Halifax International Security Forum: global leadership (part I)
7 Dec 2012|

The Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta and Minister of Defense Peter MacKay of Canada make opening statements at the Halifax International Security Forum on November 18, 2011 in Halifax, Nova Scotia

Recently I was fortunate to have attended the Halifax International Security Forum which is rapidly becoming one of the most significant meetings on the global strategic calendar. Conceived and now hosted by the Canadian Minister for National Defence, Peter MacKay, and Foreign Affairs magazine, the fourth Forum, has just concluded in Halifax, Nova Scotia—MacKay’s home province. Over a three day period a diverse and especially invited group of government officials, military personnel, politicians, academics, think tankers and others, worked to unpick the complexities of some of the most challenging security issues of contemporary international affairs. The panels brought together many of the most eminent people in their respective fields and if the conclusions were not always reassuring, the debate was invariably lively, wide ranging and consistently well informed.

With this year’s theme ‘What is the new normal and when will it get here?’ the meeting kicked off by exploring the contemporary geostrategic landscape and continuities with the recent past. Understandably perhaps, assessments of the key issues and trends varied among the panellists, except that we live in challenging times, where much that confronts us resonates with the past and where the tool box of the policymakers seeking to address them is often bereft of reliable instruments. With China rising and India and Brazil emerging, for example, the geopolitical tectonic plates are shifting irretrievably towards a new global order, but to what extent can we expect the new normalcy will bring peace and stability? To the extent that conclusions were possible, they tended to be unsettling. But as Australia’s High Commissioner in Ottawa, Louise Hand was able to remind the audience, the news is not all bad. In East Asia, she noted, economic growth is strong, incomes are rising and millions are being lifted from poverty in what is proving, at least so far, a sustainable way.

After the theme setting opening day, the meeting became more focused, taking up an almost bewildering array of challenging issues now firmly on the international security agenda: Syria, China’s rise, Afghanistan, the burden of democracies, US global leadership, oil and energy security, Iran and modern warfare, among many others. It was a full program and while not all of the issues were directly relevant to the Australian strategic policy debate, now that we are about to be a member of the UN Security Council for two years, it is more than likely that at some point over this time, many will call for some attention from Canberra.

One way or another, leadership was never far from the concerns of the Forum. Whether the issue presented itself in the form of a query about the willingness of democracies to intervene in the world’s trouble spots, the commitment of the newly elected Obama administration to be the ‘indispensable power’, or the way to peace in Syria, the answers were far from assuring. On Syria, few could see any signs that the intractability of the Assad government’s determination to stay in power would soon change. Nor did it seem that there were any outsides forces—in UN or elsewhere, that could force compromise. While the former Republican candidate for the presidency, Senator John McCain, said he was ashamed of Washington’s policy in Syria, he conceded there were few easy options.

This reality underlined the point that for America, offering global leadership is becoming harder and harder. Perhaps not surprisingly for this essentially trans-Atlantic audience, American decline was an idea that should be treated with considerable caution. Few doubted that the US had some severe economic challenges to confront and Obama’s foreign policy was not universally admired, but American military power, its resilience, and its soft power assets continued to command widespread admiration. With, among other things, his ‘pivot’ towards Asia, Obama had demonstrated that he was not complacent about protecting US national interests and this ought to give America’s potential adversaries pause, while reassuring its allies. Obama’s leadership style was certainly different from that of his immediate predecessor with a lighter American footprint around the world, but as some suggested, it was no less resolute for being so.

Resolute, but cautious: if any belief that democracies maintain enthusiasm for international adventure and intervention exists today, there was little of it on display here. Intervention might not be off the policy agenda completely, but the new normalcy is increasingly towards a calculus of pragmatism, rather than ideology. So for McCain, for example, America ‘could not put out every fire.’ Or as Joseph Joffe commented, whether in this age or any other, intervention is not just a moral issue, especially when it can often have unintended consequences such as in Iraq where, he ventured, it ended up liberating Iran.

If the question is one of leadership in transition, then the panel entitled ‘Mischief or miscalculation? China and the rise of confusion-ism’ promised to be timely with the new leadership team just taking office in Beijing. The focus, however, was elsewhere and most notably on the risks and dangers accompanying China’s rise. While there was little expectation that this would lead necessarily to military confrontation, few saw anything but difficult times ahead. To be sure, none of us should be complacent about China’s rise and its aggressive posture in the South China Sea of late, for instance, is of great concern, but China faces enormous domestic problems (as the new leadership has made clear) and this will probably play into its posture abroad. The panel had something of a blind spot on this key issue and this deprived it of the richer, more nuanced discussion we need if we are going to understand and be well prepared in responding to the key dynamics of China’s ambitions.

Russell Trood is professor of International Relations at Griffith University, adjunct professor at the US Studies Centre at Sydney University and an ASPI Council member. Image courtesy of Flickr user Secretary of Defense.