I’m just back from the Halifax International Security Forum where I had the good fortune to meet fellow Duck blogger Jon Western. The Atlantic’s Steve Clemons described the gathering as Davos for the security set, which certainly is a nice ego-boost, whether or not it’s true. The forum is in its third year and is backed by the Canadian government among other sponsors. The forum of 200 plus draws mightily on traditional transatlantic security elites, but the smattering of Brazilians, Syrians, Yemenis, Serbians, Indians etc. gave it a decidedly more cosmopolitan flair. On the U.S. side, notable attendees this year included Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (and 17 other defense ministers from around the world) as well as a trio of U.S. Senators McCain, Shaheen, and Udall. 
With most of the plenaries webcast and on the record, I was struck by the live Tweeting going on in the room, with a number of foreign policy observers  — Anne-Marie Slaughter, David Kurtz, Heather Hurlburt, Brian Katulis, Mieke Eoyang, among others–capturing the salient points and offering their observations live. One could have almost a real-time on-line virtual conversation both with people in the room and from around the world (check out the twitter hashtag #halifax2011).

Aside from the process, I had a number of observations that I think capture the zeitgeist from the meeting (or at least my biased interpretation of the proceedings).

First, I was somewhat surprised by the limited focus on the crisis of the Euro (which could have major implications for Western governments’ abilities to finance security and development commitments going forward). It may well be, as noted by my friend Tom Wright, that security experts have tended to avoid the complex subject matter of international financial markets in recent years. I fear they do so at their (our) peril. Despite the relative paucity of coverage of the issue, one of the most salient observations linked the European crisis to the rise of other nations. The observer pointed out that Portugal’s formal colony Angola, buoyed by oil money, is now helping its formal colonial master, by buying up banks and providing other sources of finance. 
Portugal’s Prime Minister visits
Angola hat in hand

Source: The Guardian
Second, there was understandably a large emphasis on the Arab Spring and much speculation about the future direction in places like Syria. After the Libyan intervention, participants assessed the extent to which it might serve as a precedent for other places under the guise of the responsibility to protect (R2P). While R2P in theory encompasses other instruments than the use of force, most of the discussion centered on intervention rather than other measures like conflict prevention. 
Clearly, panelists like Canada’s defense minister were reluctant to consider using force in Syria, though he thought the world could envision other measures that might pressure the Syrian regime such as bans on participation in sporting events. With yesterday’s vote in the UN General Assembly human rights committee to condemn Syria, it will be interesting to see whether the Security Council (and in turn China and Russia) will feel compelled to do something. 
A member of the Syrian opposition made a compelling case for assistance, though one questioner noted that the international community on the one hand has told the Syrian opposition not to ask for assistance and then has turned around and said, we can’t intervene because no one has asked us to (!). On this topic, the most memorable line for me was Senator McCain saying he was glad Bin Laden lived long enough to see the Arab Spring which was a repudiation of all that Bin Laden stood for.
Third, the meeting would not be complete without a session or two on the rise of China and other emerging economies. As ever, the scope of China’s ambitions and capabilities are unclear. With its actions in recent years in the South China Sea, China may have squandered some of the soft power it had built up in previous years among its neighbors. In terms of capabilities, even if China has an aircraft carrier, it may not have adequate planes for it (yet). More importantly, the challenges of tamping down domestic discontent may loom rather larger than external observers recognize, with far more men under arms to guard against domestic dissent than external threats. 
Outsiders tend to credit the Chinese for taking the long view and having a pretty apt perspective on the external world, but some of the folks I talked to suggest that the Chinese may not be as adept in managing their international presence as some imagine. In Africa, for example, actions by Chinese firms in places like Zambia, where owners of a Chinese mining company used live rounds against striking workers, have triggered a political backlash and international criticism by groups like Human Rights Watch.
Fourth, there was incredible uncertainty about the role of the United States going forward. This kind of gathering lent itself to some modest self-congratulation on the historic role played by the NATO alliance and some measure of pride in the success of the recent mission in Libya. Given the forum, it is not surprising that there was a welcome embrace of the U.S. decision to send troops to Australia to signal to China and other regional players that the U.S. intends to stick around.
The difficult economic circumstances in Western countries cast a cloud over the proceedings. The Australia announcement notwithstanding, there was something of sense of resignation, if not malaise, about the prospects for an American or broader Western revival. Anne-Marie Slaughter sought to remind the crowd that the combined economic and military might of the U.S. and Europe will not be matched any time soon, but her buoyant attitude seemed a bit of an anomaly. 
With the the supercommittee failing to reach an agreement on deficit reduction and Niall Ferguson provocatively warning of a EU break-up over the weekend in the Washington Post, it is hard to resist the somewhat defeatist temptation and imagine the inevitability of decline. Of course, such handwringing characterized a number of U.S. commentators in the 1980s during Japan’s rise and throughout the EU’s tortuous path of integration.

So, it is surely premature, despite the paralysis of the U.S. political system and Europe’s economic woes, to write off either of them. But, as I’ll explore in my next post on the economic crisis in Europe, we are living in pretty dangerous times for the global economy, and I worry that not enough of our leaders are taking those threats sufficiently serious.