Focal Points in Arms Control
Focal Points in Arms Control
In the contemporary world of growing complexity where major social, political, and economic shifts are determined by unexpected, cascade, and even catastrophic developments, facilitation of coordination among actors become vital. When decisions on cooperation or conflict de-escalation have to be taken under severe time pressure, the importance of conspicuous solutions is difficult to overestimate. Such solutions are often called “focal points” and include numbers, objects, and phenomena the value of which as bases for coordination is expected to be evident to all parties involved.
Symbolism plays a crucial role in enabling compromise in arms control negotiation – an area prone to zero-sum thinking and excessive concerns about falling victim to artful exploitation by the opponent. The paper identifies three types of solutions embodied in arms control agreements: non-focal points, non-equilibrium focal points, and equilibrium focal points. Most negotiated arms control solutions come in the non-focal form. These solutions are reached without reliance on any symmetry or beauty of the number. Non-equilibrium focal points are the focal points in the vicinity of which there is another focal point, so that a shift from one to the other can occur relatively easily and oftentimes unexpectedly. One example of non-equilibrium focal points is provided by counter-value and counter-force targeting principles in nuclear strategy. Equilibrium focal negotiation outcomes are those in whose vicinity there are no evident focal alternatives based on different concepts of justice, such as “equal cuts” vs “total elimination.”
The paper proceeds to discuss the “promise of focal numbers” in arms control. It argues that round numbers began playing a visible role in arms control negotiations with the emergence of mass-produced standardized weapons. As the number of weapons at the disposal of each negotiating party was rising to overkill levels, these numbers became very large and abstract. With abstract models and simplistic scenarios ruling the day, solutions based on numerical focal points became easier for negotiators. This concerned, first and foremost, nuclear explosive devices and the means of their delivery. Over the 1960s, consensus emerged between the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as on a broader multilateral scale, that the accelerating expansion of the deadly arsenals had to be contained.
However, the power of focal points in arms control has failed to fully materialize. Numbers are usually dictated by the sides’ strategies and postures, that is, by their determination of the most likely adversaries and conflict scenarios. Arms control negotiations usually focus on the possibility of an agreed change in postures that would, in turn, lead to a review of the optimal numbers of weapons necessary to maintain the new posture. Once postures are defined, agreeing on numbers becomes relatively easy. The chapter considers a number of cases in both bilateral U.S.-Soviet/Russian and multilateral arms control negotiations as well as nuclear posture adaptations to illustrate the conceptual claims made in the chapter.
The paper also explores the impact of salient points – such as zero, the concepts of equality and proportionality – on arms control negotiations. It concludes that focal points have so far played a visible yet limited role in arms control. For the most part, arms control is negotiation about principles – broad concepts of threat, deterrence, force structure and posture etc. – rather than numbers. Once principles are defined, agreement on exact numbers of weapons can be reached relatively easily. Principles usually imply alternative focal points with arms control talks being essentially centered on making a choice among these points.