Why Halifax International Security Forum matters

What to expect from the 2017 Halifax International Security Forum

Participants will talk North Korean nuclear weapons and women in international security


Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan at last year’s Halifax International Security Forum.   Katie Short

Participants from 91 democratic countries are in Halifax this weekend for the Halifax International Security Forum (HISF).

From Friday to Sunday 300 people will gather at the Westin Nova Scotian, including prominent politicians, military officials, business leaders, journalists, academics and NGO workers from around the world. Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan will host the event.

Robin Shepherd, the senior adviser for HISF, said this year’s main discussion topics will be ISIS, Russia, the NATO alliance, North Korean nuclear arms and women in international security.

“This is a sort of conference that has a set of core values that we believe in, you know, liberal democracy, and that certainly does make it different from other conferences,” he said.

Attendees participate in on-the-record panels as well as smaller, off-the-record talks, which Shepherd says allows for more frank and productive dialogue.

“You can be sick to death of conferences and summits where diplomats just give the official line,” said Shepherd, who previously worked as the Moscow bureau chief for The Times of London. “It’s really refreshing to have the opportunity to really delve deep into issues and try to shift the terms of debate.”

Shepherd will moderate sessions featuring the Secretary General of NATO, the chief executive of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and the executive chairman of Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company.

‘All about jaw-jaw’

Since 2009, the forum has seen more than 300 participants from 91 democratic countries and their international delegations come to Halifax. Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan travelled to Nova Scotia to host this year’s event.

Since it began in 2009, the conference has hosted a number of high-profile keynote speakers. Last year, U.S. Senator John McCain was tipped off about a dossier that contained potentially incriminating links between president-elect Donald Trump and the Russian government.

Colin Robertson is a former Canadian diplomat and current vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute—he has attended HISF multiple times and will again this year. He said the forum is about conflict prevention.

“I do think it’s something Canada has done that really makes a difference,” said Robertson. “As Churchill said, ‘it’s always better to jaw-jaw than war-war, and this is all about jaw-jaw.’”

Robertson suggests the big draw is access to other participants. He said the formal plenary sessions are interesting, but “almost incidental” to smaller bilateral meetings. In groups of 15-20, participants leave the Westin on Saturday night for dinners at restaurants around Halifax, he said. Those talks are off-the-record.

‘Not some innocent confab’

Allan Bezanson, spokesperson and organizer for the local activism group No Harbour for War, opposes what Bezanson calls “militarist solutions” to international security issues. The group is planning an “anti-war rally” for Saturday afternoon.

Bezanson does agree with Robertson on one point—participants come to HISF to talk to each other, informally.

“The important thing about these conferences is it gets these people together so they can mingle in the hallways and in the hospitality suites, and all that, and work out their plans,” said Bezanson.

While both Robertson and Shepherd point to this mingling as a productive and convivial feature of the forum, Bezanson considers it suspect.

“It’s not some innocent confab; it’s very serious,” he said.


The HISF is held at the Westin Nova Scotian in downtown Halifax.   Cory Funk

Public and private sponsors

HISF was created in 2009 with funding from the Canadian government and the German Marshall Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit. The event was initially the “vision” of former Canadian defence minister and Nova Scotia MP, Peter MacKay, according to a 2015 media release.

In a phone interview, MacKay said he and HISF president Peter Van Praagh wanted to replicate similar forums from around the world.

“Among my various travels I had attended security forums in places like Munich and Brussels and Estonia and the Baltics, and these big international gatherings to me seemed like a very good forum to have discussions,” he said.

The Canadian government was a sponsor from the beginning, but MacKay wanted HISF to move away from that funding model.

“The intention was always that it would become completely independent of government funding, and more arms length,” he said.

According to their website, HISF became an independent non-profit organization in 2011. Today, it receives funding from public and private sponsors, including the Canadian Department of National Defence and Air Canada.

The forum is paid for by a public-private partnership, including the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) and the Department of National Defence. The defence department allotted $3.3 million for this year’s forum, while ACOA contributed $250,000.

Halifax impact

Former Canadian defence minister Peter MacKay said it’s a boon for the community of Halifax.

“People who probably wouldn’t be coming to this city otherwise, you have a weekend where the hotel is full, taxi cabs are being used, restaurants are being used,” he said in an interview Friday. 

Glenn Bowie, area director of sales and marketing at the Westin, agreed with MacKay that the security forum has an impact on the local economy.

He said last year rooms were booked at 12 different hotels for the weekend. This year, 20 private planes refuel at Halifax Stanfield International Airport, pilots and crew book hotel rooms for the weekend, tables are reserved at 21 restaurants and more than 20 vehicles are chartered for moving delegates from one place to the next.

“It’s so good for our city and a lot of (other) cities would love to have it,” said Bowie.

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Liberal Internationalism for the 21st century

How to keep the Western consensus from falling apart

CETA’s just a symptom. Is it too late to get back on track?

Colin Robertson IPOLITICS October 21, 2016

The liberal international order, based on free trade and open markets, is under severe strain. Reform and renewal must begin within the trans-Atlantic alliance of democracies.

These were some of the conclusions of a group of serving and former policy-makers and thinkers, from both sides of the Atlantic, recently brought together by the Ditchley Foundation for a weekend retreat at the Greentree Estate on New York’s Long Island.

Change — economic and social, demographic and environmental — goes beyond shifts in the balance of powers. A host of challenges — nativism, isolationism and protectionism — threaten liberal democracies. Brexit defied conventional wisdom and in the United States Donald Trump channels the angry populism of a vast number of Americans who think the system is not working for them.

The fix to this democratic discontent begins at home, through policies that address inequality while also rethinking how governments can better interact with their citizens.

In a practical sense, this means tax fairness designed to promote inclusiveness and investments in infrastructure that promote sustainable growth. The United States could learn from Europeans’ traditional focus on fairness while the Europeans could take lessons from American innovation and resiliency.

The next step: repair the western alliance. The habits of cooperation have deteriorated and old mistrusts have resurfaced. The U.S. is fed up with carrying the burden of defence, while the Europeans see American standards for the new economy as neo-imperialist.

We need a 21st century version of liberal internationalism that re-endorses free trade and open markets — but makes inclusion and fair distribution dominant themes.

open quote 761b1bThere’s a risk that we’re headed into a period of ‘beggar-thy-neighbour’ mercantilism.

Elected leaders need to explain why we are democracies. We deal with complexity but it is just as important to communicate it — and this requires the support of business, labour and civil society. Current and new mechanisms need to be developed to deal with issues like climate and cyber-security.

Trade has become a particular flashpoint. There’s a risk that we’re headed into a period of ‘beggar-thy-neighbour’ mercantilism. We have moved to a post-tariff world where the barriers are now increasingly regulatory. Fiscal policies will vary — but can we figure out agreed boundaries around currency, taxation and trade adjustment to avoid a race to the bottom? How do we bring to heel global corporations that have perfected tax and regulatory avoidance?

While great powers have weight and capacity, especially in military might, middle powers like Canada are often better at coalition-building and working at the diplomatic seams.

Middle powers are more nimble and they can make a difference when they find their niche. At the United Nations last month, Justin Trudeau promised that Canada is “here to help”.

Specifically, Canada can help bring a focus on gender equality, offer up our experience in the integration of refugees and demonstrate a renewed commitment to peace operations. Can we also figure out a way to export our successful experiment in pluralism?

If the first year of the Trudeau government was about telling the world that ‘Canada is back’, then the years to come must be about visibly demonstrating how, where and what Canada is doing to ‘help’. Words are fine but dollars are better — and we are a long way from our NATO pledge of 2 per cent of GDP for defence and the Pearsonian benchmark of 0.7 per cent of GDP for international development.

The bigger challenge for Mr. Trudeau, as for all democratic leaders, is sustaining commitments for longer than the life of one government. This means creating consensus, across partisan lines and with the public, that will endure changes of government.

Democratic governance today is increasingly about transactions, accountabilities and meeting operational objectives. But good public policy — especially now that the boundaries between what is foreign and what is domestic have effectively merged — depends on finding time to think and reflect.

The Ditchley approach — rigorous policy discussions during a long country weekend — is a throwback to an age before 24-7 news cycles and constant connectivity. Next month’s annual Halifax International Security Forum, with the backdrop of our principal Atlantic port, is a very useful variation on this approach. These kinds of forums may not provide all the answers — but they raise many of the right questions.

In a complicated world, we need more constructive thinking on the practical application of democracy and the liberal international order that sustains it.

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