WSJ Historically Speaking: ‘A Brief History of Brinkmanship’
In 1956, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, explaining how America could use the threat of nuclear war in diplomacy, told Life Magazine, “The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art…. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.” President Donald Trump recently seemed to embrace this idea with his warning that if North Korea made any more threats to the U.S., it “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Brinkmanship is one of those words that ought to have existed long before it was coined, but it entered our vocabulary during the Cold War. The philosopher Bertrand Russell and the Harvard professor (and Nobel Laureate) Thomas Schelling both saw it as a game of chicken between two antagonists. One side would keep upping the ante—despite the mutual risks of violence and chaos—until the other side blinked.
However new the word, the actual practice of brinkmanship can be traced all the way back to the ancient Greeks, who were masters of it. Following the Greco-Persian Wars (499-449 B.C.), Athens built up the Delian League, while Sparta led the Peloponnesian League. Each nation kept its respective allies in line through a combination of bribery and force.
Facing off with rising stakes, both sides assumed the other would stand down first, but the strategy backfired. Around 432 B.C, the Athenian leader Pericles tried to isolate Corinth, a member of the Peloponnesian League, by declaring a trade embargo against one of Corinth’s allies. Pericles assumed that the Spartans wouldn’t have the stomach to go to war for the sake of one League member. But neither superpower was willing to lose face, and the miscalculation led to the Peloponnesian War and the eventual ruin of Athens.
One of the risks of letting military tensions spin out of control is that it can also provoke previously neutral parties. In 1155, Pope Adrian IV, the first and only English pope, used a kind of papal “nuclear option” and issued an interdict (a suspension of all church services and sacraments) against the people of Rome to force them to expel a populist leader named Arnold of Brescia. Romans chose to get rid of Arnold instead of defying the pope. But his ruthlessness antagonized the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, who now regarded Adrian as a dangerous rival. The bad feelings between them escalated until Adrian threatened Frederick with excommunication in 1159. Adrian died before he was able to carry out the threat..
An unexpected third party also upended the policy of brinkmanship against Great Britain started by Napoleon around 1806. Though he dominated most of Europe at that point, Napoleon was frustrated that Britain eluded his clutches, so he instigated the Continental System, which covered most of Europe and banned all imports and exports to and from Britain. He calculated that, with his ally Russia’s compliance, the hardships suffered by both sides would be mitigated by Britain’s swift economic collapse.
But the British countered with their own blockade, and by 1812 Russia had turned against France. Napoleon’s response to the Russian threat, his Moscow Campaign, led to the effective destruction of his army as winter set in early.
In the 20th century, the game of chicken changed dramatically with the advent of mutually assured destruction. How to challenge a rival when it’s clear that each side can quickly level the other? After the U.S. and the Soviet Union pulled back from war during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, it seemed that the era of brinkmanship was over. Whether that hope was premature remains to be seen.