Brinkmanship: Definition & Policy

Instructor: David White
Through this lesson, you will learn about the controversial style of negotiation known as brinksmanship, and gain insight into how the tactic has been used as a form of governmental foreign policy.

What is Brinksmanship?

Every day, countries all over the world are engaged in relationships with other countries for the purposes of accessing resources, providing humanitarian aid, or gaining additional power. Most of the time this is done through diplomatic relations or trade agreements, but sometimes the objective is achieved through force. In some cases, however, a country will let a situation come right up to the edge of war or disaster before they will begin negotiating in a diplomatic way. This type of policy is what is known as brinksmanship.

Brinksmanship is a style of negotiation in which one or both parties in a conflict allow the situation to come right up to the edge of disaster before attempting to find a solution. The term refers to pushing a dangerous situation to the 'brink' of disaster. Although brinksmanship is often associated with foreign policy or military strategy, it is also used in other high-stakes situations, such as union negotiations or corporate deals.

Using brinksmanship to negotiate may seem like a risky or incredibly dangerous thing, but it is intended to force the other party to back down and give in to your demands. It's sort of the diplomatic version of playing chicken; whoever backs down first is ultimately the loser.

Examples of Brinksmanship

Over the course of the 20th century, brinksmanship has been used in several high profile situations. For example, at the height of the Cold War in the early 1960s, the Soviet Union had ballistic missiles stationed in Cuba that were aimed directly at the United States. The Cuban Missile Crisis, as it is known, is an example of brinksmanship because both sides of the conflict allowed the situation to go right to the edge of nuclear war before negotiating a deal, where the United States agreed to never invade Cuba. In this case, the Soviet Union used a very dangerous threat in order to make the United States back down and agree to their demands.

The risk of nuclear war forced the U.S. to back down during the Cuban Missile Crisis
Cuban Missile

Another more general example of brinksmanship is a labor strike. In cases where unions are unhappy, they may make repeated threats of a strike in order to make corporations give in to their demands. In this context, a strike is a very real and potentially damaging threat because it can result in a business shutting down, losing money, or attracting negative publicity. The desirable objective in this scenario is that both sides will back down from the other and arrive at some kind of mutually beneficial agreement. If this is not done, however, the union may follow through with their threat and actually go on strike.

Benefits of Brinksmanship

While brinksmanship is often criticized for being a very dangerous gamble, it is hard to deny that it is effective. As long as both sides believe that the threats being used are real, then one will eventually have to give in or face the consequences.

One way in which brinksmanship has been used successfully is through a trade embargo, which is when a government bans the import or export of resources, products, or financial aid to another country. For example, if the United States imposes a trade embargo on another country, it is generally an attempt to damage their economy until they give in and comply with the demands being made. In this case, the sanctioned country has the option of backing down or allowing their economy to decline dramatically and negatively affect their citizens. Because most aren't willing to let their economy fall apart, they will give in, which makes brinksmanship a good strategy.

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