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 interpersonal confrontations. 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 was given its current name following a 1956 interview with John Foster Dulles, who was then the U.S. Secretary of State, under President Eisenhower. When discussing the philosophy behind his foreign policies during the ongoing Cold War, Dulles famously said:
“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.”
However, this philosophy wasn’t perceived positively by everyone at the time. For example, one opponent criticized Dulles for it, stating that he was:
“…boasting of his brinkmanship — the art of bringing us to the edge of the nuclear abyss.”
Consequently, the brinkmanship policy gained prominence during the Cold War, where it was associated with the pervasive risk of a global nuclear conflict. Essentially, this strategy 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 in this case 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. As one study on the topic states:
“This nuclear game of ‘chicken’ is called brinkmanship.”
— From ‘Brinkmanship and Nuclear Deterrence: The Neutrality of Escalation‘ by Barry Nalebuff in the ‘Conflict Management and Peace Science’ journal (1986)
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.
A threat is credible only if it has a cost. 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 the 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 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.
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.