As January 2 looms ever nearer, leaders in Congress are feeling the pressure to make a deal before we go over the so-called fiscal cliff. The cliff represents budget cuts and tax increases that will automatically go into effect, as well as the economic and social turmoil that would result, if Congress and the President can’t come to a budget agreement.
There is a certain tension generated by the idea that the clock is ticking, and that, unless it can be stopped, doomsday is at hand. Propagating the belief that we’re at the eve of destruction and can avoid doomsday only by conscious action is a proven leadership tool. Bringing a situation to a head has an acknowledged place in negotiation theory, with a distinguished place in foreign diplomacy. For those who remember it, there is probably no better example of this than the Cuban Missile Crisis.
This brinkmanship mindset, with the dramatic emphasis on the cliff, is one way that leaders, in frustration and desperation, use crisis as a way of forcing action. Often, it has the added benefit of giving negotiators political cover: They can legitimately say that they had no choice. Their actions may have been distasteful, and maybe they would not have been acceptable at another time, but this was different: “If we didn’t take action, then we would have gone over the cliff.” Or the bomb would have gone off.
Leaders who use brinkmanship have to be very careful. This tactic, if indeed it is a tactic, has to be used carefully and strategically. Misused, it can have precisely the consequences that everyone is working to avoid.
Before you use brinkmanship as a call to action or as a way to force a decision, keep the following in mind: