Trump, Brexit and the art of po­lit­i­cal brinkman­ship

The Straits Times - - OPINION - Tim Har­ford

Brinkman­ship is an old idea, but not such an old word. It was first used in 1956, after then US Sec­re­tary of State John Fos­ter Dulles opined that “the abil­ity to get to the verge with­out get­ting into the war is the nec­es­sary art... if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost”.

Ad­lai Steven­son, the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee, be­gan to use the term “brinkman­ship” in re­sponse. He did not in­tend it as a com­pli­ment.

Yet we find our­selves sur­rounded on all sides by lead­ers who think they have mas­tered this “nec­es­sary art”. The stakes are bless­edly lower, but still high enough to de­serve ex­am­i­na­tion.

In the United States, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has failed to de­liver on his prom­ise to get Mex­ico to pay for his bor­der wall, and has partly shut down the fed­eral gov­ern­ment un­til Con­gress agrees that the US tax­payer will fund it in­stead.

Vot­ers will reach their own con­clu­sions as to who is to blame.

In Bri­tain, Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May wants Par­lia­ment to vote for the un­ap­petis­ing Brexit deal she has ne­go­ti­ated with the Euro­pean Union.

She of­fers two si­mul­ta­ne­ous and mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive threats, con­fronting hard­lin­ers with the prospect of no Brexit at all, while warn­ing the EU and British mod­er­ates that there will be a chaotic “no deal” out­come in­stead.

Whether we are talk­ing about Brexit, a bor­der wall, or the early stages of the Viet­nam War, each sit­u­a­tion is dif­fer­ent. Yet it is worth pon­der­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties in the struc­ture of the prob­lem.

These threats may seem empty. Dulles did not want nu­clear war. Mrs May does not want six-day-long traf­fic jams on the way into Dover. Nev­er­the­less the threat may be made cred­i­ble enough to achieve re­sults. How?


One op­tion is to use a dooms­day ma­chine, made fa­mous by Stan­ley Kubrick’s dark com­edy Dr Strangelove. The dooms­day ma­chine is cred­i­ble be­cause it is au­to­matic. It can­not be switched off, only obeyed. The risks are ob­vi­ous; in the movie, the dooms­day ma­chine de­stroys civil­i­sa­tion.

Mrs May’s dooms­day ma­chine was the Ar­ti­cle 50 divorce process, which we were told could not be halted once be­gun. With­out par­lia­men­tary ap­proval of a deal, this le­gal dooms­day ma­chine would de­liver a dis­rup­tive no-deal by de­fault.

Trig­ger­ing Ar­ti­cle 50 weak­ened the British Prime Min­is­ter’s ne­go­ti­at­ing hand with the EU but strength­ened it when deal­ing with those Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment who seem open to rea­son.

Yet it now tran­spires that the ma­chine has an off switch after all.

The British gov­ern­ment can sim­ply re­voke its no­ti­fi­ca­tion to leave. Mrs May there­fore man­aged to hob­ble her bar­gain­ing po­si­tion with the EU while leav­ing her­self hostage to her own party.


The sec­ond tac­tic for gain­ing cred­i­bil­ity is the “mad­man” strat­egy: If you are in­sane, or can fake in­san­ity, then in­sane threats seem plau­si­ble.

The strat­egy was flaw­lessly ex­e­cuted by Sher­iff Bart in the film Blaz­ing Sad­dles, who man­aged to es­cape be­ing lynched by racists by threat­en­ing to shoot him­self.

That achieve­ment is hard to repli­cate, though. As Bart tells him­self: “You are so tal­ented. And they are so dumb!”

Mr Trump is er­ratic enough to make the mad­man tac­tic seem plau­si­ble, al­though he has also fre­quently backed down.

Mrs May does a good line in stub­born­ness, and is try­ing hard to make a chaotic no-deal seem as if it is an in­escapable force of na­ture, like an earth­quake or a flood. Yet it seems un­likely she would em­brace the chaos when, with a stroke of her pen, she could call it all off.

Some lead­ing Brex­iters, how­ever, have per­fected the mad­man pose; they have con­vinced me that they sim­ply do not care. Per­haps I have been fooled by a bril­liant bluff. Per­haps.

There is a third way to make threats cred­i­ble: Cre­ate the risk of an ac­ci­dent.


Pro­fes­sor Thomas Schelling, Cold War strate­gist and No­bel lau­re­ate econ­o­mist, de­scribed hand­cuff­ing your­self to your op­po­nent, then ca­vort­ing on the edge of a cliff. You’re not sui­ci­dal, but you are will­ing to cre­ate the risk of an ac­ci­dent.

If your coun­ter­part fears that risk more than you, you may ex­tract con­ces­sions.

As Prof Schelling and his fel­low strate­gists knew, in sit­u­a­tions such as the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis, there was al­ways a risk that some­thing would get out of hand, and all of us would slip off the cliff to­gether. It was this that made world-end­ing threats plau­si­ble.

If you are find­ing all this dis­com­fit­ing, you are not alone.

Some­how we have man­aged to pro­duce a sit­u­a­tion where demo­crat­i­cally elected politi­cians are threat­en­ing sub­stan­tial harm to their own coun­tries as a bar­gain­ing tac­tic. The tac­tic is cred­i­ble be­cause ac­ci­dents hap­pen. At least we can com­fort our­selves that long-range bombers are not in­volved.

How did we get here? Re­call the fi­nal scene of Dr Strangelove.

With Ar­maged­don in­evitable, Dr Strangelove re­as­sures the all-male lead­er­ship of the US that they could sur­vive in un­der­ground cities.

The sur­vival of the hu­man race would be en­sured by a ra­tio of 10 “highly stim­u­lat­ing” women to each man. Ev­ery­one seems rather cheered by this thought.

Brinkman­ship does not work if it does not cre­ate a risk of harm. Yet the peo­ple prac­tis­ing the strat­egy may not be the ones who will ex­pe­ri­ence it.


Demon­stra­tors at a pro-Brexit rally in Lon­don last month. British Premier Theresa May is try­ing hard to make a chaotic no-deal Brexit seem as if it is an in­escapable force of na­ture, says the writer. Yet it seems un­likely she would em­brace the chaos when, with a stroke of her pen, she could call it all off, he adds.

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