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On the Halifax International Security Forum

On the Halifax International Security Forum

A recent article in the Atlantic penned by Eliot Cohen, a former State Department luminary and currently Director of the Strategic Studies Program at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC, lamented the collapse of the global elite and its inability to offer anything of substance to a world in turmoil. He cited the political entropy recently on display at the Munich Security Conference, one of the most anticipated events of the year, at which breathless attendees jockey to be seen.

The picture he paints is of a perennial group of button-down government leaders, solipsistic, superficial policy wonks, and shoulder-rubbing wannabes, most of them oblivious to the notion of being held to account let alone shaking things up with an original idea.

Cohen’s is a weighty name, but his is not the only one to break the silence. In his recent book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Ed Luce, chief U.S. columnist for the Financial Times, tore into the World Economic Forum at Davos as “consistently one of the last places to anticipate what is going to happen next”. He opined that it “has made a brand of its blow-dried conventional wisdom”.

If Cohen and Luce are right, it is little wonder that large sections of the Western public have turned their backs. The trouble is that, in principle at least, major international gatherings that bridge government, military and business leaders with policy institutes, media outlets and grass roots organizations should be vital pieces of our democratic architecture. The current stand-off between the people and the elites is unsustainable. We can’t go on like this. What is to be done?

As advisers to the Halifax International Security Forum, North America’s leading foreign affairs and security conference, it is not our place to tell other major international gatherings such as Davos and Munich how to conduct themselves. Nor, by implicit comparison, do we pass judgment on the success or otherwise of Halifax. But there is a clear public interest in getting this issue right. In talking about what Halifax aspires to achieve that is what we are speaking to, and in so doing, we are open about where we ourselves have fallen short of the mark.

A case in point arose a couple of years ago when the Halifax hierarchy was startled to be hit by a tweet, shot right out of the middle of the audience of a plenary session, decrying the all male panel. Ouch. But as Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of NATO, pointed out at the most recent conference last November, inclusivity is a strategic imperative. This is not about political correctness, as Stoltenberg’s colleague on that panel, Canadian Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan, added. The (rather obvious) lesson for us was that major conferences earnestly in search of innovative solutions can’t expect people to engage with them if half the planet is excluded from the get-go.

Above all else, Halifax is a values-based forum for democracies. We are all too aware that much of the world’s population suffers under despotism, or inhabits a twilight landscape between democracy and tyranny. But Peter Van Praagh, President of the Forum, and his team are not ignoring the rest of the world by not seeking to replicate the General Assembly of the United Nations. We shouldn’t try to be all things to all people. Inclusivity is not the same as relativism. Democracy is better than tyranny. Halifax, we believe, demonstrates that there are certain debates and dialogues that are best undertaken among interlocutors who share the same core values, ones that support a liberal world order underpinned by a rules-based system.

At such a starting point, there is still a mountain to climb. How can we remain fresh? We are probably not alone in agonizing about that, and agonize we do. Given that every organization ultimately tends towards stasis and inertia, one technique Halifax employs is to hold fast to a policy that at least half of the 300 participants be new to the forum each year. It’s painful to turn away past participants who want to return, and it’s never personal. But fresh thinking and new perspectives require constant renewal.

Obviously, the death knell of freshness is fear of controversy. But stakeholders can sometimes get nervous about contentious topics. Everyone who has run anything from a high school debating society upwards can see the challenge: what if you start saying things your funders dislike? Again, that is where values come in. Criticism is central to a functioning democracy. If you’re frightened of controversy, you’re frightened of what makes a democracy come alive. Don’t accept stakeholders that can’t handle that. Be prepared to take the hit.

Halifax, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, has been fortunate in working with myriad governments of different political stripes from around the world. The vital role non-partisanship plays to our mission has been further buttressed over the years by Congressional delegations often led by John McCain for the Republicans and high ranking Democrats such as Tim Kaine, and Jeanne Shaheen.

Nonpartisanship is the right approach, but it is still not enough. One of the great criticisms of political elites is that whether from the Right or the Left, these days they all sound the same. Halifax is sensitive to that, which is why we actively seek individuals unafraid to rock the boat, such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman, who took last year’s conference by storm on an all women security panel. Likewise, discussions featuring Google’s Eric Schmidt on how new technologies, from AI to quantum computing, shape the geopolitical landscape inspired spirited debate and challenged entrenched assumptions.

So, yes, there is no doubt that global elites must shoulder their share of responsibility for the daunting challenges that face us, from climate change to the rise of neo-nationalism, and the festering of bloody, regional conflicts. And, of course, gatherings of global leaders alone cannot solve all of the world’s problems.  But through open and inclusive dialogue, a commitment to renewal, and earnest debate, hope and progress can yet take stronger root. Later this year, in Halifax Nova Scotia, people who share that commitment will huddle together, working on a brighter future for the democratic world.


Robin Shepherd is Senior Advisor to the Halifax International Security Forum. Dean Fealk, an international attorney, is its General Counsel and a Fellow of Truman National Security Project. Views expressed are their own.