Halifax International Security Forum: a worthwhile initiative

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Debating a dangerous new age

By | Nov 21, 2013 8:55 pm

If the twentieth century was about forces competing for global predominance, today the struggle is about sustaining global order against global chaos.

The challenges of conflicts – between states, within failing states, of terrorists possessing weapons of mass destruction –  have ramped up with the added threats of climate change and pandemics.

At the same time technology means that information has never been more accessible — nor privacy less secure.

Making meaning out of all this – to find trends and develop solutions – is hard work. It depends on creative thinking through understanding the forces of history and analyzing events.

We strive to develop in our diplomats, military intelligence and national security policy planners what the Germans call ‘fingerspitzengefuhl – literally ‘finger-tip feeling’ or intuition based on knowledge and experiencet

In this twilight world, bringing together friends and foes, allies and adversaries to talk informally about the big issues and to get to know one another better is very useful.

There is a history of these get-togethers.

The Munich Security conference, which began in the mid-sixties with a trans-Atlantic and European security focus, brings together political and military leaders with civil society. It was on its fringes, in 2011, that US and Russian foreign ministers exchanged the instruments that ratified the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

Defence ministers, military leaders and senior civil servants from the Asia-Pacific region have been meeting since 2002 in the Shangri-La Dialogue. This year US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel underlined the rationale behind the Obama Administration’s pivot or rebalancing to Asia.

Five years ago, at the initiative of then-Defence Minister Peter MacKay, Canada began the Halifax International Security Forum (HISF) to address the threats facing the democracies. Initially trans-Atlantic in orientation, it now has a respected global following.

This coming weekend, it will once again bring together delegates from fifty countries including defence and security ministers, generals and admirals, ambassadors, legislators, the research community and civil society.

Importantly, it draws a strong delegation of US senior legislators, including Senator John McCain. Once again, the US Defense Secretary will participate.

For two days there is discussion, formal and informal, on and off-the-record. Most of the plenary sessions, armchair discussions, usually moderated by journalists, are broadcast on CPAC. For the hardy, there is the annual run led by now-Justice Minister Peter MacKay, along the Halifax waterfront.

The Forum’s costs are borne largely by the Government of Canada, especially National Defence. Any grumblings about the price-tag are misplaced, especially when you consider that the annual cost of keeping a soldier in Afghanistan is over a million dollars.

The Forum has a quintessential Canadian feel and makes a topical and important contribution to peace and security.

This year’s conference will look at the challenges facing the West; the difficulties inherent in the Middle East; the reality of what ‘responsibility to protect’ means; cyber-threats and drone warfare. Importantly for Canada, it will also put a focus on the Arctic.

The Forum will be an opportunity to informally discuss the potential successor to NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen whose term ends next year. A Canadian has never held the top job and if Peter MacKay were interested he would be a good candidate.

When we are on our game, Canada plays an admirable role as useful fixer and bridge-builder. Canadians were helpful in the construction of NATO and the other multilateral institutions that still serve international peace and security.

One of our leverage points lies in our ability to interpret Washington to the world and the world to Washington. This obliges us to sustain respect for Canada’s capacities in Washington.

This starts with a good relationship between the president and prime minister.

It also demands an activist diplomatic service confident in the support of its minister and prime minister. This needs work.

Finally, military force is demonstrable hard currency in a Washington. Sequester is brutally cutting the US defense establishment. Americans want allies that can punch their weight.

The Harper Government’s Canada First Defence Strategy would give us this capacity although, five years on, an update is overdue.

Its promised investments, especially those in our aging fleet, are essential. Globalization and the ubiquitous container makes this a maritime century. As Prime Minister Harper has observed Canada and its economy float on salt water.

Theories and grand ideas seldom unfold as planned. We need to better understand the strategic forces at work in faraway places. We also need to know the players who influence and determine events.

That’s why initiatives like the Halifax International Security Forum are a worthwhile investment.

Debating a dangerous new age iPolitics Insight

By | Nov 21, 2013 8:55 pm | iPolitics Subscription Required | 0 Comments

Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, Elisa Massimino, president of Human Rights First, and General Jean-Paul Palomeros, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, left to right, conduct a session at the Halifax International Security Forum in Halifax on Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan