The idea is pretty simple, but pretty slick: wrap calls to external services that can fail in a ‘circuit breaker’, which will detect when the call is failing (or acting particularly slow) and short-circuit calls. In the simplest case, this can help avoid slow-downs when a non-critical remote service fails. For example, if you normally made an inline call to send a welcome email to new signups, you might fall back to just enqueuing the task if the mailserver call slows down—or perhaps just take them to a webpage with the same content.
In the best case, this can prevent cascading failures. Webpages make a blocking call to an external service, which goes down, thus filling up the queue of available application servers, thus leading to a service outage.