Brinkmanship (also brinksmanship) is the indication by a nation that it will do anything it needs to defend its interests. One dictionary defines it:
- The practice, especially in international politics, of seeking advantage by creating the impression that one is willing and able to push a highly dangerous situation to the limit rather than concede.
- You have to take chances for peace, just as you must take chances in war. Some say that we were brought to the verge of war. Of course we were brought to the verge of war. The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art. If you cannot master it, you inevitably get into war. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost. We've had to look it square in the face—on the question of enlarging the Korean war, on the question of getting into the Indo-China war, on the question of Formosa. We walked to the brink and we looked it in the face.
It tended to be used by his critics, with the implication that Dulles was a reckless sabre-rattler, particularly of nuclear sabres. Adlai Stevenson, for example, chided Dulles for "boasting of his brinkmanship—the art of bringing us to the edge of the nuclear abyss."
The word "brinkmanship" recalls the word "gamesmanship." The latter word was the light-hearted creation of humorist Stephen Potter, author of the 1947 book "Gamesmanship: The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating." Potter talks about various unfair psychological ways to win games such as golf or tennis, usually by distracting the opponent. The implication in the word "brinkmanship" was that Dulles was treating foreign diplomacy as if it were a casual game.