Watching the movie “Bohemian Rhapsody” on a long-haul flight last week, I was reminded that brinkmanship was the way Freddie Mercury lived his life — not only his bisexual love life, but also his musical life.
It was brinkmanship that led to the release of “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a single. The movie casts Mike Myers as a stereotypical record label executive. “What on earth is it about?” Ray Foster rants incredulously. “Scaramouch? Galileo? And all that Bismillah business. It goes on forever — six bloody minutes!” To overcome this kind of resistance, Queen simply handed a tape of the song to the DJ Kenny Everett, who “accidentally” played it on his show.
This was true musical brinkmanship. It must surely have breached the band’s contract with EMI. But, of course, it worked, forcing the record company to release one of the biggest hits in its history.
The big question of 2019 is how far the Freddie Mercury approach can be safely applied to politics.
Brinkmanship is a word with a long political history. In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, gave an interview in which he described “the ability to get to the verge without getting into the war” as “the necessary art”: “If you cannot master it, you inevitably get into a war. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.” For Dulles, brinkmanship meant that the United States must be willing to threaten nuclear war to resist Communist expansion, whether it threatened Berlin or obscure islands off Taiwan.
This high-stakes approach was much criticized by liberals, who feared nuclear Armageddon more than they feared the consequences of appeasing the Soviet Union. Yet Eisenhower’s Democratic successor John F. Kennedy gave a master class in brinkmanship during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
When Kennedy learned that the Soviets were installing nuclear missiles on Cuba, he decided to impose a naval blockade to halt further Soviet shipments of military hardware to the island. In a television address, he issued an ultimatum, demanding the withdrawal of missiles. In case Moscow did not comply, Kennedy ordered the preparation of an invasion force — unaware that the Soviets already had enough battlefield nuclear missiles on Cuba to destroy any invading army.
We know now that Kennedy’s brinkmanship paid off. Khrushchev was sufficiently intimidated to cut a secret back-channel deal, whereby he committed to withdraw the Soviet missiles from Cuba if the Americans withdrew theirs from Turkey. But did that seem the most likely outcome at the height of the crisis? No.
The stakes are much lower today, it’s true. But the tactics are similar in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Thus far, President Trump’s brinkmanship has not served him well in his battle to force Democrats to fund his Mexican border wall. But he is still going to the brink with the Chinese. If there is no significant progress in the trade talks between US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and his Chinese counterpart, Vice Premier Liu He, Trump will raise his tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese imports from 10 percent to 25 percent. Absent a stay of execution, that will happen at 12:01 a.m. Washington time on March 2.
Less than four weeks later, Britain will crash out of the European Union, with no transitional arrangements in place, if Theresa May cannot get some version of her Withdrawal Agreement through the House of Commons. In each case, going over the brink means not war but significant economic disruption.
People on Wall Street who are paid to attach probabilities to negative scenarios seem confident that Trump will postpone the tariff hike and Britain will avoid a no-deal Brexit. But the lyrics of “Bohemian Rhapsody” keep haunting me: “Is this the real life?/Is this just fantasy?/Caught in a landslide,/No escape from reality.” Are you singing along, Theresa May?
As March 29 draws inexorably nearer, will it be a case of “Too late, my time has come”? Perhaps this be the true meaning of the mysterious song, written as it was during the period when Britain joined the European Communities and released just six months after the 1975 referendum: “Goodbye everybody, I’ve got to go./Got to leave you all behind and face the truth.”
Certainly the way some pro-Brexit MPs conducted themselves last week recalled Freddie in full flow. “So you think you can stop me and spit in my eye,” they sang as they inflicted yet another defeat on the prime minister. “Oh baby, can’t do this to me baby, /Just gotta get out, just gotta get right outta here.”
“Bohemian Rhapsody” ends fatalistically, with a refrain of “nothing really matters,/nothing really matters to me.” As the short life of Freddie Mercury made clear, that que sera, sera state of mind is often associated with those who practice brinkmanship. High-stakes risk-taking made Queen one of the most successful rock bands of all time. But it also meant that Freddie Mercury was dead at the age of 45.
As I watch the games of political brinkmanship currently being played on both sides of the Atlantic, I wonder if people are underestimating just how quickly rhapsody can turn to ruin.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His most recent book, “The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power,” has just been released in paperback.