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Brinkmanship squared

As part of the political confrontation with North Korea, US President Donald Trump and the regime of Kim Jong-un use a well-known rhetoric, recalling the autumn of 1962 – the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Trump revives the Brinkmanship Theory and the consequences are difficult to predict. This inevitably evokes risks.

Nobel laureate and Harvard Professor Thomas Schelling writes in his book ‘The Strategy of Conflict’ about a small black box. Schelling used this example to illustrate a form of game theory that, in a scientific setting, has become known under the name ‘Brinkmanship’. With the ‘little black box’ Schelling describes an imaginary scenario:

‘I should have a little black box that contains a roulette wheel and a device that will detonate in a way that unquestionably provokes total war. I then set this little box down, tell the Russians that I have set it going so that once a day the roulette wheel will spin with a given probability … that, on any day, the little box will provoke total war. I tell them … that the little box will keep running until my demands have been complied with and that there is nothing I can do to stop it.’ (Schelling, 1960, S. 197 f.)

Schelling thus reveals the essential component of the Brinkmanship Theory: the deliberate induction of a risk that seems unbearable and highly damaging to the enemy, and hence results in a retreat. This game is extremely risky and can have devastating consequences, especially in the absence of diplomatic skills.

This form of game theory gained notoriety in October 1962, when the US and Russia brought the world to the edge of an atomic war during the Cuban Missile Crises. Only narrowly, both superpowers escaped a catastrophe. Former US President Kennedy exploited all available means to the fullest in order to prevent the Soviet deployment of nuclear weapons in Cuba. Kennedy’s political calculations were daring as after imposing a naval blockade on Soviet ships, Washington had openly threatened Moscow with the potential for a nuclear war. Kennedy counsellors have been spreading rumours that because of his back pain Kennedy was taking a strong pain medication whose side effects may also result in aggressive behaviour. Kennedy’s political calculation paid off because the situation became too dangerous for the former Russian President Khrushchev. A third world war had been averted.

Trump is a bluff master – the ‘Fire and Fury Strategy’

Current US President Donald Trump has now identified a new old enemy in North Korea and counters in conventional offensive rhetoric on provocations from Pyongyang. Recently especially with regard to the handling of the island of Guam in the South Pacific. Trump’s threat to counter a possible attack from North Korea with ‘Fire and Fury’ illustrates a variant of the Brinkmanship Theory, which is closely linked to his character and his person. Trump’s predilection for extreme positions and, most recently, significant threats related to military measures against North Korea might be strategically motivated. With his obvious willingness to push to the limit, Trump tries to make his opponent cave in.

This became clear a few months after he took office when a US-rocket-attack in Syria was launched in response to the poison gas attack by the Assad regime on the village Chan Schaichun. Trump had defined poison gas attacks as a ‘red line’ that should not be crossed. Although the legitimacy and purpose of the attack were highly controversial, Trump responded promptly and completely different compared to his predecessor Obama, who had already named ‘the red line’, but who did not express any sanctions. Trump, on the other hand, directly ordered the launch of cruise missiles at a Syrian military base, causing a stir in the world.

The behaviour of the US president shown so far also makes him unpredictable for the regime in Pyongyang, which likes to use the Brinkmanship Theory as well, by portraying ruler Kim Jong-un as unpredictable himself. Thus, it is a double application of the Brinkmanship Theory. The question is, who acts more ‘unpredictable’ in the eyes of the other?

One reaction in the current North Korea issue is already evident: the regime in Pyongyang seems quieter and has – for now – withdrawn from the threat of a military strike. The risk of a US-American backlash under the leadership of Trump that could lead to a high level of damage to their own state seems too high. Memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis are brought back. Trump mocks with an offensive threat rhetoric and Pyongyang backs down. Though, it would be fatal and gullible to classify this signal as a success of Donald Trump’s policy, because the problem is not only a self-confident and diplomatically clumsily acting US president.

Conclusion: Trump lacks diplomatic sensitivity

Trump is anything but a sovereign diplomat and that’s what makes him dangerous and unpredictable in certain situations. The entrepreneur Trump often overlooks the close ties and intricacies of international politics. He is not a rhetorician who acts in a cool-headed way. Although here the actual weakness can work as strength. The retraction of Kim Jong-un, however, indicates a success. Of course, it is flanked by the increase in economic sanctions of North Korea’s closest partner China.

Unlike North Korea, which has been making military threats for decades and at regular intervals, but is not following through with any of them and has little credibility in the international community anyway, Trump’s character is of permanence, especially in one relation: an absolute lack of self-control. His aggressive and impulsive reactions and his openly demonstrated narcissism, which he has shown in the months of his presidency, make him unpredictable.

However, this performance is by no means responsible. And the question remains unanswered: Does the strategic application of the Brinkmanship Theory (North Korea) meet an actual unpredictable reality (Trump)?

Further application areas of the Brinkmanship Theory in negotiations, as well as a variety of other negotiating tactics, are taught in the extensive negotiation seminars of the Center for Negotiation (CfN) C4 of the Quadriga University.


  • US-Präsident Donald Trump: geralt, Pixabay | CC 0 Public Domain

Thorsten Hofmann, C4 Institute, Quadriga University Berlin

Thorsten Hofmann leads the CfN (Center for Negotiation) at the Quadriga University Berlin’s Institute for Crisis, Change and Conflict Communication C4. He is an internationally certified Negotiation Trainer and advises corporations and organisations in complex negotiation processes.