January 12, 2003, Sunday


Ideas & Trends; A Surge in Saber-Rattling at the Precipice

''BRINKMANSHIP,'' unlike mutual assured destruction'' and many other phrases from the cold war, never really went out of style.

But use of the word has been on the increase in recent years, and its frequency in the press was up 400 percent in the last month, thanks to the ''nuclear brinkmanship'' of North Korea. (Dictionaries recognize ''brinksmanship'' as well as ''brinkmanship,'' which is the original form of the word.)

The word has bipartisan origins. John Foster Dulles, Dwight D. Eisenhower's secretary of state, used the expression ''brink of war'' in a January 1956 Life magazine interview, not long after the United States had come close to going to war with Communist China over the offshore islands Quemoy and Matsu.

''The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art,'' Dulles said. ''If you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost. . . We walked to the brink and we looked it in the face.''

But it was Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for president in 1952 and 1956, who completed the term as ''brinkmanship.'' In a speech in Hartford a few weeks after the Life article appeared, he reproached Dulles for ''boasting of his brinkmanship -- the art of bringing us to the edge of the abyss.'' (The coinage has been credited to Stevenson's speechwriter, James C. Thompson.)

In Stevenson's mouth, the word had sardonic connotations. It echoed the words ''Gamesmanship'' and ''One-upmanship,'' the titles of popular books by the English humorist Stephen Potter, who expounded the techniques of looking good while you gamed the system or, as he put it, ''The Art of Getting Away With It Without Being an Absolute Plonk.''

Mr. Potter even managed to bend the meaning of the suffix ''-manship'' itself. It no longer suggested the skills worthy of a role, as in ''horsemanship'' and ''statesmanship,'' but rather the ploys and artifice that people used to get the upper hand. (A 1962 report by the Senate Security Subcommittee was titled ''Wordsmanship; Semantics as a Communist Weapon.'')

The success of ''gamesmanship'' and ''oneupmanship'' spawned imitations like ''queuemanship'' and ''namesmanship,'' but ''brinkmanship'' was one of the few that endured. Within a few years, people were using the word in a straightforward and sometimes approving way, with its sarcastic origins forgotten -- one recent textbook explains it is derived on the model of ''statesmanship,'' an etymology that Stevenson would have found galling.

It's curious that people felt the need for a new word like ''brinkmanship'' -- after all, wars of nerves were as old as international conflict itself. When Lord Palmerston, the British prime minister, narrowly skirted a war with the Union at the beginning of the Civil War, his political adversary Richard Cobden wrote, ''Palmerston likes to drive the wheel close to the edge, and show how dexterously he can avoid falling off the precipice.'' That could just as easily have been Stevenson on Dulles, except that ''precipicemanship'' doesn't fall very trippingly from the tongue.

In fact ''brinkmanship'' wasn't the only new term of this sort that appeared in the 50's. In 1955, the movie ''Rebel Without a Cause'' popularized the phrase ''playing chicken.'' In the classic chicken game, teenagers drove at one another head on until one of them turned aside. But the director, Nicholas Ray, gave his version a cold war inflection by having his teenagers race jalopies toward the edge of a headland called the bluff, the loser being the one who bailed out first.

The fortunes of both expressions were helped along when they were adopted by policy theorists developing approaches to conflict resolution based on the mathematics of game theory. By the 60's, political science journals were bristling with titles like ''Cooperation in N-Person Games of Chicken.''

Scholars calculated the efficacy of the ploys whereby leaders could lend credibility to their threats: by ordering costly mobilizations, by working up public opinion to the point where a capitulation would be politically expensive, or by trying to create the impression that they might be too loopy to be entirely rational. The last technique was one that Henry Kissinger and Richard M. Nixon tried to use with the Soviets in 1969. Or you could simply allow the situation to get a little out of control, increasing the fear that war might break out by accident. As the economist Thomas Schelling defined it, brinkmanship is ''the threat that leaves something to chance.''

WITH the end of the cold war, the notion of brinkmanship had to be scaled down. People began to use the word for just about any situation where parties were willing to risk going down to the wire, whether they were union leaders or lawyers.

A recent story in The Albany Times-Union mentions the Arizona Cardinals' ''brinkmanship'' after they won six games by a total of 15 points. That's stretching a point -- just because a game is a cliffhanger doesn't mean that any brinkmanship is involved.

The political uses of the word have had to change, too. The crises of the cold war kept taking the world to the brink of the same terrifying catastrophe. Now there seem to be lots of littler brinks and local abysses. The word is still appropriate to describe the India-Pakistan confrontation, which is simply a regional-power variation of those cold war confrontations.

But the ubiquitous references now to North Korea's ''nuclear brinkmanship'' are more misleading. The phrase is probably irresistible, given its historical resonances, but in this context it's really just a play on words. What North Korea is on the verge of, after all, is acquiring nuclear weapons, not starting a nuclear war. The situation may be serious, but it's a far cry from the Quemoy-Matsu confrontation or the Cuban missile crisis, where war really did seem imminent.

What about Iraq? The Bush administration would no doubt reject the accusations that it was involved in brinkmanship, partly because the word implies a kind of bluff, and partly because it's always in a player's strategic interest to minimize the cost, the uncertainties and the enormity of going to war. That's all in the best tradition of brinkmanship. During the China crisis of 1955, Eisenhower argued that the public was unreasonably squeamish about the use of tactical nuclear weapons, which he described as no different than any other munition.

In the end, good brinkmanship is indistinguishable from belligerence until after the fact. As Lord Palmerston knew, the ultimate test of brinkmanship is how dexterously you can avoid falling off the precipice.

Correction: January 19, 2003, Sunday An article last Sunday about the popularity of the word ''brinkmanship'' misspelled the surname of the speechwriter credited with coining the term. He is James C. Thomson Jr., not James C. Thompson.