The Movement Towards “Effective” Verification Mechanisms

Edward Ifft’s article examines the political dimensions of a verification system within a nuclear weapons context. In his view, there are several challenges to establishing a trusted mechanism of monitoring, verification, and compliance. First, countries with less experience in arms control agreements or with serious regional security concerns are often uneasy about the increased transparency required for a reduction in nuclear arms. Second, states that advocated for nuclear disarmament in the past may not maintain that position when they are told to give up their own arsenals. Third, the elimination of nuclear weapons may give unfair advantage to countries with conventional weapons. Fourth, verification systems must be able to constrain delivery systems and fissile material as well as nuclear warheads. Fifth, it is unclear who has the authority to resolve compliance disputes, and no consensus as to how to improve the resolution of the disputes. Finally, there are disagreements amongst nations about who should pay for these systems.

Despite these challenges, Ifft argues that attempting nuclear disarmament without an effective and trusted system of monitoring and verification can be dangerous: dishonesty throughout the disarmament process is likely, as is the risk of disputes, charges and countercharges (especially as the number of nuclear warheads decrease). There will also certainly be significant opposition to the outlines proposed by Ifft from nuclear and non-nuclear countries alike, the latter countries’ argument being that giving up nuclear weapons would decrease national security, and that the system would not be enough to guarantee the compliance of others.

Ifft offers several options for the international community: countries could recommit to eliminating their nuclear arsenals under the NPT, lay out a schedule for achieving these goals, and begin research and development into the tools necessary for effective verification. Talks on nuclear disarmament could begin amongst nuclear and nonnuclear states, and states can uphold a “zero tolerance” policy towards states that fail to comply to arms control agreements, “naming and shaming” when necessary. States can also increase the transparency of their nuclear activities, and create an international committee that uses satellites to monitor and verify nuclear disarmament.

Yet Ifft’s proposals either do not seem to address the challenges that he himself had laid out at the beginning of his article, or do not seem forceful enough to compel a meaningful change in the current international paradigm. He had argued, for instance, that countries can increase the transparency of their nuclear activities to facilitate the establishment of a verification system, yet also mentioned that this is precisely what countries are hesitant of doing due to national security concerns. Likewise, he had argued for a “naming and shaming” policy for countries that do not abide by arms control agreements, yet similar policies have hitherto not been very successful at compelling countries like North Korea and Iran to comply by international regulations. Of course, the argument could be made that his proposals could foster the initial political conditions necessary for an eventual collective international effort, though what measures should be taken afterwards is not necessarily clear. — Michael