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The 2020 Halifax International Security Forum: A View from Canada

TAGGER Colin Robertson participated in this year’s Halifax International Security Forum.  Here is his report.

Julian Lindley-French.

Now in its twelfth year, the Halifax International Security Forum this year was held virtually because of COVID. With over 300 participants from eighty democratic countries, its panels discussed China, American engagement, the future of the international order and transnational topics like migration, climate, terrorism and pandemics.  

Two overriding impressions from this year’s HFX: 

First, heightened concern over the rise of China. 

If in the early years there was a focus on terrorism, Afghanistan and Iraq, in recent years attention has shifted to great power rivalry. A dominant theme last year, there is now explicit recognition that China is a challenge to democracies – to our supply chains, to international organizations, to the open exchange of information, to the protection of confidential information, and to freedom of the seas and skies – and that we have to react. 

The UK’s former Defence Minister Liam Fox warned of the ‘moral weakness’ in western discourse saying that “if we don’t accept what we do is better not different as dictators and autocrats say, then who will defend democracy. We have to start by reinforcing our core self-belief that what we sand for is not just different but better.” 

Or as the Handbook for Democracies authored by HFX vice president Robin Shepherd observed “If the global community doesn’t come together, China will assume economic dominance of Artificial Intelligence applications, be in a position to spy on much of the world, and leverage international organizations to ‘make the world as a whole safe for authoritarianism,’  

The real China challenge concluded HFX CEO Peter van Praagh is whether the world’s democracies can cooperate effectively with each other. It was a theme reiterated by incoming NATO Military Committee chair Admiral Rob Bauer and current Chief of Defence of the Netherlands Armed Forces who argued that NATO members must do their fair share saying “without burden sharing collective alliances lose their validity. The US is back but we cannot let them do the dirty work we must all do our fair share.” It is not just a battle of ideas as more nations turn from democracy to autocracy and China is happy to present an alternative.  China presents a different stance and it won’t play by our rules especially now that it has become so big economically and militarily. Europe and Canada have to understand that US is shifting its attention from Europe to Asia for a reason:  they have to despond to Chinese power. 

Second, even virtually you could sense the relief at the election of Joe Biden but there was also a recognition stepping up to share the burden of collective security by the allies is neither a one-off or simply just money but increased capacity and sustaining capability in new domains like cyber, space and hybrid warfare, especially disinformation.

Under Biden the relationship with the democracies will be more predictable, more of a partnership and thus better able to exert “shaping power”.  However, COVID-19 is forcing Allies on both sides of the Atlantic to focus on domestic matters with the available political bandwidth for foreign and security policy limited. 

The American high command who spoke were all carefully correct in their pronouncements but I doubt any of them voted for President Trump. Several participant referred to the new piece in Foreign Affairs in which former Defense Secretary James Mattis and others urged the incoming administration to “quickly revise the national security strategy to eliminate ‘America first’ from its contents, restoring in its place the commitment to cooperative security that has served the United States so well for decades.” 

There was recognition that the clock cannot be reset to 2016. A New Atlantic Initiative is needed with NATO given a new Strategic Concept which reduces but still confirms America’s military footprint in Europe. A lack of ambition by the allies is an opportunity lost.  Germany in particular must cast off the shackles of its history and assume greater responsibility than at any time since World War Two. Further initiatives should include: 

·      deeper strategic partnerships within the Alliance with greater emphasis on resilience whether the challenge is from man, climate or disease

·      modernizing and making more responsive to public opinion and civil society our existing International institutions and security organizations. They need to take a more holistic approach that includes health, infrastructure, trade, technology, and culture.

·      re-commitment to make Europe’s ‘fat militaries’ leaner and meaner

·      common strategy on China. 

I encourage you to go the HFX page to watch the eight plenary sessions.

·      Democracy vs. Ourselves: Divided We Fall, 

·      China vs. Democracy: The Greatest Game, 

·      Economic Depression: Democracies’ Recession, 

·      Clubs Med: The Scramble for Middle Earth, 

·      Go Canada! Middle Powers Show the Way, 

·      Space: Contested, 75 Years On: 

·      Re-Making the Democratic World Order, 

·      After 2020: The World with America. 

The Forum released Handbook for Democracies: The Greatest Game. It draws on more than 250 interviews with experts and leaders. The Handbook should be required reading by senior officials in the democracies. It observes that while there is still a long way to go in democratic governments understanding of the PRC’s tech authoritarianism, the picture is not entirely bleak. It also argues that the challenge to the world’s democracies mounted by China today is not only different from the one mounted by the Soviet Union but potentially more difficult to deal with. It concludes with the HFX China Principles through which democracies pledge to defend themselves from the following practices that undermine their values and way of life:

·      IGNORING CHINA’S ATTEMPTS TO INTERFERE IN DEMOCRATIC SOCIETIES;

·      SUBMITTING TO, COLLABORATING WITH, OR PARTICIPATING IN ANY CENSORSHIP OR SELF-CENSORSHIP OF IDEAS, WRITINGS, ARTISTIC ENDEAVORS, OR STATEMENTS RELATED TO THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA; 

·      PARTICIPATING IN ANY BUSINESS OR TECHNOLOGY-RELATED PRACTICES OR EXCHANGES THAT AID AND ABET CHINESE COMMUNIST PARTY OPPRESSION OF ITS OWN PEOPLE; 

·      NEGLECTING TO OPPOSE ATTEMPTS BY THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA TO BRING GLOBAL GOVERNANCE OF THE INTERNET AND TECHNOLOGICAL STANDARDS INTO ALIGNMENT WITH ITS OWN AUTHORITARIAN VALUES AND AMBITIONS;

·      SUPPORTING OR ENGAGING IN ANY KIND OF PUNISHMENT OR SANCTION OF ANYONE FOR ENGAGING IN CRITICISM OF CHINA;

·      FAILING TO SUPPORT DEMOCRATICALLY-MINDED PEOPLE AND GOVERNMENTS ACROSS THE WORLD WHO FACE PRESSURE OR INTIMIDATION BY THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA; 

·      KNOWINGLY BUYING OR TRADING IN CHINESE PRODUCTS OR SERVICES MADE WITH FORCED LABOR, OR THAT ARE THE RESULT OF CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES LIKE COUNTERFEITING OR INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY THEFT.

The Forum released its annual global survey of over 21,000 adults across 28 countries observing that over the last year global citizens have become more insular, more critical of the behavior of other countries (China in particular), and more worried about the general state of the world and the dangers posed to their own country. Darrell Bricker elaborates on in the podcast. 

Retiring Canadian Chief of Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance received the Builder’s Award,  in part for his work in creating the Women in Peace Fellowship, now in its third year, that brings together senior women officers from participant nations; militaries for a year-long fellowship program. 

THE GLOBAL EXCHANGE PODCAST

November 30, 2020

On today’s Global Exchange Podcast, Colin Robertson talks to Peter Van Praagh, Dr. Darrell Bricker, and Dr. Ian Brodie on the 2020 edition of the Halifax International Security Forum.

Participants’ Biographies:

  • Peter Van Praagh is the founding President of Halifax International Security Forum.
  • Dr. Darrell Bricker is the CEO of Public Affairs at IPSOS.
  • Dr. Ian Brodie is an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary, and a fellow and adviser at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. 

Host Biography:

  • Colin Robertson (host) is a former Canadian diplomat, now Vice President of and Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Points of Interest:

Books by Dr. Bricker:

What Mr. Van Praagh, Dr. Bricker, and Dr. Brodie are reading:

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