Matt Gurney: A new, tougher reality is drawing closer. Are we ready for it?
Very serious people gathered in Halifax to discuss very serious things. Is anyone listening?
By: Matt Gurney
Standing in the back of a crowded hotel ballroom, listening to a recitation of the last 20 years in foreign affairs, something hit me.
It wasn't a pleasant feeling.
I've just returned from four days in Halifax, where I was a guest of the Halifax International Security Forum. Hosted by Washington, D.C.-based HFX, the annual event brings hundreds of delegates with expertise in defence and security affairs from across the democratic world to the beautiful harbour city for a weekend of panels and off-the-record chats. I'd been meaning to go for years, but first young children and then a novel coronavirus got in the way. This year, at long last, I was able to make it work (many thanks to my friends at HFX for not giving up on me — I'm glad I finally made the trip.)
Over the next week or two at The Line, I'm going to walk readers through some of the themes that we discussed there, at least as they struck me. First, though, I wanted to explore that grim feeling that swept over me as Forum president Peter Van Praagh stepped up to the lectern and opened the formal proceedings with a review of the geopolitical situation, and how we got here.
From his prepared remarks (slightly trimmed):
Last year ... we marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11. It was not an auspicious anniversary. Just months earlier, the United States and its allies withdrew their troops from Afghanistan and discarded the hopes and dreams of so many Afghans ... [it] was a low point for Afghanistan and indeed, for all of us. ... It was the culmination of 20 years of good intentions. And bad results:
The decisions made in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, North Korea going nuclear, Russia’s invasion of Georgia, the Great Recession, Iran, the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war, the surge of refugees — more than at any time in human history, the successful rise of populist politics, the higher than necessary death toll from coronavirus, Hong Kong losing its freedoms, January 6 and its wake, climate-change disasters, and our withdrawal from Afghanistan …
It was a tragic end to a 20-year tragic era.
That's a pretty depressing list. Right?
As a student of history, I always strive to avoid too much recency bias. Most of the things you hear described as "unprecedented" aren't anything remotely close to that. The general public has a memory of a few years — maybe a generation. We definitely do face some novel challenges today, but we are still better off than most generations in human history, and it's not even close.
Still. Van Praagh offered a bleak if concise catalogue of tragedy and struggle. And there are some notable absences. The Iraq War, for instance, is probably worth noting as a specific event, not just part of the Sept. 11th fallout. Perhaps the Libyan intervention as well. Some of China's more aggressive actions, especially at home, also come to mind.
But as I mulled over that terse version of early-21st-century history, something else jumped out at me: most of those threats were things that happened far away and to other people.
I mentioned recency bias above, so it's only fair to note a different bias: "far away" and "other people" depends on the vantage point, doesn't it? Every event listed above was a direct and local tragedy for the people caught in the middle of it, who don't have the luxury of viewing these events at a comfortable remove, the way the West generally has.
The pandemic, of course, did not spare the West. Nor did the Great Recession, the toll of a changing climate and the populist upheavals roiling the democracies. Those are local problems for us all.
The military challenges, though, are getting more and more local, aren't they? North Korea seemed far away once; today it's using the Pacific Ocean’s vital sealanes for target practice and providing some of the munitions being used against civilians in Europe. Libya, Syria and the other migration crises posed real societal and political challenges for Europe, but nothing like what the continent has been bracing for in the event of either crippling energy shortages or an outright escalation into a military conflict, potentially nuclear conflict, with Russia. China's growing ambitions and willingness to use force pose direct challenges to the West and its prosperity; American financier Ken Griffin recently made the headlines when he observed that if Chinese military action were to cut off or disrupt American access to Taiwanese semiconductor chips, the immediate impact on the U.S. economy would be between five and 10 per cent of GDP. That would be a Great Depression-sized bodyblow, and it could happen almost instantly and without much warning.
Pondering Van Praagh's list later on, it occurred to me that the more remote threats to core Western security and economic interests were also more remote in time. The closer Van Praagh's summation of crises came to the present, the more immediate and near to us they became.
I am not an alarmist or defeatist. As exhausted as many of us are, the pandemic didn't break our societies, at least not entirely. (There’s a lot that isn’t working well, including some truly broken people, but we’re still standing.) Indeed, in some ways, the various systems actually proved more resilient than many expected, myself included. Likewise, Russia's war in Ukraine is failing. Indeed, it's scary precisely because it's failing — the main concern isn't that Vladimr Putin will win, but it's what he might do as he loses. The recent U.S. midterms saw some of the weirder anti-democratic fringe of the G.O.P. perform well below expectations, offering some hope that that deeply divided and politically dysfunctional country may be able to avoid some of the more depressing "death of democracy" scenarios that didn't seem all that far-fetched even four weeks ago.
That's the good news. The bad news, and it ought to be pretty undeniable by now, is that we're still facing enormous challenges on many fronts (sometimes literally), and there are big, big downside risks even on the files that are not currently crises. And there’s more bad news: while things could be worse, they could also be a lot better, and Western governments — Canada's extremely included — have been shown to have major "state capacity" issues, i.e., the ability to get stuff done.
The pandemic has contributed to political polarization, on top of its brutal human costs, but it’s also sapped the energy and fiscal resources that we’d rely on in a crisis. Could we truly rally again in the face of another major crisis? Could we pull together? Could we spend the huge sums we might need? Maybe. Like I said, things proved more resilient than I dared hope, in some ways. But also more fragile in others. It’s hard to feel confident in our ability to weather another major crisis.
Yet we aren’t guaranteed any respite. It was almost exactly a year ago that I wrote here at The Line what remains one of the top-read columns I've published here, behind only the dispatches I wrote from Ottawa during the convoy crisis. "Your expectations are a problem," I warned early last December, before asking a series of questions. Here's a truncated version of my concerns, to refresh your memory: "Basic assumptions about our physical security are hardwired into our national concept of everything — but is that concept changing? Are the Americans still a reliable ally? Can we take their own political stability for granted? We expect America to be stable and friendly — but should we? Are the Western alliance system and the ‘rules-based international order’ we hear so much about things that actually still exist, or are they slogans? Take a gander at [then-recently flooded] B.C. Can we expect the same weather patterns we’ve built our infrastructure around, there and elsewhere? How many of you made a big financial decision in recent years on the expectation that, after a 40-year absence, inflation would continue to remain stable and modest? And Putin isn't going to really invade Ukraine, is he? Is he?"
Well, we found out about that last one, didn't we? Indeed he did. And now hundreds of thousands are dead or injured, millions more displaced and the world closer to nuclear conflict than it's been in decades. As I write this, safe and warm back in Toronto, across Ukraine, millions face the night and also the winter with no reliable access to heat, electricity and clean water.
There are a lot of serious people in the West thinking long and hard about these issues. I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with many of them in Halifax. The challenge for these people usually isn't coming up with answers (though that is sometimes a struggle). The greater challenge, it seems to me, is getting their societies, and especially their elected leaders, to get serious about the fact that the path forward for the West is going to be harder, more complicated and almost certainly more dangerous. It might seem an odd comment to make so soon after many of those very leaders gathered in Halifax. Canadian National Defence Minister Anita Anand and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin were there; so was the president of Estonia and large delegations from allies in Europe, Asia and, of course, Ukraine. These are smart, important and influential people.
But they can’t do what needs doing (or may, God forbid, need doing) without the political and financial capital that only united societies and functional governments can provide them, even if we assume the various challenges get the attention they deserve. And given all the demands on any government’s time and energy, that may prove an awfully big if.
I repeat: I am not a defeatist. I think we can compete and win even in a more challenging geopolitical environment.. But we have to start thinking in those terms again, and that seems like the obstacle we've yet to overcome.
I'll have more to say about this in the days to come, as I continue to review my notes and consider what I heard in Halifax. For now, just remember Van Praagh's list, and wonder what a recap of the prior two decades might sound like in Halifax, circa 2040 or so.
And then wonder if we're ready for what that list could include.
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