“The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art” – so wrote John Foster Dulles unprompted on the wall of a highway overpass. Years later, his twin brother of the same name would become Secretary of State and plagiarize this quotation to stabilize the flailing Eisenhower administration.
Brinkmanship is defined as the strategy of forcing the relation between two entities to the point of confrontation. As an educational exercise, consider an instance of brinkmanship between two young children.
– I’m gonna tell mom on you.
– (with pistol grip visible above diaper waistline) Nuh-uh.
Richard Nixon was a master of the art of brinkmanship. He would routinely call Soviet premiers to ask whether their refrigerators were running. The premiers, disturbed at the strength of Nixon’s intelligence operations, would spontaneously disassemble their nuclear weapons.
Another successful practitioner of brinkmanship was Henry Kissinger, who would mutter insights about Richelieu very quietly. His adversaries would lean in until they were at the “brink” of falling in love with him, at which point Kissinger would lean in and neck with his adversaries until they felt an overwhelming urge to surrender.
Every strategy has its limits, however, and brinkmanship is no exception. The tactic can falter when an adversary’s threats are no longer believed, or when the threats are issued credibly but the issuer has a voice that sounds a little like Kermit the Frog, which makes everyone laugh.