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Brinkmanship (also brinksmanship) is the practice of trying to achieve an advantageous outcome by pushing dangerous events to the brink of active conflict. It occurs in international politics, foreign policy, labour relations, and (in contemporary settings) military strategy involving the threat of nuclear weapons, and high-stakes litigation.
This maneuver of pushing a situation with the opponent to the brink succeeds by forcing the opponent to back down and make concessions. This might be achieved through diplomatic maneuvers by creating the impression that one is willing to use extreme methods rather than concede. During the Cold War, the threat of nuclear force was often used as such an escalating measure.
Brinkmanship is the ostensible escalation of threats to achieve one's aims. The word was probably coined by Adlai Stevenson in his criticism of the philosophy described as "going to the brink" in an interview with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles under the Eisenhower administration, during the Cold War. Eventually, the threats involved might become so huge as to be unmanageable at which point both sides are likely to back down. This was the case during the Cold War; the escalation of threats of nuclear war, if carried out, are likely to lead to mutually assured destruction.
The dangers of brinkmanship as a political or diplomatic tool can be understood as a slippery slope. For brinkmanship to be effective, the sides continuously escalate their threats and actions. However, a threat is ineffective unless credible—at some point, an aggressive party may have to prove its commitment to action.
The chance of things sliding out of control is often used in itself as a tool of brinkmanship, because it can provide credibility to an otherwise incredible threat. The Cuban Missile Crisis presents an example in which opposing leaders, namely John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, continually issued warnings, with increasing force, about impending nuclear exchanges, without necessarily validating their statements. Pioneering game theorist Thomas Schelling called this "the threat that leaves something to chance."
The British intellectual Bertrand Russell compared nuclear brinkmanship to the game of chicken. The principle between the two is the same, to create immense pressure in a situation until one person or party backs down, or both are annihilated.
- Balance of terror
- Brinkmanship (Cold War)
- Chicken (game)
- Game theory
- International crisis
- Massive retaliation
- Mutual assured destruction
- Madman theory
- "Online Etymology Dictionary". Retrieved 8 July 2015.
- Schelling, Thomas, The Strategy of Conflict, copyright 1960, 1980, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-84031-3.
- Russell, Bertrand W. (1959) Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare London: George Allen & Unwin, p30: "Since the nuclear stalemate became apparent, the governments of East and West have adopted the policy which Mr. Dulles calls 'brinksmanship.' This is a policy adapted from a sport which, I am told, is practiced by some youthful degenerates. This sport is called 'Chicken!'"
Watry, David M. Diplomacy at the Brink: Eisenhower, Churchill, and Eden in the Cold War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014.