Analysis & Opinions - The Wall Street Journal

Playing Chicken With China

| Aug. 20, 2017

Trump’s North Korea brinkmanship might seem scary, but it’s not that unusual.

President Trump appears desperate, erratic and even irrational as he struggles to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. If the president is to be believed, he stands ready to run any risk, pay any price and do whatever necessary to keep the U.S. safe. This includes launching a pre-emptive attack that risks dragging America and China into a second Korean War. To understand the method in what looks like madness, recall the Cold War strategy known as “nuclear chicken.”

A game played by thrill-seeking teenagers in the 1950s captures the strategy’s essence. A pair of daredevils would each put the left wheel of his car on the centerline of the road. From opposite directions, they then drove toward each other at full speed. The one who swerved first was the chicken; the other got the girl—at least in the movies. If neither swerved, the cars collided and both drivers died.

In the current version of this contest, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has straddled the centerline and is driving straight at Mr. Trump. The president responded by revving up America’s military machine. He is now heading toward a collision with his North Korean counterpart. This has led many to call Mr. Trump irresponsible, but a version of his strategy successfully deterred the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.“Playing Chicken With China.” The Wall Street Journal, August 20, 2017.