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“Hey, Toreador! . . . We head for the edge, and the first man who jumps is a chicken. All right?” In Rebel without a Cause, Jim (James Dean) and Buzz (Corey Allen) play the most famous game of chicken in Hollywood history, driving their jalopies at full speed towards a Californian cliff. At the last minute, Jim jumps. Buzz, his sleeve caught on the door handle, plunges to his death.

Games of chicken are all around these days. Indeed, it starts to feel as if the whole world is playing a massive, multiplayer game of chicken.

Clearly, Boris Johnson’s jaunts to Berlin and Paris last week were part of a diplomatic game of chicken over Brexit.

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A bigger game of chicken is going on between America and China. The trade war that President Trump initiated last year by imposing tariffs on Chinese imports has escalated because neither side’s negotiators have jumped. Not only have the two sides ramped up the tariffs this summer; there has also been an intensification of the tech war over Chinese companies, notably Huawei, as well as the first phase of a currency war.

Even the president’s own advisers know that the economic warfare between the world’s two largest economies is lowering growth everywhere and that the insouciant US consumer will eventually feel the effects. Yet neither Trump nor his Chinese counterpart wants to be the chicken. On they both drive, pedal to the metal.

“Rebel without a Cause” was released in 1955. The English philosopher Bertrand Russell clearly didn’t go to see it. We know this because in his classic account of the game of chicken published four years later he gave a different version of the game.

Chicken, he explained, “is played by choosing a long straight road with a white line down the middle and starting two very fast cars towards each other from opposite ends. Each car is expected to keep the wheels of one side on the white line. As they approach each other, mutual destruction becomes more and more imminent. If one of them swerves . . . the other, as he passes, shouts ‘Chicken!’”

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“As played by irresponsible boys,” Russell went on, “this game is considered decadent and immoral . . . But when the game is played by eminent statesmen, who risk not only their own lives but those of many hundreds of millions of human beings, it is thought on both sides that the statesmen on one side are displaying a high degree of wisdom and courage.”

The target of Russell’s critique was then-US secretary of state John Foster Dulles, who had described “the ability to get to the verge without getting into the war” as “the necessary art.” “If you try to run away from it,” he argued, “if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.”

To Russell, such brinkmanship had become “absurd” in the age of nuclear weapons. “The moment will come,” he argued, “when neither side can face the derisive cry of ‘Chicken!’ from the other side. When that moment is come, the statesmen of both sides will plunge the world into destruction.” Just three years later, the superpowers came perilously close to doing just that in the Cuban missile crisis.

Pioneers of game theory and nuclear strategy — notably Thomas Schelling and Herman Kahn — sought to turn Russell’s logic on its head, arguing that the alternative to playing the game of chicken was surrender, and that the way to win was to put on a blindfold or remove the steering wheel, signalling that swerving was not an option. But I am not sure how strong those arguments really were.

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Today’s games of chicken, you may say, are for lower stakes. There are economic risks to a no-deal Brexit and to an all-out US–China trade war, but no one is about to launch nuclear missiles. That may explain why so many games of chicken are currently being played: even if nobody jumps or swerves, it’s not Armageddon.

There is, however, a possible exception to the rule, and that is the game of chicken currently being played by the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, with the planet itself. In defiance of climate science and educated opinion, he has rolled back environmental protections for the Amazon rainforest. The result is a vast conflagration.

Nothing could better illustrate the dilemma of the modern green movement in Europe and North America. All the efforts they expect their own governments and peoples to make will be ineffectual if Brazil — and, more importantly, India and China — brazenly increase their carbon dioxide and other emissions. Yet environmentalists shrink from the imperialist implication: if Brazil, India and China won’t mend their wicked ways, then they must be forced to do so.

Bolsonaro is not just playing chicken with the planet. He is playing chicken with an international system that, until now, assumed global warming could be halted by voluntary agreements between sovereign states. And he does not look like a jumper — or a swerver — to me.

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President Trump ended his Friday on the phone to Bolsonaro. “Our future Trade prospects are very exciting and our relationship is strong,” he tweeted, “perhaps stronger than ever before. I told him if the United States can help with the Amazon Rainforest fires, we stand ready to assist!”

Fried chicken, anyone?


Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.