This year’s edition of the Halifax International Security Forum attempted to strike a jaunty, defiant note: aware of the threat to the democracies posed by the forces of militant autocracy – China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, memorably collated as the CRINKs – yet confident in the ability of the democracies to recognize and respond to the threat in time.
There was, nevertheless, a strong whistling-past-the-graveyard vibe to the event. Panellists, drawn from a mix of military, political and think tank circles, were quite clear about what the leaders of the democracies should do to head off the threat. They were less sure that they would do any of these things.
The distinction was embodied in the repeated assurances from Canada’s defence minister, Bill Blair, in his speech opening the conference, that “Canada knows it must do more,” i.e. to meet its NATO commitment on military spending. No doubt this was intended to convey a sense of determination, but it sounded more like a statement of regret.
Indeed, for all the declarations of resolve and calls for unity at the forum, resolve and unity are in critically short supply at the moment, in the face of a deepening security crisis. A major point of the conference was to emphasize the connected nature of events. Our adversaries, speakers stressed, have a common purpose: to divide, demoralize and ultimately displace the democracies.
It is surely no coincidence that we are now fighting two major wars at the same time, in Ukraine and the Middle East, with a third, Taiwan, and perhaps a fourth and fifth – in the Balkans, perhaps, or the Sahel – waiting in the wings. Granted, the members of the CRINKs have important differences, in ideology, in interests and in strategic outlook.
But they are alike as proprietors of what are, stripped of their pretensions, essentially criminal enterprises, and in their hostility to the democracies, for the obstacles they pose to their ambitions. The “rules-based international order” is a rather too genteel way of expressing what is at stake. Rather, it is our whole way of life, indeed our very lives, that is potentially at risk.
While the CRINKs may not be aligned in a formal sense, they are certainly happy to provide material and financial support for each other’s adventures, and capable of exploiting the opportunities each opens for the others.
The preoccupation of the United States and its allies with Ukraine would doubtless have formed part of the backdrop for Iran’s decision to unleash its proxies in Hamas on October 7. How much stomach the West shows for the fights in Ukraine and the Middle East – for staying with them, that is, for the long haul – will in turn be an important factor in whether China eventually decides to invade Taiwan.
Quite apart from overt invasions, moreover, are the continuing, multi-pronged campaigns to divide and weaken the West by other, less conventional means, ranging from China’s use of TikTok’s algorithms to sow confusion, to Russia’s mobilization of waves of migrants at the borders with Poland and now Finland, to the ultimate black-ops job, Donald Trump’s campaign for president of the United States.
Yet despite the unmistakable signs of how far-reaching the ambitions of the CRINKs are, the scale of the threat has yet to be appreciated by public opinion or even political leaders.
Or if they understand the threat, they do not yet seem prepared to do what is needed to confront it. Joe Biden gets credit for keeping NATO united in opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but has consistently delivered too little in the way of weaponry, too late – providing Ukraine with just enough to avoid defeat, as more than one speaker commented, but not enough to win.
The suspicion is that this is deliberate: that the West does not want Ukraine to win, at least not so far as it means Russia has to lose; that at some point it will impose a ceasefire that will leave Russia, not only in possession of Ukrainian territory, but poised to do more, once it has rebuilt its forces.
This ambivalence is encoded in the innocuous-sounding slogan many Western leaders have settled on, that they are prepared to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes.” As an exasperated Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion and doughty opponent of Vladimir Putin, asked, “‘as long as it takes’ … to do what?”
This was perhaps the most insistent theme of the conference. Unless we understand, not only the gravity of the threat we face, but its commonality – that we are not at war on several fronts, but one – we will not find the will to fight it. The situation is deadly serious; we, as yet, are not.