05/23/2013 - 07:02

Incentives and limits

In his second Roundtable essay, Jamal Khaer Ibrahim argued that professionals in industries associated with the nuclear supply chain might embrace societal verification out of a desire to "protect their professional reputations and avoid criminal or civil penalties associated with wrongdoing." But that may tell only part of the story. In my own nation, India, security at firms involved with sensitive materials is often lax. In some cases these firms do not even comply with the law, much less display concern about their professional reputations.

I recently co-authored a study on security risks related to chemical, biological, and radiological materials. The study, which entailed field visits to several of India's major industry clusters, revealed significant variations in companies' compliance with the law and their implementation of security standards. Firms that see themselves as part of a globalized world and whose commercial interests extend internationally -- for instance, large pharmaceutical and petrochemical firms -- tend to perform well. But at small and medium-sized firms that operate more locally, the short-term profit motive tends to outweigh safety and security concerns. It is difficult to imagine that firms such as these, which often fail to comply with existing laws and best practices, will demonstrate much interest in participating in societal verification initiatives. And if this is true in India, it is likely to be true across much of the developing world.

Ibrahim also writes that nations might support societal verification efforts out of a desire "to gain trust as economic partners." This strikes me as more valid, and it raises the larger question of how best to incentivize compliance with verification arrangements, including but not limited to societal verification. Incentives could include the prospect of earning economic trust, as Ibrahim suggests, and of gaining greater integration into the world's political and security architectures. Indeed, the best incentive may be to create a more dynamic global political order in which a broader range of nations have a realistic chance of playing an important role.

The principle point of Ibrahim Said Ibrahim's first Roundtable essay is that educated practitioners are key to societal verification's success, and I broadly agree. But I don't believe that many educated practitioners will soon emerge in the developing world. As Ibrahim suggests, only a limited number of people in developing countries understand and appreciate arms control arrangements themselves. Moreover, as I argued in my first essay and as Ibrahim acknowledges, citizens who participate in societal verification efforts might put themselves at personal risk because bureaucratic and political elites could perceive these activities as illegitimate. And particularly in countries where sovereignty, security, and the state's control of sensitive technologies are very closely tied together -- China and India, for example -- states will not embrace societal verification until they perceive substantial benefit in doing so. Until leaders believe that societal verification serves the national interest, ordinary people will be in no position to become educated practitioners.