Conferencing in Halifax while Rome Burns?

Conferencing in Halifax while Rome Burns? Taylor Owen detects groupthink in the elite security debate.
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November 24, 2011

Billed as the Davos for Security, the Halifax International Security Forum – funded by the Department of National Defence (DND) – sought and accomplished to court the security elite. Last weekend’s lavish affair was attended by nearly 20 defence ministers, top global security analysts, beltway security consultants, international affairs journalists, and a handful of security academics. As at Davos, it's hard to fault the execution, and the host, Peter Mackay, deserves a lot of credit.

Throughout the event, though, I couldn't help asking whether this was the right group of people having the right conversation at the right time. With deeply troubled military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, attention increasingly turning to Asia and the BRICs, and much of the world embroiled in an uprising against concentrated political and financial power, what is the value proposition of a largely Euro-Atlantic, NATO-focused confab of security-sector leaders?

This feeling was magnified by the subject matter on the agenda. For two days, debate swirled around the purchasing of F35s, the potential invasion of Syria and bombing of Iran, and the western security implications of Arab revolutions. Throughout, military actions were discussed in an unproblematic way, as part of a natural escalation of engagement.

This was not entirely surprising, as the event was, for all intents and purposes, a military conference. But even for a military conference, this discourse seemed limited. There was no discussion of the abyss of the war in Afghanistan, the very real problems with the Libya mission (beyond the easy success of bombing fixed, undefended targets), or the dilemma that no one wants to put troops on the ground in NATO missions.

Talking about this with a sage colleague, I was reminded that the Security and Defence Forum (SDF) program, also funded by the DND, was recently cut. Over four decades, the SDF program financed a wide range of Canadian academic work on security. There are rumours that the program was cut not just for budgetary reasons, but because its policy utility was questioned – what use is critical academic work to the running of a defence policy? Interestingly, the budget of the SDF was similar to the rumoured budget of the Halifax forum – around two million dollars. 

There is, of course, no reason to suggest a direct connection between the two programs, but it is worth discussing what we are losing and acquiring with this amount of money. Is it more valuable to fund an academic program on security or a two-day event that brings together the global power brokers? What are the trade-offs between a conversation you cannot control and one you diligently curate?

The SDF program, for all its faults, funded a wide range of security thinking and conversation. While some of this was classical defence studies, it also involved theoretical, practical, and political critiques of security policy. In so doing, the SDF fostered a community of academics engaged in the Canadian security discussion, and the openness of the program supported a very diverse range of security perspectives.

It is a trope in international relations to say that the world of security changed “after the end of the cold war.” The Economist magazine even bans articles that start with those words. But it is certainly true: The security conversation now rightly involves any number of auxiliaries to military affairs, including development, human rights, the environment, public health, local violence, and so on. The SDF program encouraged this broad view of security.

This critical perspective was virtually nowhere to be seen in Halifax. Save for regular interventions from Anne-Marie Slaughter and Ambassador Swanee Hunt, the discussion was almost exclusively centred on the military and global economic sides of security. Participants and speakers often came across as too aligned – too in agreement about the primary security threats and the necessary responses. The downside of controlled discourse, of course, is groupthink. And groupthink can be dangerous.

If there is one lesson we learned from the financial crisis, it's that those in charge were not as smart as they thought they were. Left unchecked, the financial elite put a global system at risk by seeking, at every step, to maximize their interests. There was no balance at the global decision-making table, so one perspective – one worldview and set of interests – ran amok.

Such can also be the case with security policy. Does talk among decision-makers of bombing Iran, left unchecked by criticism, make bombing more likely to occur? Quite possibly. Do self-oriented discussions among militaries perpetuate the failures of Afghanistan, in which militaries sought and got “quick victories” but completely missed the larger purposes and goals involved? Probably. Does glorifying the John McCain approach to U.S. foreign policy make Canada more likely to act in this mould? Maybe. Does having a security conversation dominated by the military, with little engagement from diplomatic and development departments, lead to a more militarized foreign policy? Almost certainly.  

With Canada and NATO continuing to sing the praises of whole-of-government and comprehensive approaches to intervention and nation-building, surely the conversation in Halifax should have been broader.

On the economic front, the discussion was tainted by a notable condescension towards the Occupy movement – condescension that betrayed detachment to the security concerns raised by the increasing disconnect between a rising popular concern about inequality, and the political and financial elite's focus on debt-cutting and austerity. Surely, a security discussion should have shown more awareness of the potential for increasingly exacerbated social divides to lead to animosity and instability, both within countries and between them. 

We need to recognize that controlled conversations, if they are not broadened to include critical, uncomfortable, and diverse views, risk perpetuating siloed solutions. The military is almost always more likely to advocate military solutions over development, humanitarian, and diplomatic ones – which is why the military doesn't control foreign policy.

I am not suggesting that the Halifax forum should be cancelled. In fact, I personally found it stimulating and engaging. The format of the conference, based around interview-style plenaries, was perhaps the best I have ever seen, and the calibre of participants and speakers was exceptionally high. I was glad that Canada put on an event of this scale. But when discussing and debating war, in which the costs are so immensely high, we have to be incredibly careful not to fall into groupthink and the prescribed policies of self-reinforcing communities. Doing so invariably leads to the type of path dependency that we saw in the lead-up to the Iraq war and financial crisis.

Herein lies the value of the SDF program and the academic discourse it enabled: It fostered engagement and critical thinking in a space prone to secrecy and control. The direct benefit of this kind of discourse to policy-making is difficult to calculate, but it is nevertheless a benefit.

In the end, foreign and security policy is about balancing worldviews. The field of security studies, once the purview of the military, has moved on to include many more perspectives and actors. So, too, must the elite debate.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.