Western allies focus on crisis of leadership at Halifax security forum

For a decade now the Halifax International Security Forum has been a place to discuss the major external threats facing Western democracies and how to counter them. But at this year's gathering, defence leaders said the biggest threats are now coming from within.

'Many of our strongest and largest democracies are in some type of crisis,' says former U.S. ambassador

Delegates attend the Halifax International Security Forum this weekend. The annual gathering has typically focused on threats from countries such as China, Russia and North Korea, but discussions at this year's gathering focused also on the strength of Western democracy. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

For a decade now the Halifax International Security Forum has been a place to discuss the major external threats facing Western democracies and how to counter them.  One of the main themes coming out of this year's gathering of military, political and academic leaders is the biggest threat to democracy is coming from within.

"In the democratic world, many of our strongest and largest democracies are in some type of crisis," says former U.S. ambassador Nicholas Burns, who now teaches at the Kennedy School at Harvard University.

Burns was a featured speaker at the final event which looked at security 10 years out and his view is neither positive nor especially hopeful.

He sees the United Kingdom floundering as it wrestles with deep divisions caused by Brexit, and his own country's place in promoting values of democracy and inclusiveness being undermined by the presidency of Donald Trump.

Concerns about U.S. leadership, and about Trump's increasingly inward-looking agenda were front of mind for many at the gathering this weekend.

"We really need to fortify our situations at home in order to be confident and capable overseas, to advance a global agenda," Burns said in an interview later with CBC News.

"I don't think any country can be effective globally if it's not secure at home."

Worrisome U.S. rhetoric

A bipartisan delegation of U.S. senators was asked about the impact Trump is having on the U.S. brand overseas, and about the impact his rhetoric is having on unity among Western nations, and America's ability to lead.

"The rhetoric is what it is. The actions are far more important," said Roger Wicker, the senior Republican senator from Mississippi.

"The president of the U.S. makes a point that he's a nationalist, not a globalist. What he really means is that we take a lot of international determinations and we need to continue to make the case that they are in the national interest."

Wicker acknowledged that the benefits of foreign aid, for example, aren't always apparent or relevant to ordinary citizens. Others at the conference made the point that being open to migrants is a source of strength in Western nations rather than something to be feared, and that international trade is a foundation for growth both at home and abroad.

Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, right, and Peter Van Praagh, the president of the Halifax International Security Forum, attend a news conference at the annual meeting on Saturday. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, said the Congressional delegation to Halifax — made up of members of both political parties — wanted to dispel suggestions that the U.S. isn't committed to NATO and other organizations.

"That's why we are here," she said this weekend.  "There is a bipartisan commitment in Congress to invest in the world and to continue to be engaged."

'The conversation now is about ourselves'

Peter van Praagh, president of the Halifax International Security Forum, says the forum's focus for much of the past 10 years has been on countering the influence of Russia and China, on preventing North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, and the need to combat terrorism.

But at the closing news conference Sunday in Halifax, van Praagh said the conversation is "now about ourselves."

"Looking at ourselves and figuring out how to protect our own democracies. And I do think that over the next year … the next little while, that that's going to be the pressing issue."

A number of the sessions at the three-day summit explored what's behind the rise of populist movements in Western countries, and how to modernize aging multilateral institutions like NATO and the United Nations to make them more relevant today.

Canada's ambassador to the UN, Marc-André Blanchard, says he believes it's more important than ever — a view he acknowledges might put him in the minority — because it is the only place where all countries of the world can work together on common problems.

"What are the biggest issues we are facing today? Climate change. The migration crisis. Cybersecurity. All of these issues cannot be resolved unilaterally or bilaterally," he said.  "You need a place where you all come together."

Getting our own house in order

But Burns says coming together isn't enough when so many leaders are now becoming more isolated.

He says Trump in particular refuses to condemn white supremacists at home, or to promote Western values abroad.

"We need to be outward looking. Pay attention to our friends, to be good friends and allies."

Van Praagh takes a similar view.

"I do think that over the next year, even the next little while, getting our own politics right is going to be fundamental."

He draws a stark analogy to the rise of fascism in the 1930s, which emerged as a political force because democracy was weak.

"I think all of us are now beginning to understand that these are urgent issues."

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.