The Madmen of Our Times

In 2005, the Swedish bankers awarded their Sveriges Riksbank prize to Thomas Schelling “in memory of Alfred Nobel.” Part of the citation was for Schelling’s work on “uncertain retaliation.” In 1960, Schelling published The Strategy of Conflict, a groundbreaking book in the tradition of “game theory.” Schelling put forward the view that if an adversary were unpredictable, then s/he would have a decisive advantage against someone whose imagination was governed by rules. Schilling found his theory enacted in Peter George’s popular novel, Red Alert, which was the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (Schelling consulted for the movie). The threat of nuclear attack provided better deterrence than the SALT 1 talks.

Schelling was not alone with this theory. Glimmers of it can be seen in Henry Kissinger’s 1957 Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, where the Harvard professor developed Machiavelli’s dictum (come egli è cosa sapientissima simulare in tempo la pazzia, it is a very wise thing to stimulate madness). In October 1969, Kissinger’s boss, Richard Nixon, told his henchman, Bob Haldeman that the United States needed to adopt the “mad-man theory” of international relations. Dr. Strangelove, via Thomas Schelling, needed to become the central doctrine of U. S. foreign policy. “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob,” Nixon said. “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.”

Schelling shared the 2005 prize with another game theory psychopath, Robert (Yisrael) Aumann. In his lecture at the prize-giving ceremony, Aumann offered this wisdom derived from his theory of “correlated equilibrium”: “You want to prevent war. To do that, obviously you should disarm, lower the level of armaments. Right? No, wrong. You might want to do the exact opposite. In the long years of the cold war between the U. S. and the Soviet Union, what prevented ‘hot’ war was that bombers carrying nuclear weapons were in the air, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Disarming would have led to war.” Then, quoting from Isaiah, Aumann pointed out that States must have swords; they can only beat them into ploughshares on the “mountain of the Lord,” “when there is a central government – a Lord, recognized by all.” Aumann, by the way, is a member of Professors for a Strong Israel, a member of the right-wing political party Ahl, and a firm opponent of a Palestinian state. Aumann’s Lord will only come when the Israeli State has vanquished its enemies. Not peace in our times: only war.

Aumann is co-director of the “Center for Rationality”, based at Hebrew University. It is here that a school of thought has developed around repeated games, punishment and war. Players in repeated games encounter the same situation over and over again. Behavior patterns emerge. The stronger party has to be willing to punish an adversary to ensure compliance. Any weakness on the part of the strong will be seized by the weak. There is no substitute for a well-armed blow. Pound the Palestinians. That is what they need. Any wavering will only bring retaliation. This is not the Madman Strategy per se. There is no ambiguity or uncertainty. The Israeli State acts with violence in every instance. It is this pall of power and disregard for the laws and opinions of the international community that characterizes its foreign policy. Aumannism has seized 9, Yitzhak Rabin Boulevard. The Foreign Affairs bureaucrats know nothing of peace making; they are experts at war.

The Israeli state encages Gaza. It bombs Gaza. It is enabled by the United States, and by Egypt. It prevents dissent within Gaza. That is subdued till it festers into bitterness and hatred. The survivors in Gaza have one eye, which they use to study the stars. The flotilla came not only to bring supplies, but also to bring hope. Israel allows 15,000 tons of humanitarian aid into Gaza per week, a fourth of what the UN says is needed. Israel fires at the flotilla. It holds the ships and the survivors hostage. Its spokespersons talk of terrorism and self-defense. The world is outraged. The U. S. only “regrets” the loss of life.

Hillary Clinton is busy chiding North Korea for an alleged act of aggression against South Korea. No such outrage at Tel Aviv. The White House shares the madman theory when it comes to its allies. It likes to call its enemies (Kim Jong Il and Ahmadinejad) madmen. North Korea and Iran are rogue states. Israel and the United States are rational, only simulating madness. The Madman Strategy of the Rational States mimes the Queen, “sentence first – verdict afterwards.” Or no verdict at all, and simply, “off with her head.” And so it is.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at:


Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).