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Global leaders gather in Halifax


Canadian Minister of National Defence  Peter MacKay and US Senator John McCain discuss.
Canadian Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay and US Senator John McCain discuss. (Photo via

The Halifax International Security Form is important to Canadians. The forum provides an opportunity to discuss defence issues of shared interest with our allies and international partners. It gives the Department of National Defence the unique opportunity to reaffirm Canada’s defence relationships, priorities, and its commitment to the Canada First Defence Strategy, under which the Canadian Forces enhance security, stability, and support at home and abroad. For a few short days in November of each year, the world turns to the East Coast to try and solve some important global security challenges.

Divided up into plenary sessions that extend over the duration of the forum, the various topics of discussion allow for security and defence leaders from around the world to share their expertise in an open and free flowing discourse. Here’s a recap of three plenary sessions and some of the issues that matter to global security—or rather, insecurity.


Syria’s Terror, the Middle East’s Tragedy”

The West has looked on the events unfolding in the Middle East over the past couple of years with a sense of optimism coupled with severe uncertainty. The hope for prosperity ignited by the Arab Spring has dwindled into shock and dismay at the unfolding carnage in Syria. Turkey shares a large border with Assad’s unpredictable and volatile state. As a NATO member state has raised questions about invoking an Article 5 resolution, the collective defence clause. With the fear of a nuclear-armed Iran not going away anytime soon, the amount of confusion and uncertainty in the region has increased tremendously. Israel, the only liberal democracy in the Middle East, sits in the eye of the storm. Its conflict with the Palestinians has escalated as of late, and with the various issues plaguing its geographic neighbours still unanswered, Israel’s safety is threatened ever more as days go by.

Western powers have struggled to decide just how much they should get behind pro-democracy forces, and how to do so most effectively. Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem stated during the forum that “unlike Libya, Syria’s location means if it implodes, it threatens to suck its neighbours in.” It is in our interest to enhance the formation of democratic norms and institutions in the Middle East, but to what extent is it our duty to help facilitate this much-needed change?

As Afra Jalabi of the Syrian National Council stated during the forum, “the democracy movement feels abandoned. Not just over the last few years, but the last decade. In the Arab world, there’s almost an implosion of civil society.” In an increasingly globalized world where security threats affect all of us in the international system, it is almost naïve not to acknowledge the importance of the West to uphold liberal values in a Middle East that is falling deeper into conflict.

Canada, among others, has called upon those in the region to show restraint and use diplomatic tools to end the violence. Russia, which shares a border with some of the more unpredictable states in the region, can exert a tremendous amount of influence over Syria, but unfortunately, has refused to act. As Canadian Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay puts it, in order for Russia to be recognized as a true democratic state and to be a trusted member of the international community, it has to start using its influence for good instead of sitting idly by as the tyranny to its south continues.


Special Burden of Democratic Nations”

When states engage in internationally deemed illegitimate behaviour and threaten their own population, the international community as a whole has an obligation to intervene. Or does it?

There are significant voices within the populace and governments of Western states that believe that we should not turn a blind eye to humanitarian catastrophes caused by war, political oppression, or other factors, regardless of whether we have strategic interest in the situation. Some argue that democratic states have a moral and ethical obligation to intervene, while others have argued for limited involvement unless national interest is involved.

Do we have the right to infringe on sovereignty, even though it is the one thing that the UN seeks to uphold? Are Security Council resolutions still the gold standard for determining the legitimacy of an intervention, especially when permanent members can easily invoke capricious, also known as arbitrary, vetoes?

As Canadian Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay explained: “there is a higher calling on democracies. We can’t sit in splendid isolation in North America, or anywhere else. We must act as a community to stop the slaughter of innocent civilians.”  With regard to what role and responsibilities democratic nations have, United States Sen. John McCain stated: “We can’t right every wrong, or put out every fire. But where we can, we should. Because it’s in our interest to see countries develop and to have a chance at democracy and freedom.” Much of the discourse over the course of the forum confirmed the notion that democratic nations still have a responsibility to go beyond their borders. With no superior replacement found to democracy as of yet, it is, and will continue to be, our moral responsibility to promote it for the betterment of this blue marble we call our home.


“Is Afghanistan Pakistan’s Problem? (Or Vice Versa?)”

Thousands of men and women in uniform risk their lives every day in a part of the world that few people can say they really understand. The security focus for the past decade has been on Afghanistan, but when Osama bin Laden was killed at the hands of US forces in 2011, he was caught hiding in Pakistan. Although Pakistan is an important ally in the battle against al-Qaeda, many have been skeptical of the country’s ability to consistently and reliably provide support in this volatile region.

NATO, and therefore Canada, has a commitment to preventing Afghanistan from ever becoming a safe haven for terrorist activities again. And although the international presence has made an immeasurable difference, much of the fate of Afghanistan is still tied to Pakistan. MacKay stated that “Pakistan’s unequivocal support is needed to help its neighbour, and unfortunately, that has not been the case.”

The 2014 Afghani election will be a pivotal point for the future of the country. Canada’s military will be out by then, and Afghanistan will have full responsibility over its sovereignty. The general consensus among the leaders at the forum was that Canada should keep troops in the region, to which MacKay responded: “full responsibility is something that NATO wants, but most importantly, Afghanistan needs.” Only time will tell how the two countries will manage their relationship, but come 2014, Canadian troops will be out.

Other topics such as the rise of China, American global leadership after the election and the consequences of modern warfare were discussed. The forum provided a glimpse of what we can expect in the year to come on the ways in which some of the security challenges that Canada faces will be met. Our country’s commitment to multilateralism through the UN and NATO stays strong, but as outlined in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government Canada First 2008 document, the number one priority remains the protection of Canada and Canadians.

This forum has brought a lot of insight, a lot of effort and a lot of trust in moving forward. In the final press conference of the forum MacKay concluded: “the theme that characterizes this weekend is common values; may we take a step forward for those of us here today and those across the world living in constant fear.”







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