Madman Theory

Andrey Nikishaev
5 min readFeb 8, 2024

Today, we’ll delve into politics through the lens of Game Theory. And we’ll discuss one of the quite strange, but at the same time, in certain situations, extremely effective strategies — Madman Theory

Game Theory - is a mathematical method for studying optimal strategies in games. A game is understood as a process involving two or more parties competing to realize their interests. Each party has its goal and uses a strategy that may lead to winning or losing — depending on the behavior of other players. Game Theory helps choose the best strategies considering the perceptions of other participants, their resources, and their possible actions.

Back in 1517, Niccolò Machiavelli asserted that sometimes it’s “very wise to simulate madness”. Later, in 1959, this thesis was developed by Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst and the person who leaked secret data of the American-Vietnamese war, exposing the corruption schemes that led to it. These documents became known as the “Pentagon Papers.

As a military analyst, Daniel actively used game theory to simulate and predict the behavior of various political and military forces. Drawing on Machiavelli’s idea, Daniel created a work called the Madman Theory, which can be read in his books and those of Thomas Schelling, who continued its development. The title itself came from a statement by US President Richard Nixon, who actively used it in his work.

What is the idea of this theory?

In game theory, there are many behavior strategies, each trying to predict and use the opponents’ strategies to gain an advantage. Essentially, it all comes down to how well you can read the opponent. But what if your opponent is insane? Is it possible to understand and predict them?

This is precisely what the Madman Theory strategy bets on. It aims to make the opponent believe that any action is possible for you, even those that seem to lead to your defeat. For example, imagine two nuclear powers and the idea of nuclear deterrence. It works perfectly until there appears a madman among the powers who doesn’t care about the consequences and might use nuclear weapons. And now, your strategy that worked with everyone collapses like a house of cards.

Richard Nixon

Once addressing Harry Robbins Haldeman, he said:

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.

In October 1969, the Nixon administration indicated to the Soviet Union that “the madman was loose” when the United States military was ordered to full global war readiness alert (unbeknownst to the majority of the American population), and bombers armed with thermonuclear weapons flew patterns near the Soviet border for three consecutive days.[10]

The administration employed the “madman strategy” to force the North Vietnamese government to negotiate an end to the Vietnam War. In July 1969 (according to a CIA report declassified in February 2018), President Nixon may have suggested to South Vietnamese president Thieu that the two paths he was considering were either a nuclear weapons option or setting up a coalition government.

vladimir putin

Another example of madman theory has also been attributed to russian president vladimir putin, especially in the lead up and during the 2022 russian invasion of Ukraine. In 2015, Martin Hellman stated that “nuclear weapons are the card that putin has up his sleeve, and he’s using it to get the world to realise that russia is a superpower, not just a regional power.” This use of the madman theory, Hellman argued, was something which the West had not “properly caught on to.”

In 2022, days before the russian invasion of Ukraine, Gideon Rachman argued in the Financial Times that Putin’s “penchant for publishing long, nationalist essays” regarding Ukrainian and russian history, his plans of nuclear weapons exercises as well as his image of “growing increasingly out of touch and paranoid” and isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, could have been the use of madman strategy. Rachman stated that Putin “is ruthless and amoral. But he is also shrewd and calculating. He takes risks, but he is not crazy”, comparing putin’s recent actions to his more “rational” actions of the previous 20 years. However, Rachman also noted that “the line between acting like a madman and being a madman is disconcertingly thin.”

In the first days of the invasion, Paul Taylor of Politico also speculated that putin was using the madman strategy, after his decision to place russian deterrence nuclear forces on “special alert”. Taylor stated that Putin was exhibiting “pathological behavior” by “swinging wildly from seeming openness to negotiations to a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in four fronts, while threatening the world with mass destruction.” Taylor also referred to putin’s television address prior to the invasion, stating that “his branding Ukraine’s elected leaders as drug-addicted neo-Nazis raised doubts even among supportive Russians about his mental state and health.”

Is it effective?

According to political scientists Samuel Seitz and Caitlin Talmadge, “The historical record, both before Trump’s presidency and during it, demonstrates that madman tactics typically fail to strengthen deterrence or generate bargaining leverage.” They cite three main reasons: target states fail to receive the message that the “madman” thinks he is sending, target states do not see the “madman” behavior as credible, and target states do not give into the “madman” even when they believe the madman rhetoric, because the madman is perceived as being unable to make credible assurances of future behavior.

My opinion is not so radical. I believe that this strategy still works, but like everything else, in certain cases. For example, the current situation with russia’s war against Ukraine is an example of when it is effective. So far, the entire external world avoids direct confrontation with russia, believing that they are ready to use nuclear weapons, instead of quickly ending this lawlessness.