Steven J. Brams writes: Donald Trump has threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea with “fire and fury” should it cross some ambiguous tripwire. By being vague about where that tripwire lies, Trump seems to believe that his threat, coupled with harsher economic sanctions, will force Kim Jong Un to back down.
But just the opposite seems to have occurred. Instead, a war of words has broken out between Trump and Kim. This underscores the dangers that arise when there are no clear policy guidelines about what conditions constitute a threat to peace and can lead to war. It also tells us what may happen when each leader plays a “madman strategy” — pretending to be a madman to induce his antagonist to capitulate.
Game theorists such as Thomas Schelling have pointed out that the madman strategy can sometimes get results. It is equivalent to throwing the steering wheel out the window of your car, in sight of your adversary, when playing a game of chicken — showing that you are not going to be able to swerve, so your adversary must do so to avoid a head-on collision. Clearly, chicken is a dangerous game.
On the one hand, disaster might strike if both players stick with the madman strategy of making irrevocable commitments. The personal invectives and threats that Trump and Kim have hurled at each other might eventually be sufficient to cause one of them to escalate to nuclear war. If their posturing becomes real, this strategy’s logic leads to mutual catastrophe. [Continue reading…]