Brinkmanship is the act of pushing volatile engagements to the brink of active conflict, with the goal of achieving a positive outcome for yourself. For example, brinkmanship could involve telling the opposing party in a negotiation that if they won’t agree to all your demands, then you’ll walk away from the negotiation.
This strategy is used in widely applied in various areas, from high-stakes litigation, to international politics, and to personal confrontations, as well as negotiations between businesses and consumers who are looking to get a better deal. As such, in the following article, you will learn more about brinkmanship, and about how you can implement it as a strategy in the most effective way possible.
The 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 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 Missle Crisis, where US President John F. Kennedy applied brinkmanship when 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.
Essentially, the use of brinkmanship in this scenario and in similar ones involved setting demands and being unwilling to compromise about them, under the assumption that the other side will fold, rather than risk escalating the situation. The danger of using this strategy lies in the fact that the other side might choose not to 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 associated with other concepts.
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 and common example of brinkmanship appears in a game called ‘Chicken’, as described in the following quote:
‘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.’
— In ‘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, as we will see in the next section.
For instance, the following are some examples of brinkmanship being applied in various contexts, outside the political landscape:
- A poker player going all-in in an attempt to intimidate the other players into folding, despite having a relatively weak hand.
- A consumer telling a service provider that if the service provider doesn’t give them a better deal, then they will switch to a different one, despite the fact that switching might not be the best course of action for them.
- A company threatening to sue another company if they don’t give in to their demands, despite knowing that a lawsuit will be costly and unlikely to succeed.
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” or “economic brinkmanship”.
How to use brinkmanship effectively
Using brinkmanship in personal conflicts
So far, we read about the history of brinkmanship in large-scale conflicts between the world’s superpowers. However, this strategy can also be used in more personal contexts, as we will soon see.
First, let’s start with a more in-depth explanation of what the brinkmanship strategy entails:
“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)
Essentially, in it’s simplest form, you can think of brinkmanship as a scenario where two guys are arguing, and slowly escalating their threatening behavior, in an attempt to get the other guy 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 which neither of them wants.
By looking at this description, it becomes easy to see how brinkmanship applies in more personal conflicts, that we might encounter in our everyday life.
One study, for example, showed that brinkmanship can be a valuable strategy for consumers looking to get a better deal from their network provider. Specifically, implementing the brinkmanship strategy in this case entails threatening to leave the service provider in favor of a different one, if the current provider fails to give the consumer a better deal on their service.
If the move succeeds, which it often does, 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 always possible to bluff, and just stay with the same network provider if the threat fails. However, one of the issues with this, as we will see in the next section, is that fact that the ease of bluffing can make this threat appear less credible, which reduces its efficacy.
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 never accept an agreement that is worse than your available alternatives.
Making your threat appear credible
In order to use the brinkmanship strategy effectively, one of the main things that you should focus on is on making your threat appear credible to your opponent.
The credibility of a threat is directly tied 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 honest 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. For example, we saw earlier that the threat of leaving a network provider might fail to work, because the provider knows that if they don’t offer you a better deal, you probably won’t leave them despite the threat.
Essentially, since no one could force you to leave the provider if they fail to comply with your demands, the threat could be seen as an empty attempt to get a good deal. If there was a way to ensure that you would leave them if they fail to give you a better offer, then the threat of leaving would be a more effective tool.
As such, brinkmanship is most effective when the threat that you make involves a potential escalation of the situation, which is outside of your control. Essentially, if you leave the choice in your hand after making the threat, you only have two realistic options if the other person refuses to comply; you can either back down, or you can fulfill your threat (which is known in the literature on the topic as ‘going to the ultimate threat point’).
Since your opponent knows that you would generally prefer to avoid escalation, they realize that you will most likely choose to back down rather than fulfill your threat. As such, by placing the decision to escalate outside of your control, you are showing your commitment to following through on your threat, which makes it far more credible.
For example, in the context of getting a better deal out of your network provider, you could say that your spouse asked 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.
Furthermore, this approach becomes even more effective when the threat that you make could potentially lead to escalation, but not necessarily. This technique, which is referred to as a probabilistic threat, makes your threat appear even more credible, since it is usually more realistic for you to make a threat if you know that disagreement won’t necessarily lead to maximal escalation. At the same time, the risk of escalation is still there, and still serves as a deterrent for your opponent.
For example, this could mean making a threat that has a 20% chance of leading to serious escalation, if your opponent fails to comply. In the context of the Cold War, which inspired the use of this strategy, this risk existed due to the fact that in an intense military conflict, escalation could occur due to various miscommunication issues, even if neither country wants it to happen.
Overall, we can summarize this section by saying that by making your threat appear more credible, your use of the brinkmanship strategy will be more effective. Furthermore, the best way to make a threat appear credible is to make it in a way that places the decision to escalate the situation outside of control, while also guaranteeing that escalation will possibly occur, but not necessarily.
Note: making your threat of brinkmanship appear credible often involves using precommitment, which is a strategy that involves cutting off your future options in order to enforce and demonstrate your commitment to a future course of action.
Taking advantage of misperception
When implementing the brinkmanship strategy, misperception can be beneficial, by helping you improve your position against your opponent. There are two main ways to do this:
- You can appear to be more resolute in order to discourage your opponent, by pretending that you are more willing to escalate the situation than you really are. For example, in the context of switching a network provider, when you make your threat you could provide them with details regarding the deals which are offered by other network 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 also increase the perceived probability 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 claim that they are unwilling to compromise on the topic. This makes your threat appear more costly by increasing the likelihood that it will end in escalation, which in turn makes it appear more credible toy our opponent.
When using brinkmanship, there is an inherent risk of the situation escalating into active conflict. Since in most cases such conflict will be against your interest, you should generally try to prevent it.
You can do this by taking into consideration a few important factors that could help you determine the risk level of the engagement. This could help you decide whether or not to use brinkmanship as a strategy in the first place, and it can also help you decide how to proceed if you’ve already started using brinkmanship as a strategy.
First, remember that the more players in the game are resolute, and the more resolute each player is, the less stable the engagement is, and the more likely it is to end in active conflict. Therefore, avoid situations where the other side is unwilling to compromise, or consider a way to weaken their resolve before engaging in brinkmanship.
At the same time, remember that brinkmanship is not just about resolve, but also about the cost and benefit equation for each player involved in the conflict. As such, 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.
Based on this, there are two more things that you can do in order to prevent escalation and use brinkmanship effectively:
- You can decrease, for your opponent, the cost involved in back down. The easier it is for your opponent to back down, the more likely they are to be willing to do so in order to avoid escalation. This is crucial, since in a lot of situations people don’t want to back down, even though strategically it can be the best choice for them, due to factors such as pride, ego, and not wanting to appear weak. If you can make it easy for them to back down in a way that doesn’t embarrass them, you significantly increase the likelihood that they will do so.
- You can decrease, for your opponent, the benefits involved in staying resolute. The less your opponent benefits from staying resolute, the more likely they are to be willing to back down. By taking away benefits that they gain from staying resolute, you make it more likely that they will choose to comply with your request.
These tactics can be especially helpful when you try to prevent inadvertent escalation of conflict in situations where both sides want to maintain peace. However, they can also help you in general, by making it more likely that your use of the brinkmanship strategy will get you your desired outcome.
Other important considerations when using brinkmanship
There are a few more important things to keep in mind when you use the brinkmanship strategy yourself, or when you encounter others who use it:
- Intuitively, we often believe that increasing a potential challenger’s stake in the status quo would reduce the likelihood of them disputing the status quo by using 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 tool, in order to convey a strong sense of resolve against their opponent. The result of this is that a potential challenger is not always less likely to challenge the status quo if they have a stake in it, while the challenged player is often more likely to submit in such cases.
- The manner in which you act when using brinkmanship can reflect on you in the long term. In most cases, conflicts are not truly isolated from one another, and your reputation builds over time. 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, meaning that willingness 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 should you attempt to use the brinkmanship strategy again.
- Most importantly, remember that if you commit to using brinkmanship as a strategy, there is always 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”.
Summary and conclusions
- Brinkmanship is the act of pushing volatile engagements to the brink of active conflict, with the goal of achieving a positive outcome for yourself.
- Brinkmanship is most commonly associated with the Cold War and the threat of a global nuclear conflict between superpowers, but it also applicable in more personal contexts, such as when threatening to leave a network provider in an attempt to get a better deal.
- In order to use brinkmanship effectively, you must first ensure that your threat is perceived as credible. You can do this by making a threat that is costly in some way, and by ensuring that the threat involves a potential escalation of the situation, that is outside your control.
- To avoid situations where your threats end in active conflict, consider the fact that the more resolute the players are, the more likely the situation is to escalate, and the same is true when the cost of backing down is perceived as greater than the cost of staying resolute. You can reduce the risk of escalation by weakening your opponent’s resolve, reducing their perceived cost of backing down, or reducing the benefits that they gain from staying resolute.
- It’s important to remember that the way you behave while engaging in brinkmanship will reflect on you in the long term, and can affect the outcome of future conflicts. In addition, remember that when engaging in brinkmanship there is always the risk of the situation escalating; avoid using this strategy if that is not something that you are comfortable with.
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.