Brinkmanship refers to the policy or practice, especially in international politics and foreign policy, of pushing a dangerous situation to the brink of disaster (to the limits of safety) in order to achieve the most advantageous outcome by forcing the opposition to make concessions. This might be achieved through diplomatic maneuvers by creating the impression that one is willing to use extreme methods rather than concede. During the Cold War, the threat of nuclear force was often used as such a deterrent. The fact that strikes do occur in real life is a sober reminder of the risks of nuclear brinkmanship.
The term brinkmanship was introduced during the Cold War by United States Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who advocated such a policy against the Soviet Union. In an article published in Life Magazine, Dulles defined the policy of brinkmanship as "the ability to get to the verge without getting into the war". His critics blamed him for damaging relations with communist states and contributing to the Cold War.
Brinkmanship is ostensibly the escalation of threats to achieve one's aims. Eventually, the threats involved might become so huge as to not be manageable. This was certainly the case during the Cold War, as the threat of nuclear war was also suicidal, through mutually assured destruction. Brinksmanship is not just a political or military term: unions that threaten to strike and spouses that threaten divorce can also be involved in games of brinkmanship.
The dangers of brinkmanship as a political or diplomatic tool can be understood as a slippery slope: In order for brinkmanship to be effective, the threats used have to be continuously elevated. The further one goes, the greater the chance of things sliding out of control.
The British intellectual Bertrand Russell compared nuclear brinksmanship to the game of chicken. According to Russell, the principle between the two is essentially the same: to create immense pressure in a situation until one person or party backs down.
The historian, ethicist and philosopher Yashar Keramati believes that the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was the most evident display of brinkmanship, when the United States and the U.S.S.R were pushed to the "brink" of a nuclear war, until Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev finally compromised with U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Keramati also goes on to say such brinkmanship could lead to the use of nuclear force due to lack of reliable intelligence.
The escalation of wars of words, especially in the arena of international politics, is frequently referred to as brinkmanship. For instance, the furor over history textbooks between China and Japan could be seen as an example of brinkmanship.
In game theory terms, Brinkmanship is a type of threat. As in all game theory threats, the question of credibility arises. Will you carry out the threat if I do not cave in to your desires? Note that some threats are so huge that they carry very little credibility. There is every reason to doubt that Kennedy would want start a nuclear war which makes this threat less useful.
Brinkmanship is a game theory technique to make giant threats more credible. You do not threaten the certainty of nuclear war, but the possibility of one. As more and more people become involved in the crisis, it takes on a momentum of its own. The naval blockade of Cuba was an escalation that invoved many more people into the decision making process. Also since a blockade is an aggressive action, the world moved further down a slippery slope where events could run out of control and result in events that no one wanted to happen.
By involving many more armed people in his blockade, Kennedy made his threat credible.
A union that threatens to strike (or a company that threatens a lockout) is likewise involved in brinkmanship. Neither the union or management wishes to prevent the company from earning money but the posturing and tactics to make their positions stronger progressively make the strike more likely to happen.