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Playing Chicken with Europe

The philosopher Bertrand Russell believed the Cold War nuclear standoff resembled a high-risk game played by "youthful degenerates." British Prime Minister Therea May is playing a similar game, and if her Brexit brinkmanship goes wrong, the victim would be Britain.

LONDON – The game of chicken is simple to describe but dangerous to play. Based on evolutionary game theory, it was sometimes used to describe nuclear brinkmanship during the Cold War.

Bertrand Russell, the great British philosopher and campaigner against nuclear weapons, reminded us that the game is usually played between what he called “youthful degenerates.” The players drive cars toward each other at high speed from opposite directions; the first driver to swerve away from a head-on collision – or, in some variants, to jump from the driver’s seat before it reaches a cliff edge – is the “chicken.” Russell believed this to be a description of the putative statesmanship of the nuclear powers in the Cold War. One miscalculation, one failure to swerve, and the result could be Armageddon: hundreds of millions of deaths, flattened cities, the end of civilization.

A less perilous version of chicken is being played by Theresa May, the obstinate vicar’s daughter who is the United Kingdom’s prime minister. If her diplomacy does not swerve soon, the victim will be Britain’s economy and wellbeing.

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