As a galaxy of heavy hitters gathered for the Halifax International Security Forum this weekend, a surprising consensus emerged. The world needs more America, not less.
"We are hopeful with the re-election of President Obama that maybe the administration will get more engaged, and the next four years will not be wasted in the way that we wasted the last four years," said Mohammed Shtayyeh, minister of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction.
In fact, it was hard to find anyone who thinks the United States should lead from behind, as Barack Obama wants to do. The ultra-hawkish U.S. Senator John McCain said he feels "ashamed" that his country isn't intervening more forcefully in Syria. Representatives of Syrian democracy groups say they feel "abandoned." And people who have long criticized U.S.meddling in the region say that what the world needs is more America, not less.
"I think eyes are always on Washington for leadership," said Raghida Dergham, columnist for the Lebanese newspaper Al Hayat. "Whether the U.S. wants to lead or not, leading from behind really becomes a problem for the region and for the United States."
As fresh conflict broke out between Israel and Gaza, many people thought the United States is the only nation capable of imposing peace. Still, some thought this one would be short-lived. "It will be over in 10 days," Mr. Shtayyeh predicted.
Most of the forum focused on bigger and uglier problems: slaughter in Syria, Iran's march toward nuclear weapons, post-occupation Afghanistan, and the new conflict between China and Japan over a group of tiny islands in the South China Sea.
In theory, the western democracies all say they're deeply committed to using their powers to spread freedom and fight tyranny. As Peter MacKay, Canada's Defence Minister, proclaimed, "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." In practice, though, the democracies are slashing their defence budgets. They are also deeply wary of putting their armed forces in harm's way. Their citizens might tolerate more Libyas, but not more Afghanistans.
And so even though Syria has turned into a bloodbath, don't expect Western intervention any time soon. It's too hard and the consequences are too unpredictable. Mr. Assad has already slaughtered 40,000 of his countrymen and there is no end in sight. Stockpiles of chemical weapons are stashed all over the country. The United States knows where they are, but estimates that disabling the chemical weapons sits would require 75,000 troops. Needless to say, no one is about to make that kind of commitment. The consensus is that it is far too late to bribe Mr. Assad to leave. Like Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, he is determined to go down fighting.
There's no good ending in Syria, only lousy endings, as one of the European experts put it, "Syria, as we understood it, does not exist any more," pronounced one observer." But what comes next is anybody's guess.
This was the fourth year for the forum, which has become one of the leading gatherings of its kind in the world. It's useful to recall how fast things can change.
Four years ago, the collapse of the Eurozone was inconceivable. China looked like the unstoppable new superpower. Today, as growth stalls and revelations of corruption among the elites rock the world, China looks as vulnerable as everybody else. Four years ago, everyone was talking about what the world would look like as we reached peak oil. Now, the very idea of peak oil – which dominated global security talks for a decade – is obsolete, and the world's new petro-power is the United States. Four years ago, no one foresaw the Arab Spring, or predicted that Islamism would be on the rise around the Middle East. And the only certainty in the world today is that no one can predict how things will look four years from now.
An earlier online version of this column contained unclear attribution. This version has been clarified.