[Hat tip here to Dan Nexon and the discussion going on at Crooked Timber]

Does projecting the image that one is irrational actually confer that person with an advantage in bargaining situations, specifically when nuclear weapons are involved? This seems to be the question taken up by Lee Harris over at Tech Central Station, to which he answers “yes” (Glenn Reynolds provides the pom-poms, imploring the US to do this more often).

Harris is concerned that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons it can use those weapons to extract favorable changes to the status quo since other states would view its leader as an irrational man who cannot be counted on to rationally calculate that the risks of nuclear escalation are not worth the issue at stake. This is reminiscent of Nixon’s “Madman Theory” whereby he sought to cultivate the image that he was in fact irrational, thereby forcing the Soviets the pressure the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table. (For more on this, see Scott Sagan’s International Security article from a few years back.)

The notion is not without merit. However, in the case of Iran and the US I don’t think projecting an image of madness by either party would confer an advantage.

Thinkers such as Thomas Schelling and Daniel Ellsberg each noted the potential advantage a player could gain in a game of chicken (the most common game theoretic form used for modeling nuclear bargaining) if he could convince the driver in the other car that he was so irrational that he would not swerve under any circumstances. This means the other driver must choose between swerving and loosing face for future games of chicken, or running the risk that they would in fact collide. In most cases, if the driver believes the other is irrational enough to not swerve he will back down rather than risk death.

Feigning irrationality was one way that Schelling and others suggested one could gain an advantage. But they all realized that getting the other player to actually believe that you were irrational or ‘mad’ would be exceedingly difficult. So they suggested ways to artificially constrain one’s rationality. Instead of having a mental defect of some sort, authors suggested ways to artificially limit one’s freedom of choice. The notion of “tying hands” or “burning bridges” were touted as ways that actors could limit future choices so as to alter their ‘rationality’ in a given situation. For example, take our game of chicken. While most people would rationally decide to swerve given, an actor could take an action before hand which limited his/her ability to do so–for example, removing their steering wheel as they plowed toward the other car. This action temporarily removes rationality from the game for the one driver, since they can no longer choose to swerve–their hands are tied. This works because it does not rely on the other driver believing that their counterpart suffers from some sort of mental defect, some dispositional characteristic that makes them insane.

How does this relate to Harris’ post? Harris argues that even a stable balance of terror (i.e. when two countries both posses nuclear weapons and those weapons can reliably reach the other’s territory) is not enough to deter an actor. Under a balance of terror, compellence is thought to be extremely difficult if not impossible. Why? Because carrying out one’s compellent threat runs the risk that the conflict will escalate to the nuclear level or, if the overt act was the firing of nuclear missiles against an opponent, the target will retaliate with nuclear strikes of their own, against which there is no defense. However, this only holds if both sides are perceived by the other to be rational. If one side is trying to compel an adversary to alter the status quo, the target is likely to stand firm given their belief that the other side would not risk nuclear annihilation. But if the other actor is viewed as irrational, as willing to run the risk of nuclear punishment or annihilation themselves, then a deterrent threat most likely won’t work.

To illustrate his argument Harris relies on the analogy (although I think it is a flawed one for numerous reasons, see below) of Hitler and his ability to extract numerous changes in the status quo from France and Britain:

…what allowed Hitler to bluff both France and England so successfully during the period known as appeasement was not the might of the German Army, but the astonishing idea that Hitler might really want war — and at a time everyone else in Europe, including Mussolini, shuddered at the very thought of another debacle like the Great War, whose memory was still all too vivid. In a world where everyone else is prepared to do anything to prevent a war, the man who makes other people believe he is willing to go to war automatically gains the advantage of being the party that must be appeased if war is to be avoided. In such a world, it is the erratic and the irrational whose power is amplified at the expense of the reasonable and the predictable.

This analogy is flawed for two reasons. First, while he is correct to point out that the parties in Europe were looking to avoid another war lest it envelope the continent as the Great War had, the main reason why Hitler was able to extract the changes he sought was that European leaders, especially Chamberlain, were mistaken as to Hitler’s “type”. The thinking was Hitler was a limited revisionist, not an unstoppable expansionist. He only sought slight changes to the status quo (or revisions to the status quo ante, prior to the Treaty of Versaille), therefore, better to grant this limited changes than to risk a conflict escalating into a larger conflict. If Hitler had been seen as an unstoppable revisionist earlier I doubt we would have seen the kind of negotiations we saw at Munich–even if he was willing to run the cost of war.

The second problem with the analogy is that it falls prey to conventionalizing nuclear weapons. In drawing on this analogy, even if for the moment we assume it’s a good one, Harris is thinking about nuclear weapons and nuclear war in the same manner as conventional weapons and war. This is highly problematic. The risks and costs of conventional war are several magnitudes less than its nuclear counterpart. Harris here is ignoring the nuclear revolution and its implications for bargaining and decision making. Even if his characterization of European thinking during the 1930s is accurate, comparing the risks and costs of conventional war and nuclear war is faulty. The amount of ‘insanity’ that would have to be displayed by a leader in the nuclear age to gain such a bargaining advantage are great, and it is important to note that this seemingly has never happened. This is even more complicated when one is trying to use threats of nuclear force to alter, rather than maintain, the status quo (the difference between compellence and deterrence respectively).

Iran would have trouble earning dividends from cultivating a madman image for several reasons. First, even if leaders came to believe that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in fact mad, insane, or at least irrational enough to risk nuclear war it is not clear that he actually has (or would have) control over Iran’s nuclear weapons. It makes little sense for other states to cower at an Iranian threat if the man seen as mad doesn’t actually have his finger on the button. The credibility of the threat would be diminished since his capability to carry out the threat is nil even if his willingness is perceived as high.

Second, more than likely Harris is envisioning a series of demands by Iran to alter the status quo using explicit or implicit nuclear threats. In the past, the use of nuclear threats for compellent purposes has failed. Simply having the weapons has, to my knowledge, never lead to a favorable altering of the status quo when the other state also had the weapons (for the reasons stated above). For all of Khrushchev’s supposed irrational behavior (something acknowledged by Nixon), his attempts to alter the status quo routinely failed (see the second Berlin Crisis and the Cuban Missile Crisis). It is generally acknowledged that compellence in the nuclear age is difficult to the point of being impossible given that defending what one has typically gives the other party an advantage in the balance of interest/resolve. Additionally, the party threatening the status quo must make the first dangerous move–even if they have the image of being insane, they may not actually be and therefore will be self-deterred from starting down a path of potential escalation.

Finally, the problem with a Madman approach to deterrence or compellence is that if you are caught bluffing once the game is over. If Iran makes a compellent threat and their bluff is called their signaling reputation is likely to be irreparably damaged (this was a concern with Eisenhower’s policy of Massive Retaliation). That means that Iran is unlikely to make these types of threats in case where the interest at stake isn’t the most vital. And even in that situation, where the interest is vital to their national security, other leaders would already assume that they are resolved–as a recent study points out. The “added-value” of a madman image in these situations would seemingly be negligible.

For the same reasons the US is unlikely to gain much from being viewed as more irrational than it current is. The same problems of compellence are likely to exist, and the same general advantages of deterrence do not hinge on being viewed as irrational in the nuclear age. Even if we are facing a seemingly irrational opponent, the above analysis of Iran should demonstrate that in the case of deterrence the ‘irrational’ state wouldn’t have the kind of advantage that Harris speaks about. In the end I am not comfortable with Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, but not because it would confer upon them the kind of insurmountable bargaining advantage that Harris and Reynolds speak of.

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