Halifax International Security Forum

“Give me back the Berlin wall, give me Stalin and St Paul, I’ve seen the future, brother: it is murder.” — Leonard Cohen

I’m standing in the lobby of the Westin Nova Scotian in Halifax talking with CTV Atlantic bureau chief Todd Battis. I’m in the belly of the beast. This is the Halifax International Security Forum: what The Atlantic magazine has called “The Davos of international security.” This gathering is the nucleus of some of the world’s most established establishment. Peter MacKay is the host. United States Senator and former Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, leads the American delegation. As delegates file through the lobby, with RCMP, police, and security people everywhere, I suddenly notice that the muzak playing in hotel is Leonard Cohen’s “The Future”.

“When they said, repent, repent; I wondered what they meant.”

Surely this can’t be a coincidence, I think.

Battis is just back from covering Hurricane Sandy in New England. He is aghast at the damage he has seen, “the storm of the century” now happening every second or third year. Climate change in progress. Breakwaters and power poles that wash out only to be replaced with exactly the same breakwaters and power poles which will soon wash out yet again. The American “we will rebuild” obstreperous stubbornness failing to engage with climatic reality.

“There’ll be the breaking of the ancient western code, Your private life will suddenly explode,
There’ll be phantoms, there’ll be fires on the road , and the white man dancing …”

Gideon RoseThe first plenary session of the Halifax International Security Forum is called “What is the new normal and when will it get here?” It features panelists Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, Paula Dobriansky from the Belfer Center of Science and International Affairs at Harvard, and David Sanger, the Washington correspondent of the New York Times, with moderator Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs.

A leitmotif soon emerges: the so-called “light footprint strategy” of the United States. What is this? Drone attacks against enemy targets, ‘surgical’ strikes by special forces such as the one that killed Osama bin Laden; cyber-warfare that deploys computer viruses to wreck the ultra-centrifuges being used to refine uranium in Iran. A new version of “walk softly and carry a big stick.” Measures that stay out of the limelight, involve few or no “boots on the ground.” Those that allow for “plausible deniability.” Sanger contrasts this with the past “war of attrition” military approach remarking that “special forces is something we rely on much more than we did in the past.”

However, what these technological “tools” don’t do, Sanger points out, is international development, poverty alleviation, and democracy building. This point is picked up in questions that ask about what purposes are such “tools” being used for. Moderator Rose steps in to underscore the point: “Drones, cyber-warfare, etc. are tools. But tools to do what? Has the war on terror devolved into a technological approach of containment?”

David SangerMoreover, I wonder, like nuclear weapons, will these tools soon acquire a sorcerer’s apprentice life of their own? As Sanger points out, countries like Iran and other non-state players already have drones, and soon, if not already, we may find these directed back at the originators. Is technological development of the tools of war and the “light footprint” approach just a feint to distance us from the clinical horror of conflict? An attempt to sanitize war? A smokescreen to deflect attention from the actual problems that are the sources of conflicts?

This point is developed by Ischinger who says, “Political challenges need political solutions, not simply military ones. The moment is due — the moment is overdue — to find a way of stopping the killing in Syria. Not a military solution, but smart diplomacy.” Referencing conflicts such as those in Bosnia and Afghanistan, Ischinger wryly points out that military coordination amongst NATO countries was very good in these campaigns. The troops all communicated on the same radio frequencies and could speak English so as to understand one another. But in terms of non-military spheres (i.e., building democratic and governance structures) they were very poorly prepared.

I keep asking myself what are the larger costs of such endeavors? Sanger provides an striking answer. At the New York Times they did a cost accounting of what was required to carry out the 9-11 attacks. To recruit the bombers, train them, get them into the United States, feed and house them while they made their preparations, etc. Their calculations show that Osama bin Laden bankrolled the enterprise to the tune of $500,000.

In contrast, they calculated that the security measures subsequently taken by the United States in response have set the US Treasury back by about $3.3 trillion — a 6.6 million to 1 cost ratio in favour of al-Qaeda. These are wildly asymmetric costs, an indication that conventional “war on terror” responses are economic black holes that will bleed dry the nations that succumb to them. All other considerations aside, is this not the most compelling economic argument to be made that security concerns need to be addressed and solved by diplomatic means? By negotiation that addresses the root causes at the base of strife?

Ischinger, representing a European vantage on security issues, said that the “new” normal looks very much like the old one to him. The United Nations Security Council has shown itself to be dysfunctional on the issue of Syria. As rockets and air strikes fly with abandon across the Gaza-Israel frontier, and the security of the Middle East is once again on tenterhooks, Ischinger said, “Europeans would welcome a re-elected United States administration that wanted to kick-start a Middle East peace process that was worthy of the name.

Paula DobrianskyDobriansky, a foreign-policy wonk who has served in five US administrations (both Democrat and Republican) including nine years as Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, came across as the most hawkish of the panelists, saying “Taking a model — the American model — and transplanting that to another country; we’ve never done that,” an absolutely incredulous assertion to my ears. An election observer in Venezuela when Hugo Chávez was elected in 1999, Dobriansky conceded that his election was democratically proper, but then added that Chávez had gone on to exercise that democratic power in “undemocratic” ways that were problematic for the United States — a distinctly myopic and American-centric understanding of the concept of democracy.

A lacuna in all these discussions, which focused on a military conception of security, was a wider consideration of the concept of security, most pointedly in relation to the issue of climate change and the environmental security of the planet. Although Dobriansky said, “The USA has been working very aggressively to ensure its energy independence” she framed this entirely within a conventional security context of providing a “firewall” to protect the United States, presumably from the negative consequences of price fluctuations and availability of fossil fuels. One respondent from New York, fresh from his experiences during Hurricane Sandy, raised the issue of the importance of developing infrastructure to deal with climate change, pointing out how close to sea level are some subway entrances, allowing large portions of the system to fill with water if there is any significant storm surge. One would think that the bedlam caused in many communities in New York and New Jersey as a result of this event — and the near certainty that such events will continue to occur with greater frequency and intensity — should be high on the list of priorities in regard to “security.” However, none of the panelists picked up on this point at all, perhaps an indication of the still-limited notion of security that circulates in the corridors of power.

“I’ve seen the nations rise and fall, I’ve heard their stories, heard them all, but love’s the only engine of survival. … When they said, repent, repent …” — Leonard Cohen

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

Christopher Majka

Christopher Majka

Christopher Majka studied oceanography, biology, mathematics, philosophy, and Russian studies at Mount Alison and Dalhousie Universities and the Pushkin Institute in Moscow, and was a guest researcher...