J.P. Donleavy used to be a popular author. He made a big splash with The Ginger Man, but many readers lost interest when it became apparent in The Saddest Summer of Samuel S and The Onion Eaters that he kept writing the same book. Donleavy comes to mind when following efforts over the past two decades by Pakistani and Indian diplomats to negotiate confidence-building and nuclear risk-reduction measures.

Existing measures, such as prior notifications for certain military exercises and ballistic missile flight tests, have been useful, but regrettably sparse. The Stimson Center and others helped midwife these CBMs in the 1990s, thinking they would lead to progressively more ambitious and stabilizing measures. Instead, the process of negotiating CBMs has been like peeling an onion, one thin layer at a time. Diplomatic onion peelers have viewed these CBMs as devices to alleviate external pressures after a crisis, as trading material, or as add-ons when bigger issues, like Kashmir, are properly dealt with. If authorities in India and Pakistan had viewed CBMs as worthwhile steps in and of themselves, a cruise missile flight test notification agreement and an incidents at sea agreement would have been negotiated long ago. Deals on a mutual withdrawal from the Siachen Glacier and a settlement of the Sir Creek dispute have also been within grasp for many years.

An agreement to permanently demilitarize Siachen, home of the world’s most senseless and elevated forward deployments, appears stuck because Indian negotiators have heretofore insisted on, and Pakistani negotiators have rejected, recognizing in some fashion the positions seized by the Indian Army in 1984. The continuing dispute over Sir Creek – an estuary into the Arabian Sea – revolves around the extension of the land border seaward. Both countries capture fishermen that have crossed this imaginary, disputed line and then release them when they want to signal a warming trend. This ritual of rounding up and then freeing the usual suspects no longer counts as a CBM because it has become a thoroughly expected peel of the onion.

If India and Pakistan actually traded more onions, as well as other goods and services, this disappointing, familiar script might change. Increased trade could engage powerful cross-border constituencies to support more normal relations between India and Pakistan. Trade expansion would also proceed in stages, but it is likely to move at a faster pace than military-related CBMs because entrepreneurs have more clout and are in more of a hurry than diplomats. Increased cross-border trade is resisted by the privileged few who stand to lose profits if ordinary people and shopkeepers benefit from lower prices. Trade with India is also staunchly opposed by Hafiz Saeed and his followers. It would not be surprising if die-hard groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba seek once again to target iconic targets in India to halt improved bilateral ties.

The governments of Pakistan and India have been widely dismissed as being weak and beleaguered by scandal. And yet Islamabad has tried to lay the foundation for steps to increase direct trade with India. Pakistan has now given India Most Favored Nation trading status, and is switching the basis for trade from a “positive list” of approved items to a shorter “negative list” of prohibited items. This could become more onion peeling; after all, India accorded Pakistan MFN status in 1996, with negligible results. At least now, prospects for direct trade are better than before. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appears quite ready to reciprocate Islamabad’s moves.

Pakistan cannot hope to increase its rate of economic growth, which now lags behind population growth, without more normal ties and more direct trade with India. Instead, direct trade between Pakistan and India was $2.7 billion in 2010, less than India’s trade with Sri Lanka. Pakistan exports more goods to Bangladesh than to India.

This abnormal situation could now change if Pakistan’s military leadership is on board. Islamabad’s trade initiatives imply Rawalpindi’s consent, perhaps because Pakistan’s military will benefit from economic growth, and because a well-funded Army that resides within a weak economy will generate increased public resentment. But Pakistan’s Army retains an abiding distrust and deep grievances against India, and no large institution holds monolithic views. Since improved trade can be short-circuited by mass-casualty attacks in India, the test of the intentions and competence of the Army leadership is whether it gains advance warning of future attacks and takes effective measures to prevent them.

India, boasting an economy over eight times larger than Pakistan, also has much to prove. Generous terms of trade can serve New Delhi’s interests as well as Pakistan’s. But India’s civil servants and diplomats take a back seat to no one when it comes to onion-peeling. Political leaders who want to accomplish something important and unusual in India will have to ride herd over a government and civil-service bureaucracy that stubbornly resists change. The same holds true for Pakistan.

It is unclear whether Prime Minister Singh and President Asif Ali Zardari can follow through with real growth in direct trade. They have both expressed longstanding, oft-repeated desires to normalize relations. This is the most convenient way to do so. Direct trade may well be the most effective nuclear risk-reduction measure on the subcontinent.