Not so fast

By Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, June 19, 2013

I accept Jamal Khaer Ibrahim's argument that informal, person-to-person approaches, in the vein of track 3 diplomacy, seem to be among the most promising ways for societal verification to gain acceptance in the developing world. But at the same time, I agree with Ibrahim Said Ibrahim's assertion that societal verification can't truly thrive in places where sustainable development, good governance, and the like have yet to take hold. Jamal Khaer Ibrahim speaks of support for societal verification bubbling up from the business community to high levels of government — but this will only happen in nations that are reasonably open to begin with. Elsewhere, societal verification will have to gain acceptance in bureaucracies and the political class before it can percolate down to the public level.

But even in countries with open forms of government, dangerous regional security environments will often pose obstacles for societal verification. India's neighborhood, for example, is not benign, and it is not perceived as benign either in official circles or among the public. And in a nationalistic environment such as that which exists in South Asia, security concerns are intensified and real threats are sometimes exaggerated. So India's public discussions of security issues focus on issues such as military modernization, offensive capabilities, force multipliers, and strategies allowing vigorous responses to regional security realities. Societal verification is not close in spirit to any of these topics, and it is unlikely to enter public discussion any time soon.

External threats can be major obstacles to societal verification; in a nation like India, so can internal pressures. India faces internal security threats from religious fundamentalists, ethnic secessionists, and a rural Maoist movement that aims to overthrow the state. When a nation faces such menaces within its own borders, the last thing on decision makers' minds will be societal verification. Indeed, societal verification might strike leaders primarily as a threat to the state: The same techniques that could promote treaty verification efforts could also be used for harm if they were taken up by terrorists and other radical elements.

As this Roundtable nears its conclusion, I continue to believe that the success of societal verification will depend above all on arms control itself gaining greater acceptance in developing countries. A useful first step would be to make arms control processes more transparent and inclusive. Societal verification itself can follow at a later stage — once arms control has gained more acceptance, developing countries have achieved greater freedom and established less dangerous security environments, and states themselves feel ready to implement and encourage societal verification measures. This is a long list of conditions. So though I believe that societal verification might one day make a meaningful contribution to treaty verification, I don't believe that its widespread use is imminent in most of the developing world.

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