When Negotiators Strive to Appear Unpredictable

The costs and risks of Richard Nixon’s “madman theory” of negotiation.

By on / International Negotiation

During the height of the Vietnam War, U.S. president Richard Nixon confided in his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, that he had devised a special strategy to end the war: He was trying to convince his Communist Bloc enemies, the Soviet Union and the North Vietnamese, that he was insane. In his book The Ends of Power, Haldeman recalled Nixon saying:

I call it the Madman Theory. 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 with Communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button!” And Ho Chi Min himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.

In October 1969, Nixon tested his madman theory by putting the U.S. military on full global war–readiness alert, including having bombers armed with thermonuclear weapons buzz the Soviet border for several days. Nixon had no intention of attacking the Soviet Union
but wanted to send the message that he was out of control and willing to drop bombs to end the Vietnam War. The Soviets ignored the provocations.

Later, the Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, left a meeting with Nixon convinced that he was “unhinged,” Nicole Hemmer writes in an article for Vox.com. But Nixon’s displays of madness remained ineffective at inducing compliance from the communists. It was another four years before the Vietnam War ended. Nixon’s foreign-policy successes came from more rational policies, such as triangulation and détente, than from displays of alarming behavior, notes Hemmer.

Surprise moves from a president-elect

As Donald J. Trump takes office, some observers believe he has adopted Nixon’s madman theory on foreign policy, or a version of it centered on appearing unpredictable. During the presidential campaign, Trump—a longtime admirer of Nixon and Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser and secretary of state—repeatedly expressed his view that the United States needed to capitalize on the element of surprise when dealing with other nations. “You want to be unpredictable,” he said on the TV show Face the Nation when asked about his position on nuclear weapons. And when asked about China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea, Trump refused to say how he would respond as president: “I wouldn’t want them to know what my real thinking is.”

As president-elect, Trump made a series of moves that gave the impression he was, indeed, bent on appearing unpredictable and downright provocative. He angered China repeatedly with his actions and statements, beginning with his protocol-breaking phone call with the president of Taiwan. He disparaged NATO, the United Nations, the European Union, and German chancellor Angela Merkel in interviews and Twitter messages. And on Twitter, he wrote that he believed the United States should start stockpiling nuclear weapons again—a position all the more surprising given his admiring comments about Russian president Vladimir Putin and expressed desire to build better relations with Russia. “Mr. Trump’s unpredictability is perhaps his most predictable characteristic,” the New York Times concluded a few days before his inauguration.

Should we cultivate unpredictability?

We don’t know whether Trump’s unpredictable moves in the realm of foreign policy are impulsive or deliberately aimed at disarming his perceived adversaries. But the renewed discussion of the madman theory in the media and Trump’s provocative moves raise the question of whether calculated unpredictability is a winning strategy in negotiation.

In a 2013 study led by Professor Marwan Sinaceur of INSEAD in France, participants made greater concessions to counterparts who varied their emotional expressions over the course of a negotiation simulation—from cooperation to anger, for example—than to partners who seemed more emotionally consistent. The researchers concluded that trying to appear unpredictable can be an effective strategy in one-shot or short-term negotiations, particularly when you don’t expect to do business with that person again. Intimidating and even frightening displays can, indeed, motivate others to back down and give you what you want.

Yet for many negotiators, displaying false emotions or giving an inaccurate impression of their mental state, like other forms of deception, would violate their personal code of ethics. Moreover, unpredictability is likely to backfire in long-term negotiations and partnerships for several reasons. First, your efforts to repeatedly catch your counterpart off-guard could leave her feeling so irritated by your games that she retaliates or replaces you with a more consistent counterpart. Second, your reputation for unpredictability could spread throughout your network and leave you lacking desirable negotiating partners. Third, if people feel threatened by your outrageous claims or behavior, they could reciprocate with unstable and potentially damaging behavior of their own.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, unpredictability is a very narrow tool that requires us to sacrifice a much broader array of strategies that form the bedrock of effective mutual-gains negotiation, including trust building, information sharing, and joint value creation. Any short-term benefits a negotiator might gain from surprise and intimidation are likely to eventually be dwarfed by the long-term costs of alienating partners and walling oneself off from more collaborative approaches.

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