Michael KreponMad Men

There’s a Mad Man Theory of Deterrence. Does it apply to arms control, too?

Here’s the keeper Mad Man quote, found in Richard M. Nixon’s The Real War (1980):

International relations are a lot like poker – stud poker with a hole card… Our only covered card is the will, nerve, and unpredictability of the President – his ability to make the enemy think twice about raising the ante… If the adversary feels that you are unpredictable, even rash, he will be deterred from pressing you too far.

Nixon, Kissinger, Reagan, Shultz, Nitze and others applied a variation of this approach to arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union. The keys to success were to make the Kremlin feel that you were willing to out-build and negate his deterrent, while stringing Moscow along in arms control negotiations. Then you could get a sweetheart deal.

Nixon and Kissinger tried to apply this approach to the SALT negotiations, but they were stymied on multiple fronts. The Soviet Union, not the United States, had more active production lines for missiles and submarines; US programs were either on the drawing boards or just entering production. MIRVs got the Kremlin’s attention, but this US technological advantage couldn’t be used as leverage, because the Pentagon and Hawks on Capitol Hill refused to cash MIRVs in.

Ballistic missile defenses were the Nixon/Kissinger hole card, because concern over their deployment resides in the Kremlin’s DNA. But the White House was stymied on this front, too. Congressional opposition to national missile defense deployments was unyielding, and not enough voters wanted nuclear-tipped interceptors in their backyards. Besides, technical problems were insurmountable back then, even against rudimentary offenses. The Pentagon didn’t have enough money for missile defenses as well as strategic modernization programs. When left to choose, sound military judgment opted for more offense, rather than a deeply suspect defense.

Nixon and Kissinger, the master geo-politicians of the 1970s, did poorly in negotiating restraints on strategic offensive forces. They were too eager for a blockbuster deal before the 1972 election, and too hamstrung by conditions they could not shape. The Kremlin held a better hand.

Tables were turned during the Reagan administration. President Carter and his SALT II Treaty were shown the door. The incoming president called for a major boost in defense spending, including a host of strategic modernization programs, at a time when the Soviet Union’s economy was just beginning to crater. On top of this, paranoid septuagenarians in the Politburo witnessed the second coming of BMD – space-based, no less. Technically and financially speaking, the Strategic Defense Initiative was a non-starter, but until Mikhail Gorbachev took the helm, the Kremlin was nearly apoplectic about SDI.

President Reagan placed hard-liners at key posts, tabled lop-sided negotiating proposals that appeared to be non-starters – not just to the Kremlin, but also to some Reagan administration officials, U.S. allies, and to the President’s domestic critics. Money flowed into SDI and U.S. strategic modernization programs, weapons with preemption-like characteristics began to be deployed in Europe, and the President seemed in no hurry to negotiate deals.

In other words, the Reagan administration accrued extraordinary negotiating leverage. Once its internecine battles were resolved in favor of pragmatists and against hard-liners, and once Gorbachev replaced his sclerotic predecessors, sweetheart deals became possible. Whether by design or by circumstance, President Reagan demonstrated the Mad Man Theory of Arms Control.

Can a U.S. President play these cards once again? Not in the same way. It’s quite possible that Washington could still be roused to compete intensely for military advantage in space, if prompted to do so by the People’s Liberation Army. In which case, the wraps would be off the Pentagon, and Beijing would find itself at a disadvantage and thus become more inclined toward deal-making. A far simpler and safer approach would be for Washington and Beijing to reach tacit agreements to avoid dangerous activities in space, reflected in a Code of Conduct for responsible space-faring nations.

As for a classical strategic build-up to secure another sweetheart nuclear arms reduction deal, don’t hold your breath. Pentagon budgets are constrained, the impulse for nuclear arms racing in the United States has long since passed, and Senate Republicans are uninterested in treaties. Under these conditions, the dynamic of using nuclear build-ups to get treaties, and using treaties to get strategic modernization programs, has lost traction.

Without treaties, without cash, and without negotiating brinksmanship, forget the Mad Man Theory of Arms Control. What’s left? The Mad Man Theory of Nuclear Deterrence. For the latest iteration, check out the statements broadcast from Pyongyang.


  1. Rob Goldston (History)

    Nice argument, well written!
    1) A tiny detail: I think you mean that Republican senators are “uninterested” not “disinterested”.
    2) Give us the argument that the deals we got for being so crazy were “sweetheart” deals. Were they significantly asymmetrical? Or is the argument that being perceived as “madmen” gets you a deal at all, which just in itself is “sweet” enough.

  2. krepon (History)

    In both the INF Treaty and START, the Kremlin reduced its deployed forces disproportionally to equal limits.

    • Rob Goldston (History)

      So I suppose that is both “sweetheart” and symmetrical. Fair enough.

  3. Anon2 (History)

    Prof. Krepon,

    Your Mad-Men theory certainly has application to Mr. Kim Jong Un. In fact, it is a near perfect analogy.

    1) Act a little “mad”.
    2) Begin building out a nuclear weapons arsenal with promises to build much more.
    3) Threaten war and first strike.
    4) Get a sweet-heart deal.

    The counterpoint of course is calling the bluff to see the hole card. Of course if this happens to really be a full house, we are in trouble.

    Maybe you wrote this article to prevent the DPRK from implementing this negotiating strategy?


  4. Nick Nolan (History)

    Krepon: “It’s quite possible that Washington could still be roused to compete intensely for military advantage in space, if prompted to do so by the People’s Liberation Army”

    I seriously doubt this. I would argue the complete opposite.

    In the space war between U.S and China, China has huge Mad Man advantage. Space assets are practically impossible to defend and very easy to destroy. U.S. military is more dependent on satellites than any regional power. In a escalating ware where both sides lose most of their satellites, whose position is weakened most?

    I think the threat of space war helps the technologically less advanced party as long as they have the technology to track satellites and launch bunch of microscopic ball bearings to the opposite trajectory (something that Iran and DPRK might be able to do in small scale in the future). Chinese have already demonstrated that can do much better than that.