Brinkmanship is an old idea, but not such an old word. It was first used in 1956, after US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles opined that “the ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art . . . if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.”
Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential nominee, began to use the term “brinkmanship” in response. He did not intend it as compliment.
Yet we find ourselves surrounded on all sides by leaders who think they have mastered this “necessary art”. The stakes are blessedly lower, but still high enough to deserve examination. In the US, Donald Trump has failed to deliver on his promise to get Mexico to pay for his border wall, and has partly shut down the federal government until Congress agrees that the US taxpayer will fund it instead. Voters will reach their own conclusions as to who is to blame.
In the UK, Theresa May wants parliament to vote for the unappetising Brexit deal she has negotiated with the EU. She offers two simultaneous and mutually exclusive threats, confronting hardliners with the prospect of no Brexit at all, while warning the EU and British moderates that there will be a chaotic “no deal” outcome instead.
Whether we are talking about Brexit, a border wall, or the early stages of the Vietnam war, each situation is different. Yet it is worth pondering similarities in the structure of the problem.
These threats may seem empty. Dulles did not want nuclear war. Mrs May does not want six-day-long traffic jams on the way into Dover. Nevertheless the threat may be made credible enough to achieve results. How?
One option is to use a doomsday machine, made famous by Stanley Kubrick’s dark comedy Dr Strangelove. The doomsday machine is credible because it is automatic. It cannot be switched off, only obeyed. The risks are obvious; in the movie, the doomsday machine destroys civilisation.
Mrs May’s doomsday machine was the Article 50 divorce process, which we were told could not be halted once begun. Without parliamentary approval of a deal, this legal doomsday machine would deliver a disruptive no-deal by default. Triggering Article 50 weakened the prime minister’s negotiating hand with the EU but strengthened it when dealing with those MPs who seem open to reason.
Yet it now transpires that the machine has an off-switch after all. The UK government can simply revoke its notification to leave. Mrs May therefore managed to hobble her bargaining position with the EU while leaving herself hostage to her own party.
The second tactic for gaining credibility is the “madman” strategy: if you are insane, or can fake insanity, then insane threats seem plausible. The strategy was flawlessly executed by Sheriff Bart in the film Blazing Saddles, who managed to escape being lynched by racists by threatening to shoot himself. That achievement is hard to replicate, though. As Bart tells himself, “you are so talented. And they are so dumb!”
Mr Trump is erratic enough to make the madman tactic seem plausible, although he has also frequently backed down. Mrs May does a good line in stubbornness, and is trying hard to make a chaotic no-deal seem as if it is an inescapable force of nature, like an earthquake or a flood. Yet it seems unlikely that she would embrace the chaos when, with a stroke of her pen, she could call it all off. Some leading Brexiters, however, have perfected the madman pose; they’ve convinced me that they simply do not care. Perhaps I’ve been fooled by a brilliant bluff. Perhaps.
There is a third way to make threats credible: create the risk of an accident. Thomas Schelling, cold war strategist and Nobel laureate economist, described handcuffing yourself to your opponent then cavorting on the edge of a cliff. You’re not suicidal, but you are willing to create the risk that things will go terribly wrong. If your counterpart fears that risk more than you, you may extract concessions.
As Schelling and his fellow strategists knew, in situations such as the Cuban missile crisis there was always a risk that something would get out of hand, and all of us would slip off the cliff together. It was this that made world-ending threats plausible.
If you are finding all this discomfiting, you are not alone. Somehow we have managed to produce a situation where democratically elected politicians are threatening substantial harm to their own countries as a bargaining tactic. The tactic is credible because accidents happen. At least we can comfort ourselves that long-range bombers are not involved.
How did we get here? Recall the final scene of Dr Strangelove. With Armageddon inevitable, Strangelove reassures the all-male leadership of the US that they could survive in underground cities. The survival of the human race would be ensured by a ratio of 10 “highly stimulating” women to each man. Everyone seems rather cheered by this thought.
Brinkmanship does not work if it does not create a risk of harm. Yet the people practising the strategy may not be the ones who will experience it.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 11 January 2019.