Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

A ‘senility theory’ of US foreign policy over Taiwan

  • Richard Nixon made famous the madman theory of international politics and Donald Trump resurrected it. The idea is that erratic and unpredictable behaviour frightens your enemies into compliance. A president perceived to be mentally deficient making dangerously provocative statements such as over Taiwan may have a similar impact

Portraying the head of state as a madman, especially one in control of a vast nuclear arsenal and military force, can be a rational strategy. You may have heard of the madman theory in political science, nuclear deterrence and game theory. Those theories have been variously applied to analyse Richard Nixon, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and three generations of the Kim regime in North Korea.

No one would accuse US President Joe Biden of being a madman, but I am beginning to think whether playing at senility may have a comparable impact. Maybe we can call it the “senile old man theory”.

After all, everyone assumes that the US government will continue to function even if its commander-in-chief is crazy or mentally deficient. But a mad or senile sitting president – however you understand those words – can still have a great impact on foreign policy, and decisions on war and peace. That perception by his adversaries is what matters.

Whether Nixon really was irrational and volatile, he liked the Russian and Vietnamese communists to think so. Perception is all. In his thinking, your enemies will be more accommodating, or at least less inclined to take risks and be provocative, if they think you are unpredictable and may react disproportionately.

China sanctions US defence firm CEOs over Taiwan arms sales

Nixon wasn’t completely “crazy” to think so. There is a rich and respectable literature in the social and political sciences behind the idea. Thomas Schelling, a giant in the development of game theory, won the Nobel economics prize in 2005 partly on the strength of his study of seemingly irrational behaviour as a strategy in a bargaining or competitive situation.

He was also an adviser to Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 classic satire on nuclear war, Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. In the movie, the Doomsday Machine and “General Ripper”, that is, the madman Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper represented nuclear-deterrent ideas of what Schelling calls “pre-commitment”, that is, both sides know once a nuclear war has started, they can’t halt it or disengage even if they both wanted to.

Though Schelling didn’t come up with the colourful name, he has been credited with originating the madman theory. The jury is still out on its usefulness. Some international relations scholars have argued it’s actually counterproductive and escalates conflicts.


You wonder, though, if a variant of the madman theory is being played out across the Taiwan Strait at the moment. Lately, Biden has kept saying the US will defend the island of Taiwan if mainland China attacks, no matter the circumstances.

Biden says US troops would defend Taiwan from attack by Beijing

We can all imagine scenarios. Maybe Taiwan decides to hold an island-wide referendum on independence or elects a president who vows to declare independence; or Taipei simply, unilaterally declares it. Maybe the mainland is provoked into attacking as a response; or it simply decides to strike first, to pre-empt independence and achieve unification. No matter, Biden seems to be saying, America will come to Taiwan’s defence, with its own troops.

He has said something like that four times since May last year (see my previous column). And each time, the White House walked back his statement. Observers, including yours truly, have argued that Biden is undermining the US’ long-standing policy on “one China”; turning “strategic ambiguity” into “strategic clarity” and encouraging the island towards independence.

But how about this: intentional or not, Biden and the White House are making strategic ambiguity even more ambiguous. The president says one thing, hours later, the White House’s spin machine comes out to “clarify”: No, no, no, he really doesn’t mean that. The old policy on “one China” stays the same.

Beijing to toughen punishment for Taiwan’s pro-independence forces

If you are sitting in Beijing, will you be considering all the possibilities? For example: 1. The septuagenarian president is senile and doesn’t know what he is talking about. 2. He is not senile but doesn’t know what he talking about. 3. He is not senile and knows what he is talking about. 4. Senile or not, the rest of the administration is happy to have him talking like a loose cannon so as to confuse and frighten the Chinese from acting hastily over Taiwan.


The fourth possibility is what I call the “senile old man theory”. There are, of course, other possibilities, such as that nobody responsible for Taiwan policy knows what’s going on at the White House, hence the confusion. But that would be an unlikely worst-case scenario.

The end result is that the US position over Taiwan is now even more ambiguous and confusing, however you like to call it. Relations between the US and China are at their worst since Nixon visited Beijing, and the mainland and the island are pushing each other into dangerous territory.

Taiwan’s military ‘stronger’ following PLA drills: Tsai Ing-wen

Interestingly, maybe it’s merely a coincidence, or not. After Biden’s latest stunt, Beijing appears to have softened its rhetoric over Taiwan. “I would like to reiterate that … we are willing to strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and utmost efforts,” said Ma Xiaoguang, of the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office. The statement is significant in that it came a day after US and Canadian warships jointly sailed through the Taiwan Strait.


If all sides try to calm waters and de-escalate because the US military posture is now even more ambiguous and confusing, is that really so bad?