Derek H. Burney was Canada's ambassador to the U.S. from 1989-1993. He was directly involved in negotiating the free-trade agreement with the U.S.; Fen Osler Hampson is a distinguished fellow and director of Global Security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and Chancellor's Professor at Carleton University. They are the authors of Brave New Canada: Meeting the Challenge of a Changing World.
When the world's only superpower lacks a coherent strategy to respond to global disorder and is in any event reluctant to act, the last refuge of "leadership" is to call a meeting and give the appearance of concern. It is sad confirmation that the White House thinks foreign policy is a college seminar for sophomores and not an arena for the exercise of leadership and decisive action.
Such is the purpose of the session assembled hurriedly in Washington ostensibly to address the threats from "violent extremism". The avoidance of the term "Islamist extremism" is a telling indicator of just how vague the purpose really is. It is hard to craft an effective strategy to combat an enemy you studiously avoid naming. Euphemisms and nuance may have a role in some forms of diplomacy but, against the clear threats to national security today, they serve simply to confuse and frustrate.
With the situation in Iraq and Syria at a virtual stalemate, with Boko Haram increasingly on the rampage in Nigeria and neighbouring African states and with an offshoot of ISIS beheading Coptic Christians in a rapidly fragmenting Libya, a congenial gabfest in Washington chaired by the ever affable Joe Biden seems tragically a dangerous attempt to hide from reality. The Persian adage "the dogs may bark but the caravan moves on" is alive still, only in this instance the "caravan" is a scourge of evil, the depravity of which harkens back to the Dark Ages when murderous anarchy ruled the world.
The spectacle of a global gathering with 60 odd nations represented, including Canada, may be temporarily soothing but it is yet another example of a gesture by an Obama administration more inclined to be seen to be doing something than having the resolve to engage or confront terrorism and the radical ideology it manifests.
It is not surprising that a majority of Americans (57 per cent) disapprove of the way President Barack Obama is handling the threats from ISIS. After the slaying of a U.S. aid worker by ISIS in Syria, Mr. Obama's reflex was to do a 90-second selfie interview on BuzzFeed! That is hubris in the extreme and a further trivialization of a grave situation and circumstance.
Each position the President has tried in the Middle East has backfired. The rush to remove U.S. forces from a "stable and self reliant" Iraq was followed by instability and an ISIS invasion necessitating a re-injection of thousands of U.S. troops.
Attempts to expel Bashar al-Assad diplomatically from Syria failed abysmally along with vanishing "red lines", and now the U.S. is embroiled in an incoherent military struggle against ISIS, Mr. Assad and others in Syria.
The "success" of the U.S. counterterrorist position in Yemen lies in ashes, which has also descended into chaos.
Efforts to reconcile Israelis and Palestinians achieved absolutely nothing while prolonged attempts by the U.S. to negotiate a nuclear settlement with Iran have pushed U.S.–Israeli relations to the lowest level in decades – a point Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will undoubtedly underscore when he speaks to the U.S. Congress next month.
Further afield in North Africa, and after demolishing Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, the U.S. and the West left a vacuum in that country which a faction of ISIS is rapidly filling.
The Washington conference will likely be as effective at combatting terrorism as the Minsk paper accord is proving to be in delivering peace in Ukraine. The glaring holes and ambiguities in the ceasefire agreement, celebrated by all who crave peace at any price, are all too obvious now that the Russian-backed "rebels" have pushed the Ukrainians out of Debaltseve in direct violation of what had supposedly been agreed. Nothing the West says or negotiates with Russian President Vladimir Putin has any credibility in the absence enforcement mechanisms. Repeated rhetorical threats that incursions will be met by increased sanctions or by enhanced military support ring hollow in the face of actions on the ground.
Perhaps it is time for another global conference to address the challenge posed by "separatist tendencies"?