AskDefine | Define brinkmanship

Dictionary Definition

brinkmanship n : the policy of pushing a dangerous situation to the brink of disaster (to the limits of safety)

User Contributed Dictionary


Alternative forms



  1. Pursuit of an advantage by appearing to be willing to risk a dangerous policy rather than concede a point.
    The diplomat accused the other nation's leader of brinkmanship for refusing to redeploy the troops along their nations' shared border.

Extensive Definition

Brinkmanship is the practice of pushing a dangerous situation to the verge of disaster in order to achieve the most advantageous outcome. It occurs in international politics, foreign policy and (in contemporary settings) in military strategy involving the threatened use of nuclear weapons.
This maneuver of pushing a situation to the brink succeeds by forcing the opposition to back down and 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 an escalating measure. Adolf Hitler also used this during his rise to power. Many dictators and fascist leaders use it to make it look like their political methods are legal.


Brinkmanship is the ostensible escalation of threats in order to achieve one's aims. Originally the term brinkmanship was coined by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles under the Eisenhower administration, during the Cold War. Eventually, the threats involved might become so huge as to be unmanageable at which point both sides are likely to back down. This was the case during the Cold War, as the escalation of threats of nuclear war is mutually suicidal.


Brinkmanship became very important in United States foreign policy during Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidency. The American public sought to win the Cold War and also wanted lower taxes. Brinkmanship was a cheap alternative to fighting actual wars.


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 are continuously escalated. However, a threat is not worth anything unless it is credible; at some point, the aggressive party may have to back up its claim to prove its commitment to action. The further one goes, the greater the chance of things sliding out of control. The chance that things may go out of control is a key element in providing credibility to this threat, e.g., Kennedy was not willing to start a nuclear war over the Cuban Missile Crisis, but he was willing to risk the start of a nuclear war which was a more believable threat.
The British intellectual Bertrand Russell compared nuclear brinkmanship to the game of chicken. The principle between the two is the same, to create immense pressure in a situation until one person or party backs down.
brinkmanship in Japanese: 瀬戸際政策

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Eisenhower Doctrine, Monroe Doctrine, Nixon Doctrine, Truman Doctrine, adventurousness, appeasement, audaciousness, audacity, balance of power, boldness, coexistence, colonialism, compromise, containment, courage fou, courting disaster, daredevilry, daredeviltry, daring, detente, deterrence, diplomacy, diplomatic, diplomatics, dollar diplomacy, dollar imperialism, expansionism, fire-eating, flirting with death, foolhardiness, foreign affairs, foreign policy, forwardness, going for broke, good-neighbor policy, harebrainedness, imperialism, internationalism, isolationism, manifest destiny, militarism, nationalism, neocolonialism, neutralism, nonresistance, open door, open-door policy, peace offensive, peaceful coexistence, playing with fire, preparedness, presumption, presumptuousness, shirt-sleeve diplomacy, shuttle diplomacy, spheres of influence, the big stick, tough policy, world politics
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