Brinkmanship is a strategy that involves pushing volatile engagements to the brink of active conflict, with the goal of achieving a positive outcome for yourself. For example, in the context of an important negotiation, brinkmanship could involve telling the opposing party that if they won’t agree to all your demands right now, then you’ll walk away from the negotiation entirely.
Brinkmanship is an important strategy in game theory, and is frequently used in various domains, such as international politics, high-stakes litigation, business negotiations, and even small-scale interpersonal conflicts, so it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about brinkmanship, understand how you can implement it yourself, and see what you can do to respond to those who use it against you.
The origin and history of brinkmanship
Though the underlying principle behind brinkmanship existed in various forms throughout human history, it gained prominence following a 1956 interview with John Foster Dulles, who was then the U.S. Secretary of State under President Eisenhower. Specifically, when discussing the philosophy behind his foreign policies during the ongoing Cold War, Dulles famously said:
“You have to take chances for peace, just as you must take chances in war.
Some say that we were brought to the verge of war. Of course we were brought to the verge of war. The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art. If you cannot master it, you inevitably get into war. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.
We’ve had to look it straight in the face—on the question of enlarging the Korean war, on the question of getting into the Indochina war, on the question of Formosa. We walked to the brink and we looked it in the face. We took strong action.”
— From “How Dulles Averted War“, by James Shepley, Chief of the Time-Life Washington Bureau, published in Life Magazine, on January 16, 1956.
The term ‘brinkmanship’ itself was then coined in response to Dulles’s approach:
“He [Adlai E. Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for president at the time] derided the Secretary [John Foster Dulles] for ‘boasting of his brinkmanship—the art of bringing us to the edge of the nuclear abyss.'”
— From “Stevenson Gibes at the President as Inept ‘Coach’“, in the New York Times, February 26, 1956. Note that the term ‘brinkmanship’ is credited to Stevenson’s speech writer at the time, James C. Thomson.
Following this, the brinkmanship policy remained prominent throughout the Cold War, where it was primarily associated with the risk of a global nuclear conflict.
For example, a notable event where brinkmanship played a crucial role was the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, where US President John F. Kennedy applied brinkmanship as he threatened the USSR’s leader, Nikita Khrushchev, with the risk of mutually assured destruction if the USSR did not withdraw their missiles from Cuba.
The use of brinkmanship in this situation and in similar ones often involved setting demands and being unwilling to compromise about them, under the assumption that the other side will fold, rather than risk escalating the high-risk conflict. The dangers of using brinkmanship in this manner lay in the possibility that there might be an issue with communication or that the other side might choose to escalate the situation rather than fold, which could lead to a cycle of continuous escalation, that would eventually culminate in a disaster.
Nevertheless, brinkmanship remains in use in various situations in modern times. For example, it is still associated with the concept of modern nuclear deterrence, and it has, for instance, been proposed as a way for the United Nations to deter terrorists from using weapons of mass destruction.
Furthermore, brinkmanship has also been used in other contexts in modern times. For example, it has been suggested that the UK government engaged in brinkmanship when it came to their negotiations with the European Union in 2011, where they are reported to have used “the veiled threat of ratification difficulties back home to secure opt-outs from EU partners in sensitive areas of policy-making”.
Similarly, it has been suggested that the Greek government engaged in brinkmanship when it came to their bailout negotiations in 2015, where they, among other things, asked voters to “reject the earlier terms demanded by the creditors”, in an attempt to secure a better deal.
Examples of brinkmanship
A simple example of brinkmanship is a situation where two people are arguing, and slowly escalating their threatening behavior, in an attempt to get the other person to back down. The more threatening each person is, the more likely the other one is to back down, but also the more likely the two are to end in a violent physical altercation that neither of them wants.
A similar example of brinkmanship appears in a game called ‘Chicken’, as described in the following excerpt:
“Since the nuclear stalemate became apparent, the Governments of East and West have adopted the policy which Mr. Dulles calls ‘brinkmanship’.
This is a policy adapted from a sport which, I am told, is practised by some youthful degenerates. This sport is called ‘Chicken!’. It is played by choosing a long straight road with a white line down the middle and starting two very fast cars towards each other from opposite ends. Each car is expected to keep the wheels of one side on the white line. As they approach each other, mutual destruction becomes more and more imminent. If one of them swerves from the white line before the other, the other, as he passes, shouts ‘Chicken!’, and the one who has swerved becomes an object of contempt.
As played by irresponsible boys, this game is considered decadent and immoral, though only the lives of the players are risked. But when the game is played by eminent statesmen, who risk not only their own lives but those of many hundreds of millions of’human beings, it is thought on both sides that the statesmen on one side are displaying a high degree of wisdom and courage, and only the statesmen on the other side are reprehensible.
This, of course, is absurd. Both are to blame for playing such an incredibly dangerous game. The game may be played without misfortune a few times, but sooner or later it will come to be felt that loss of face is more dreadful than nuclear annihilation. The moment will come when neither side can face the derisive cry of ‘Chicken!’ from the other side. When that moment is come, the statesmen of both sides will plunge the world into destruction.”
— From “Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare” by British philosopher and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell (1959)
Accordingly, brinkmanship has often been referred to as a game of ‘Chicken’ in various contexts; for example, one paper on the topic has referred to the application of brinkmanship in nuclear-deterrence policies as a nuclear game of ‘Chicken’. However, the application of brinkmanship as a strategy can be more complex than a simple game of Chicken, and can involve a significant amount of planning, which allows the individual or group using it to achieve optimal outcomes for themselves.
Finally, examples of brinkmanship appear in a wide range of additional contexts beyond the political landscape. These include, for instance:
- A poker player going all-in in an attempt to intimidate other players into folding, despite the fact that he has a relatively weak hand.
- An employee giving their employer an ultimatum by saying that they’ll quit if they don’t receive a raise immediately.
- A company threatening to sue another company if the other company won’t give in to their demands, despite knowing that a lawsuit will be costly and unlikely to succeed.
The use of brinkmanship in such situations can be highly effective. For example, one study showed that brinkmanship can be a valuable strategy for consumers looking to get a better deal from their network provider; in this case, brinkmanship involves threatening to leave the provider if they don’t give the consumer a better deal on their service.
If this move succeeds, then the consumer ends up with a better deal from their provider. If it fails however, then the consumer ends up leaving the provider, a generally inconvenient process that most people would prefer to avoid. Of course, it’s possible for the consumer to bluff, and just stay with the same provider if the threat fails. However, the main issue with this, as we will see in the next section, is that the ease of bluffing can make the brinkmanship threat less credible, which reduces its efficacy.
Note: when referring to the use of brinkmanship, people sometimes add a modifier that refers to a specific application of it, as in the cases of nuclear brinkmanship, economic brinkmanship, and political brinkmanship.
How to use brinkmanship effectively
So far, we saw that brinkmanship is a strategy that can be beneficial to implement in a variety of situations, though it also generally involves high levels of risk. In the next sections, you will learn more about the practical aspects of brinkmanship, and see what you can do in order to make sure that when you use this strategy, you do so as effectively as possible.
Make your threats appear credible
“Brinkmanship is the deliberate creation of a recognizable risk, a risk that one does not completely control. It is the tactic of deliberately letting the situation get somewhat out of hand, just because its being out of hand may be intolerable to the other party and force his accommodation. It means intimidating an adversary and exposing him to a shared risk, or deterring him by showing that if he makes a contrary move he may disturb us so that we slip over the brink whether we want to or not, carrying him with us.”
— From “The Strategy of Conflict” by Thomas C. Schelling (1981)
In order to use the brinkmanship strategy effectively, one of the main things that you need to do is make your threats appear credible to your opponent.
The credibility of a threat is tied directly to the costs that are associated with it. This cost can include anything from the time and effort that it takes to make the threat, to the negative outcome that you will have to deal with should the situation escalate. The more costly it is to make the threat, the more credible it will seem to the person you are negotiating with.
The main way to make a threat look credible is to make it in a way that doesn’t leave you the option of backing down if the other person decides to escalate the situation, which you can achieve in various ways.
One such way is to use precommitment, which involves cutting off your future options in order to demonstrate and enforce your commitment to a future course of action.
Another way to make your threats appear credible is to show that the risk of escalation is outside your control. This is effective because your opponent will generally know that you would prefer to avoid escalation, even if they don’t comply with your request, so by placing the decision to escalate outside of your control, you are making the risk of potential escalation more credible.
For example, in the context of using brinkmanship to get a better deal from a service provider, you could say that your spouse told you to ask for a better deal, and that if you are unable to find one, then they will force you to switch to a new provider.
A similar way to achieve this is by making a threat that could potentially lead to escalation, but not necessarily. This technique, which is referred to as a probabilistic threat, makes your threat appear more credible, since it’s usually more realistic for you to make a threat if you know that disagreement won’t necessarily lead to maximal escalation.
For example, this means that making a threat that has a 10% chance of leading to serious escalation if your opponent fails to comply can sometimes be more effective than making a threat that has a 100% chance of escalation, In the context of the Cold War, which inspired the use of this strategy, this risk existed, among other reasons, due to the fact that in intense military conflict, escalation could occur due to various miscommunication issues, even if neither side wants it to happen. As one book on the topic states:
“The key to understanding brinkmanship is to realize that the brink is not a sharp precipice but a slippery slope, getting gradually steeper.”
Overall, one of the key ways to ensure that your brinkmanship is effective is to make your threats appear credible to your opponent. You can achieve this in various ways, the most notable of which are to eliminate some of your future options, to place the risk of escalation outside of your control, and to add uncertainty, by making the risk of escalation probabilistic rather than definite.
Note: when it comes to using brinkmanship in a negotiation, you should generally first identify your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement), which is the best course of action that you will be able to follow if the current negotiations fail. The better your BATNA is, the more willing you should be to walk away from a negotiation, and you should generally never accept an agreement that is worse than your available alternative.
When using brinkmanship, you can benefit from encouraging certain misperceptions of the situation by your opponent, in two main ways:
- You can appear to be more willing to escalate the situation than you truly are. For example, if you threaten to switch a service provider unless you get a better deal, when you make your threat you could provide them with details regarding deals that are offered by other providers in the area. This shows that you’ve done research on the topic, and are consequently more likely to be willing to leave them if they fail to offer you a better deal.
- You can increase the perceived likelihood of escalation due to external factors. For example, in a business negotiation, you can say that the final call is in the hands of your boss, and hint that they’re already looking for ways out of the deal if it doesn’t work out perfectly.
Note that uncertainty can be useful when it comes to benefiting from misperception, so you should cultivate it and take advantage of it whenever you believe it can be useful. However, when doing this, you should keep in mind that uncertainty can also be dangerous, since it can increase the risk of unwanted escalation, which you should account for when deciding whether to use it and how to do so.
“Use [brinkmanship] carefully, and understand that even with the best care it may fail, because the bad thing you and the other player both dread may come to pass while you are raising the stakes.
If your assessment is that in this confrontation you will ‘blink first’—that is, the probability of the bad thing happening will get too large for your own tolerance before the limit of the other player’s tolerance is reached—then you may be better advised not to embark on the path of brinkmanship in the first place.”
When using brinkmanship, there is an inherent risk of the situation escalating beyond control. This is something that you should take into account when deciding whether to use this strategy in the first place, and it’s something you should keep in mind after you’ve already implemented it, in case it might still be possible to prevent unwanted escalation.
In this regard, there are two important things to note:
- The more players in the game are resolute, and the more resolute each player is, the more likely the situation is to escalate. Therefore, avoid situations where the other side is entirely unwilling to compromise, or consider a way to weaken their resolve before engaging in brinkmanship.
- The costs/benefit considerations of each player also affect the risk of escalation. Therefore, even though resolve makes a person less likely to back down, they may still do so if the cost/benefit analysis indicates that that is the best course of action; this can happen, for example, if the cost of backing down is too high for them, so they feel that they have nothing to lose.
When it comes to your opponent’s cost/benefit considerations, there are two main things you can do to prevent escalation and increase the effectiveness of your brinkmanship:
- You can decrease, for your opponent, the costs involved in backing down. The easier it is for your opponent to back down, the more likely they are to be willing to do so. This is crucial, since in a lot of situations people won’t back down for reasons such as ego, even though strategically it is the best option for them. This means, for example, that in a situation where someone doesn’t want to back down because they don’t want to feel that they were publically humiliated, simply giving them a way to “save face” and back down without being embarrassed can significantly increase the likelihood that they will do so.
- You can decrease, for your opponent, the benefits involved in staying committed. The less your opponent benefits from staying committed, the more willing they will be to back down, because there’s simply less for them to gain from risking escalation. This can often be more difficult to achieve than reducing the costs of backing down, but it can nevertheless be an effective approach if you can manage to implement it.
These tactics can be especially helpful when you try to prevent inadvertent escalation in situations where both sides truly want to avoid it. However, they can also help you in general, by making it more likely that your use of the brinkmanship strategy will help you achieve your desired outcome.
Note: when it comes to changing people’s cost/benefit considerations, people often mistakenly assume that increasing a potential challenger’s stake in the status quo will necessarily make them less likely to use brinkmanship, because they would want to avoid risking their valuable stake. However, this isn’t always the case, since a large stake in the status quo can be used by a challenger as a bargaining chip.
Other important considerations
In addition to all of the above, there are two additional things you should remember with regard to brinkmanship:
- The manner in which you act when using brinkmanship will affect people’s perception of you in the long term. In most cases, conflicts are not fully isolated from one another, and your reputation builds over time based on your actions. As such, if you show that you are truly willing to follow through on your threats, this will contribute to your reputation in consequent conflicts, which means that being willing to accept risk in the short term could lead to various benefits in the long term. Conversely, if you end up backing down after making a threat, your future threats will appear less credible if you attempt to use the brinkmanship strategy again.
- If you truly commit to using brinkmanship as a strategy, there is the risk that the situation will escalate into a full-blown conflict. As such, don’t use this strategy unless you’re willing to accept the risk of that happening. As one book on the topic states: “Sometimes, as in the case of nuclear brinkmanship, strategic thinking also means knowing when not to play”.
How to respond to brinkmanship
The guidelines above, which are meant to help you implement brinkmanship yourself, can also help you when it comes to responding to the use of brinkmanship by others.
For example, when deciding how to respond to brinkmanship, you should determine how credible your opponent’s threat is, how committed they are to their stance, and how willing they are to risk escalation. When doing this, you should watch out for any attempts to deceive you, which could cause you to misperceive the situation in a way that benefits your opponent.
Furthermore, when it comes to preventing escalation and potentially getting your opponent to back down from their brinkmanship, you can try to break their resolve, for example by reminding them of the dangers of what they’re doing or by showing that you’re not intimidated by their actions. In addition, you can also try to decrease the cost of backing down for them, by giving them an easier way out of the situation, or decrease the benefits that are involved for them in staying resolute, by taking away things that they stand to gain.
Finally, remember that no matter how you decide to react, your decision will affect how others perceive you in the long term. This means, for example, that if you immediately back down when faced with brinkmanship once, you might make your opponents more willing to use this strategy against you in the future.
Summary and conclusions
- Brinkmanship is a strategy that involves pushing volatile engagements to the brink of active conflict, with the goal of achieving a positive outcome for yourself.
- For example, in the context of an important negotiation, brinkmanship could involve telling the opposing party that if they won’t agree to all your demands right now, then you’ll walk away from the negotiation entirely.
- When responding to brinkmanship, you should assess how credible your opponent’s threats are, and when using brinkmanship yourself, you should make your threats appear credible, which you can achieve by eliminating some of your future options, placing the risk of escalation outside of your control, and adding uncertainty to make the risk of escalation probabilistic rather than definite.
- There are some tactics that you can use to respond to brinkmanship or to make your own brinkmanship more effective; these include encouraging misperceptions regarding the likelihood of escalation, reducing your opponent’s resolve, and decreasing, for your opponent, the costs involved in backing down or the benefits involved in staying resolute.
- When deciding whether to use brinkmanship and how to respond to it, it’s important to remember that true brinkmanship always involves the risk of escalation and consequently of serious outcomes, and that the way you engage in brinkmanship and respond to it will affect how others perceive you in the long term.
An in-depth discussion of this strategy and others appears in “The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life”. It’s a good read for someone looking to understand basic game theory and how it applies to real-life situations.