BY many accounts, Richard Nixon thought he could win the Cold War by convincing his enemies that he was unbalanced. “I call it the Madman Theory,” Nixon told his chief of staff. “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…we can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”

With North Korea in the headlines, many commentators reach for this anecdote to explain the Donald Trump school of diplomacy.

For the president’s admirers, actions that look like “madness” – such as taking to Twitter to fat-shame an abnormally sensitive, nuclear-armed dictator – are all part of an ingenious strategy for restoring American influence. For critics, Nixon’s theory starts to break down when the people in charge are genuinely unhinged rather than merely playing at it.

“Madness” has been the prevailing metaphor for the North Korean crisis. With nuclear tensions at a post-Cold War peak, the media presents a world held to ransom by the idiosyncratic and dangerously petty personalities of Trump and Kim Jong-Un. The metaphor seems doubly convincing because North Korea is, to Western observers, perhaps the most dramatically odd society on planet Earth. So the whole issue is easily explained as a case study in human folly and the warped psychology of leaders.

But how convincing is this “madness” metaphor? Leaving aside Trump, and without questioning the undoubted horrors of North Korea’s garrison state, is Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear weapons an act of sheer irrationality?

Or is it a horrific yet tragically rational response to perverse incentives invented in Washington, policies which long predated Donald Trump and were in fact designed by his liberal, globalising critics?

Let me clarify one point, to avoid confusion. Without exception, the pursuit of nuclear weapons is always a sign of a sick society. It’s a tragic waste of resources and human potential even in a relatively wealthy post-industrial society like Britain. In North Korea, an impoverished country that suffers regular famines, diverting scarce resources to the build-up of killing power is that much worse.

But zoom out from North Korea itself to the chessboard of global diplomacy, and the strategy starts to look horrifyingly rational. According to Martine Bulard, deputy editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, Pyongyang’s leaders “see nuclear weapons as the only defence against US military might, arguing that the US was able to destroy Iraq (without asking for UN approval) because Iraq had no nuclear deterrent, but has had to negotiate with Iran because Iran is about to acquire the bomb”.

Libya, the North Koreans note, was convinced to abandon its nuclear programme in return for normalisation – and it didn’t turn out happily. Recent American policy has therefore made the stakes quite clear. “Rogue states” without nuclear weapons get invaded, even if Washington promises you the world; but – according to this perverse notion – once you’ve got nukes, you’re pretty much safe.

There’s more than a measure of hypocrisy here in pretending that America’s bombastic, imperialist foreign policy begins with Trump. It’s easily forgotten that America introduced nuclear weapons into Korean politics, way back in 1958, when the South was a military dictatorship (as it would remain until 1988) that genuinely posed a threat to its Northern neighbours.

American nukes were withdrawn after the Cold War, but the US regularly flies nuclear-capable bombers in South Korean airspace, and 28,000 American troops are stationed on the peninsula.

America’s occupation of Korean politics has lasted since the 1950s and, while Donald Trump is no great blessing for peninsular peace, the real problems begun with the “axis of evil” and similar narratives in the 1990s and 2000s. “The demonisation of North Korea transcends party lines, drawing on a host of subliminal racist and Orientalist imagery,” notes Bruce Cumings, the greatest English-language historian of Korea. “No-one is willing to accept that North Koreans may have valid reasons for not accepting the American definition of reality.”

So painting this crisis as an issue of “madness” misses the point, really. Because if you track the big picture, North Korea has logical grounds for pursuing the deeply irrational goal of nuclear weapons capacity. Generations of American policy, designed by a liberal, highly educated foreign policy elite, have left the world’s outcast regimes with little alternative. Non-nuclear governments are easily toppled by aggression. If your goal is survival, a nuclear threat is the only proven deterrent to Washington’s designs.

However, North Korea may be misreading America’s goals, in one important sense. Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have proved that overthrowing a “rogue state” is pretty easy, but providing stability afterwards can prove expensive and next to impossible. If America did overthrow the Northern regime, it would leave a vacuum between its own geopolitical interests and those of China. The Middle East’s blood-splattered recent history hints at how this might end.

If America’s generals are rational, they’ll have learned this lesson by now, and they’ll fight hard against a strategy of aggression in Korea. However, sensible global opinion warned that invading Iraq would be a disaster not just for regional stability, but also for American power. They went ahead and invaded anyway. Sometimes irrationality prevails, even before we had presidents with a Twitter account and a mean attitude.

Our best hope is that, compared to 2003, the anti-war part of society is much more influential.

The Scottish independence movement and Jeremy Corbyn are two signs of that. So was the election of Barack Obama and, weirdly enough, Donald Trump.

Trump, after all, came about as an isolationist reaction against the imperialism of the Bush family and the Republican establishment they represent. His recent combative turn is not some weird quirk of personality: instead, it’s the time-honoured American presidential tradition of using fighting talk on the world stage to distract from domestic failures.

The real breeding ground for irrational wars is a media and a public that forgets history. So we should abandon the superficially appealing but historically misleading metaphor of two out-of-control, hellbent madmen. This crisis has been manufactured by a cross-party consensus for expanding liberal capitalism by force, and by North Korea’s perfectly rational reading of recent US behaviour. But isn’t that even more terrifying?