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Focal Points in Arms Control


This chapter scrutinizes one particularly prominent type of international negotiations: arms control. The author seeks to establish the imprint of focal points on arms control, and to determine how much they facilitated arms control negotiations. He argues that traces of focal points can be found in the numerical solutions that feature in such negotiations, but that the importance of numerical focal points should not be overstated. Moreover, it is shown that parties often disagree about which salient principle should be guiding in negotiations, but if agreement can be reached on a focal principle, agreement on the numbers of weapons to be maintained often follows relatively easily and that treaties that are supported by an agreed upon focal principle tend to be more stable.


  • Focal numbers
  • Arms control
  • Disagreement
  • Strategic stability

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  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-27901-1_5
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  1. 1.

    This is the understanding of arms control set forth by two classic authors in their seminal book: Schelling and Halperin (1961).

  2. 2.

    Kissinger (1960).

  3. 3.

    Krepon (2003), see also: Krepon (2009).

  4. 4.

    Schelling (1960: 57, 77) and Schelling (1966: 137).

  5. 5.

    Freedman (2013: 167). See also Chapter 2 in this book by van der Rijt.

  6. 6.

    Schelling (1960: 100–101).

  7. 7.

    “Tacit bargaining” is sometimes referred to as “costly signaling” – demonstration of commitment to a certain position by an action intended to prove the negotiator’s sincerity or his determination to not back down. The demonstration effect is achieved by accepting a non-trivial cost of the signaling action. For example, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signaled his willingness to cooperate with the West (as opposed to propagandistic posturing) by agreeing to pull out large contingents of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe in the second half of the 1990s. This move entailed a material cost for the USSR and—most importantly—a significant political cost for Gorbachev himself, and was therefore highly appreciated—and to an extent reciprocated—by his Western counterparts. See, for example: Montgomery (2006: 151–185). It should be noted that the applications of the “costly signaling” concept reach far beyond studies of negotiation to other disciplines in social science to biology and evolution theory.

  8. 8.

    Gordon (2017).

  9. 9.

    Emmott (2019).

  10. 10.

    Fitzsimmons (20182019: 119–136).

  11. 11.

    See, for example: Lewis (2012).

  12. 12.

    Cf. Wilson (2014).

  13. 13.

    For a discussion of the role of the size of nuclear arsenals in determining the outcomes of crises, see: Kroenig (2018).

  14. 14.

    Such systems and their real-life implications are accessibly described in the Pulitzer Prize winning book: Hoffman (2010).

  15. 15.

    Krepon (August 2013).

  16. 16.

    Tertrais (20132014).

  17. 17.

    Tertrais (20132014).

  18. 18.

    Butterworth (2013: 6).

  19. 19.

    See, for example: Krepon (July 2013).

  20. 20.

    Obama (2013).

  21. 21.

    Freedman (2013: 170).

  22. 22.

    See: Antarctic Treaty (1959).

  23. 23.

    See: Seabed Treaty (1971).

  24. 24.

    See: New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (2010).

  25. 25.

    See: Kimball (2012).

  26. 26.

    See: Kroenig (2018). U.S. President Donald Trump famously proclaimed in 2017 the need for a “stronger and more powerful” nuclear arsenal, without specifying whether that meant larger numbers or more advanced technologies, or both

  27. 27.

    U.S. Department of Defense (2010: 30).

  28. 28.

    U.S. Department of Defense (2018: V, VIII).


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Correspondence to Mikhail Troitskiy .

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Troitskiy, M. (2019). Focal Points in Arms Control. In: Schuessler, R., van der Rijt, JW. (eds) Focal Points in Negotiation. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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