The Madman Theory

In modern discourse, one of the polar opposites of “rationalization” and the “rationalization thesis” mentioned in the previous essay is known as the “Madman Theory” or “Madness” in general. This theory suggests that “irrationality” and volatile behavior can work to one’s advantage in certain bargaining situations, and that madness is actually an asset and a viable strategy in certain cases, contexts, and situations. And in a number of Eastern cultures, madness and a relinquishing of worldly concerns is actually seen as a virtue, as in the Islamic world and its concept of Junoon. As Bedil Dehlavi wrote:

“Your words have driven society mad; Oh madman, why then ponder on any rational thought?”

Madness as an asset or a strategy in a bargaining situation was best demonstrated by Fidel Castro during the infamous ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’ in the early 1960’s, and arguably it is being demonstrated at the moment by Vladimir Putin in his standoff with the West over Ukraine. It remains to be seen what the outcome of Putin’s ‘madman strategy’ will be vis-à-vis the West, but so far there is no resolute conclusion or outcome. Moreover, it is still too early to suggest that Putin’s strategy has actually failed.

And in regards to the overemphasis or limits of “rationality” as it pertains to Western decision-making and strategy, John F. Kennedy famously said: “The essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer – often, indeed, to the decider himself.” Graham Allison, a Harvard professor who wrote one of the most important books on modern politics and international relations by using the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’ as a case study, argued that analysts who insist on objectivity and rationality ignore plenty of facts in order to make their analysis fit their self-serving “rational” methods and models.

Moreover, a “rational” model of analysis and strategy not only takes a short-term view of history, but it also takes a short-term view of the future by solely addressing short-term priorities, whereas leaders who are not constrained by short-term priorities or a short view of history can act with a greater degree of complexity. And arguably, the complexity of the action is perceived by the so-called “rational” side as “madness.” Thus, one of Allison’s key arguments was that alternatives to the “rational model” of analysis should be explored for elite decision-making and strategy, particularly in Washington. Allison quoted the famous game theorist Thomas Schelling in order to drive the message home:

“You can sit in your armchair and try to predict how people will behave by asking how you would behave if you had your wits around you. You get, free of charge, a lot of vicarious, empirical behavior.”

In turn, a departure from a “rational model” for the sake of an exploration of a highly complex social world which extends beyond the confines of a “rational model” entails a broadening of both experience and one’s scope of reality, which in turn are crucial and incredibly important for elite decision-making and strategy. As E.H. Carr argued:

“If we can widen the range of experiences beyond what we as individuals have encountered, if we can draw upon the experiences of others who’ve had to confront comparable situations in the past, then – although there are no guarantees – our chances of acting wisely should increase proportionately.”

As a result, what are seemingly cliché notions such as “Let go and let God” and so forth may not be so cliché as one would assume. Rather, such notions may in fact serve as the decisive factor between the elite and top-flight decision-makers and strategists on one hand, and the rest of the pack on the other hand.

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