In politics, a “bargaining chip” refers to something that is used as leverage in a negotiation, an attempt to pass legislation, or an effort to get concessions from another party.
More often than not, the term is used cynically, or in a pejorative sense, as politicians often use “bargaining chips” to gain advantage without concern for how the parties being used as the “chips” are being affected.
In 2018, when reporting on President Donald Trump’s push for immigration reform, The Washington Post accused the president of using dreamers as “leverage in a high-stakes game of political horse-trading.” The same year, the Post suggested Trump was also using federal employees as “bargaining chips” to try to pressure Democrats to fund his border wall.
U.S. Presidents and politicians have a long history of using bargaining chips in the process of pushing proposed legislation or political agendas. A 2008 U.S. News and World Report article describes the relationship between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich:
Although the abortion issue was important for the large contingent of social conservatives in his party, Gingrich viewed it as a bargaining chip that could be used to exact concessions from Democrats on issues that were more important to him, such as increased spending for defense and space exploration. Neither he nor Clinton wanted it to block their larger agenda.
Not limited to domestic politics, bargaining chips have long been a tool used in international diplomacy, even between enemies. After World War II, FDR famously used financial aid to USSR as diplomatic leverage: “Roosevelt, mindful of the inherent conflict between American democracy and Soviet communism, counted on using U.S. military aid to the Soviet Union as a bargaining chip in post-war diplomatic relations.”
A more recent example is outlined in a 2015 article in The Diplomat: “The history of the S-300 in Russo-Iranian relations shows that this particular weapons system, long sought by Tehran and dangled just out of reach by Moscow, serves primarily as a bargaining chip for the Kremlin in its relations with the West and is unlikely to actually be delivered to the Iranian military.”
One of the most controversial use of bargaining chips throughout history is the use of hostages, most famously by the Iranian regime, and more recently by North Korea. Since the early 1970s, the United States has a long tradition of not acknowledging hostages as bargaining chips, and not engaging with foreign governments that use them as leverage.
However, in 2020, the New Yorker magazine warned of a more recent erosion of this long-standing policy.