for strategic gains is much harder than it looks. The North Koreans and, closer to home, Rawalpindi’s generals – with their incessant nuclear threats – are cases-in-point.

What about Trump? Is his China (non)policy an act of Nixonian mad-man diplomacy, as some have inferred it to be? Or is it simply Trump being a novice and playing with forces with little idea of the consequences of his threats? This brings me to Hamlet.

Whether Hamlet was mad or not is indeed a question that has tormented curious high-school students for generations. He started out – Shakespeare tells us – by playing mad, but by the third act it is really not clear whether he had indeed lost the plot right a while back.

Many close observers of Donald Trump have pointed out that he has, over the years, indeed created a parallel universe for himself where facts can have alternatives. Could Trump’s unpredictability be a sign of his inability to quickly calculate the costs and benefits of a dramatic change in US policy?

One thing is for sure. If Shakespeare gives us any clue, the ending does not bode very well.