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The progress of our arms
The Halifax International Security Forum in wartime
The world’s a mess. Vladimir Putin still has no better idea than to keep grinding Russia’s army into Ukraine. North Korea has launched more than 30 missiles in November alone. Xi Jinping has consolidated his flinty hold on power in China. Europe is heading for a cold winter, disease stalks the world, food and energy are ever harder to find and deploy. So the big surprise at this weekend’s Halifax International Security Forum was the sound — tenuous, never dominant — of hope.
I don’t want to overstate this. I know any hint of optimism might sound jarring in a gathering of soldiers, strategists, think tankers and academics while brutal war continues in the heart of Europe. But a thread connecting many discussions at this most urgent edition of a conference that has been taking place annually since 2009 was that as bad as things are, they could easily have been worse. And that better days may yet be possible. Once I heard that optimistic note, like a countermelody to a dirge, it was hard to get it out of my head. And the note was rung early, by the conference’s founder, in his welcoming remarks to the delegates.
Peter Van Praagh has built something sturdy and useful in Halifax. Van Praagh is a former policy advisor to Peter MacKay, who was minister of national defence in the Harper Conservative government, and who was so impressed by a visit to a security conference across the ocean that he wanted to build one closer to home. Van Praagh quickly built Halifax into an important stop on the diplomatic circuit, based largely on his success in getting substantial numbers of high-ranking American senators and members of the House of Representatives to commute north every year from Washington for the weekend. I’ve been to Halifax three times before and wrote about it here, here and here.
It would be easy to overlook the organizer’s opening remarks, given the extraordinary personalities who spoke after, including the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, on his first visit to Canada, and — in a video message from Kyiv — Volodymyr Zelensky. But I thought Van Praagh captured the complexity of the moment well in his opening speech on Friday.
Last year’s forum was held on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Van Praagh noted. “It was not an auspicious anniversary.” Joe Biden’s U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan had ended in catastrophe. Van Praagh called the rout in Afghanistan “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.”
A sturdy list of horrors. I doubt everyone will be persuaded by the pivot that followed, but I think there’s something to it. “On February 24, 2022, this year, a new era began,” Van Praagh said. “Putin’s Russia launched a full-scale invasion of its smaller neighbor, Ukraine. And Ukraine fought back.”
There was the odd countermelody, the discordant note of hope, symbolized by the Halifax Forum’s 2022 logo, a blue-and-yellow lighthouse beacon against the night. Ukraine’s colours.
“President Zelensky inspired his nation to defy, to resist, to survive, to win,” Van Praagh said. “It was Ukraine’s fight that gave us our unity of purpose.”
Again, of course the hour is grim. But it is easy to imagine it could have been grimmer: Ukraine capitulating, Zelensky dead or captured, “a much-weakened Europe, a divided NATO, a humbled America: all confronting an empowered Russia, backed by a smiling Xi Jinping.”
Instead the world finds itself in an unaccustomed place of hope. “President Zelensky’s Ukraine has given all of us an opportunity for a do-over,” Van Praagh said. “It’s not often that you get a do-over; a second opportunity; a chance to correct past mistakes. But thanks to Ukraine’s resolve, that is what we now have.”
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Of course the devil will be in the details. Hopes so often dashed may yet be dashed again. Working through all those considerations was what the rest of the weekend was for. But participants found other notes to weave into the countermelody of hope. Missiles had fallen on Poland days earlier, but Poland and NATO had responded with discipline. The US congressional midterms delivered only modest Republican gains and left many candidates who had worked against the rule of law at the altar.
Much of the discussion centred on the path out of the war. A broad consensus in the invited crowd held that Ukraine must chart that path and that its features must include a Russian military rout. “It would be incredibly hypocritical of us” — that is, of forum attendees whose jobs generally entail the national defence of their own countries — “to deny Ukraine the right of self-defence,” former Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović told a plenary session. “So there will be disagreements” — among Ukraine’s allies, and between those allies and Zelensky’s government — “but we don’t have a choice.”
Speaking in a recorded video message from Ukraine, Zelensky outlined his preferred terms for war’s end. The 10-point plan his staff distributed, on paper, to forum attendees matched one he had delivered earlier in the week to the G20. It amounts to a program for total Russian capitulation.
“Simply [ending] the war doesn’t guarantee peace,” Zelensky said. “Russia is now looking for a short truce, a respite to gain strength. Some may call this the war’s end, but such a respite will only worsen the situation.”
Breathing room would give Putin a chance to regroup and relaunch his assault, Zelensky said. “Immoral compromises will lead to new blood. A truly real long-lasting and honest peace can only be the result of the complete demolition of Russian aggression.”
Zelensky’s plan is comprehensive. As he told the G20, its elements are “radiation and nuclear safety; food security; energy security; release of all prisoners and deported persons; implementation of the UN Charter and restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the world order; withdrawal of Russian troops and cessation of hostilities; restoration of justice; countering ecocide; preventing escalation; and finally — confirmation of the end of the war.” He told Halifax he hopes Canada would pick an item off that list and lead international efforts on that front.
Compared to the occasional calls for a negotiated truce while Russia still occupies huge swaths of Ukrainian territory, Zelensky’s plan might seem excessive or even vindictive. One rebuttal to that notion was delivered during a panel session by Gen. Rajmund Andrzejczak, the head of Poland’s armed forces.
Putin invaded Georgia in 2008, Andrzejczak said, and as “punishment” — here Andrzejczak’s voice was heavy with sarcasm — Europe worked with Russia to build the Nord Stream 1 pipelines from Russia to Germany. In 2014 he invaded Crimea; Europe worked with Russia to complete Nord Stream 2.
Now Putin has invaded and bombarded all of Ukraine. “What kind of punishment are we going to prepare for him today?” Andrzejczak asked.
Of course the weekend dealt with many other topics. China’s threat to Taiwan — where the Halifax Forum plans to hold its first conference outside Canada next year —was studied from several angles. I learned a lot from Hans-Jakob Schindler, who is senior director of a formidable think tank on European domestic extremism, the Counter-Extremism Project; and from Mauricio Meschoulam, a Mexican political scientist who has lately tried to adapt his work analyzing global terrorist networks to a study of Mexico’s murderous drug cartels. (His analytical tools sometimes fit and sometimes, in interesting ways, don’t.) Their work and others’ will inform my work, I hope for years to come.
But the Halifax International Security Forum, which usually ponders a range of hypothetical disasters, this year inevitably narrowed its focus to a concrete case, the Ukraine invasion. This was also the focus of Lloyd Austin’s speech to the attendees.
Austin is Joe Biden’s secretary of defense, a retired four-star army general who had leading roles in Afghanistan and Iraq. This was his first trip to Canada, 14 months after the Senate confirmed his nomination. His next stops would be Indonesia and Cambodia — his fifth visit in a year to the Indo-Pacific region. He appeared onstage with Anita Anand, Canada’s defence minister, a few times. They spoke warmly about working together.
Austin brought an ambitious speech. He couched US actions in Europe this year in the language of responsibility and, you might say, of moral sunk cost. “The price of establishing the post-World War II order was far too high to just walk away from. We have security obligations that we cannot walk away from.” Put that way, it sounded a bit old-fashioned. But maybe a reassertion of old-fashioned values — constancy, responsibility — isn’t entirely out of place in what has already been a too-grim century. Maybe we could use a beacon.
I spoke briefly with a Western diplomat who is stationed in Kyiv. More citizens of allied countries should see the Ukrainians under pressure, the diplomat said. “These people — they do not give up,” the diplomat said. “They do — not — give — up.”
A milestone and some shop talk
While I was writing this post, the Paul Wells newsletter passed 10,000 registered subscribers, seven months and two days after I published my first post.
I can’t begin to express how grateful I am for this extraordinary rate of growth in reader interest. I left another job this spring with no plan. I launched this newsletter as an experiment, a kind of question to Canadian readers of news and analysis about our politics and culture. I’m amazed at the enthusiastic reply.
I should hurry to add that most of those 10,000 subscribers don’t have paid subscriptions. That’s the experience of most Substack newsletter writers. And it’s entirely normal. Many of you choose to support this work financially in exchange for occasional exclusives. But I’m also careful to ensure there’s often fresh content for the wider circle who bring only a lively interest. All of you are part of this newsletter’s success.
A few thoughts about what I’m doing here.
• This is the 62nd post I’ve published since mid-April, not including posts that only promote my podcast. That means I have averaged more than two posts of new content per week for more than half a year. That’s a little better than my original target rate.
I’ve heard that some readers don’t like the Paul Wells Show podcast posts. But I’m proud of that show, which is becoming its own success story and building its own distinct audience. The least I can do is tell you about it and thank the sponsors and partners who make it possible. I know many of you appreciate these updates.
I want to remind everyone that I’ve classified all my writing here into several thematic channels, precisely so subscribers can control what they receive. On this page you can uncheck boxes for any channel, if you want to stop receiving my cultural writing (“Positive Jam”), my writing in French, my tips for journalists, or the podcast-related content. And if you want to keep getting it all, you can skip this step entirely.
• I want to write down what should now be obvious: I am not here to help any political party win any election. Much of my writing here isn’t polemical. Often I don’t find my opinion on a debate to be the most interesting thing about that debate. But as you’ve seen, whoever you like in Canadian federal politics, I will almost certainly be criticizing them. Sometimes harshly. I know just about everybody here understands that. Others leave, sooner or later. That’s fine too.
• The comment boards here are almost always part of this newsletter’s success. When I find a comment thread has gone astray, I’ll use a few different tools to fix that, including shutting comments down temporarily and, in two cases so far, cancelling and refunding subscriptions. I have no written rules for determining when that will happen and there is no appeal mechanism.
• Here’s me in, I think, 1994.
My parents, whom I miss terribly, took that photo on a rare visit to Ottawa, where I had just started working. I felt like I was just beginning to figure out how this country works. I still do. I miss the fresh-faced kid in that photo too, but I’ll tell you a secret: on a good day, I think maybe I’m still him.
Thank you for your time and support.