25 August 2019
In his approach toward nuclear weapons and foreign policy, some observers believe US President Donald Trump is adopting a 'madman strategy'. Photo: Reuters
In his approach toward nuclear weapons and foreign policy, some observers believe US President Donald Trump is adopting a 'madman strategy'. Photo: Reuters

Machiavelli in the White House

US President Donald Trump has been described as Machiavellian. He lies, deceives and manipulates where necessary, critics say. To some, he embodies the qualities that the Renaissance-era theorist Niccolò Machiavelli recommended in the field of politics.

In his well-known written work “The Prince”, Italian diplomat and political philosopher Machiavelli described unscrupulous behavior in politicians, such as dishonesty and the killing of innocents, as being normal and effective in politics, even to be encouraged in some situations.

The 16th-century political treatise is regarded as one of the most crucial yet controversial works in the field of political science. And Machiavelli has been considered the father of “Realpolitik”, meaning “real politics” in German, which is then often simply referred to as pragmatism in politics.

Machiavelli also became a luminary for game theory to some extent. From the Machiavellian perspective, a negotiation is a classic game of chicken in which a crazy player has an advantage: if a player can credibly show that he lacks control, he will win the game.

As an illustration, in the modern context, two cars are racing towards each other, and a crash is imminent. If the ‘crazy’ driver throws his steering wheel out the window, the other driver must concede.

The confrontation between the superpowers after World War Two has been widely illustrated as a classic instance of the game of chicken, which Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling identified as the US putting “rational irrationality” strategy into practice, whereas President Richard Nixon called it “Madman Theory.”

In his approach toward nuclear weapons and foreign policy, Donald Trump seems to draw from the “madman” playbook employed by Nixon. Trump has been turning his back on the post-WWII liberal world order, criticizing ‘unfair’ trade relations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliances, blaming former president Obama for the current Middle East disaster, while exchanging scary threats with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, comments that made headlines around the world.

But recently Trump said he was willing to meet with Kim by May to talk about the denuclearization of North Korea, according to South Korean officials.

While Trump seems to have backed down on Kim, it is premature to draw any conclusions in relation to other issues related to the US, such as steel and aluminum tariffs. 

Overall, the world is witnessing the re-emergence of the ‘strongman’ leader syndrome.

“Strong” leaders are on the rise in key countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, India, Japan, and to some extent, the United States, where leaders’ political appeal is based on forceful strong-arm leadership and attack-dog politics to motivate supporters.

The trend of strongman rulers poses a growing danger to the international order of the past decades that was rooted in the principles of democracy.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 13

Translation by Ben Ng with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Eddie Tam is the founder and CEO of Central Asset Investments.

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe