Dispatch

Fear and Hand-Wringing in Halifax

Almost a year into the Biden administration, U.S. allies are still grappling with shaken confidence and unease.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
President Joe Biden speaks in a virtual meeting with Canadian counterparts.
U.S. President Joe Biden participates in a virtual bilateral meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the White House in Washington on Feb. 23. Pete Marovich for The New York Times

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia—Hundreds of senior lawmakers, diplomats, and experts gathered in the Canadian city of Halifax over the weekend for the first big in-person security conference since the pandemic began, where they showcased an atmosphere of broad anxiety and unease over the West’s ability to manage a series of global crises.

Foreign Policy interviewed 17 participants at the Halifax International Security Forum, including former prime ministers, foreign diplomats, and other experts, many of whom made clear that even a year after Donald Trump left office, U.S. allies are still uncertain about Washington’s ability to lead the West amid China’s steady rise to global superpower status, all while keeping its own house in order.

“There is some real soul-searching going on,” one European diplomat said. “These conferences didn’t use to be like this, but now … there’s just a real sense of deep unease and concern among your allies that I’m not sure Washington really appreciates.”

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia—Hundreds of senior lawmakers, diplomats, and experts gathered in the Canadian city of Halifax over the weekend for the first big in-person security conference since the pandemic began, where they showcased an atmosphere of broad anxiety and unease over the West’s ability to manage a series of global crises.

Foreign Policy interviewed 17 participants at the Halifax International Security Forum, including former prime ministers, foreign diplomats, and other experts, many of whom made clear that even a year after Donald Trump left office, U.S. allies are still uncertain about Washington’s ability to lead the West amid China’s steady rise to global superpower status, all while keeping its own house in order.

“There is some real soul-searching going on,” one European diplomat said. “These conferences didn’t use to be like this, but now … there’s just a real sense of deep unease and concern among your allies that I’m not sure Washington really appreciates.”

A sizable contingent of U.S. heavy hitters flocked to the annual pro-democracy conference, including six U.S. senators and several top military commanders. But unlike in years past, when former U.S. presidents sent their defense secretaries or national security advisors to Halifax, there were no senior Biden administration policy officials at the conference to deliver the president’s message or assuage allies’ concerns.

Some foreign officials at the conference hoping that the Biden administration would fix what ailed the West during the Trump era said the past year hasn’t been the salve they’d first expected back when he entered office in January.

Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told Foreign Policy that if the United States was looking for a quick policy win after the disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal, it stumbled with the joint nuclear submarine deal between Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom that inflamed tensions with France.

“You’ve got walking out of Afghanistan one week and then disrespecting, failing to take account of, double-crossing—choose your verb—France, next. This is what the French have said, too, ‘We thought we had Joe Biden. It sounds more like Donald Trump,’” Turnbull said. (Biden later apologized to France for how the deal was rolled out.)

Several Eastern European officials, already angered at the Biden administration’s decision to waive some sanctions on a controversial Russian pipeline project, voiced fears that Washington wasn’t doing enough to back Ukraine as Russia amasses tens of thousands of new troops on Ukraine’s eastern and northern borders, fueling fears of another military incursion.

Ukraine, as well as Poland and other Eastern European countries in NATO and the European Union, is still seething over the Biden administration’s decision to hold back sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline. Biden said he opposes the pipeline despite withholding sanctions on German entities involved in the project and has warned that Russia will use Nord Stream 2, which will double its gas export capacity to the heart of Europe, for geopolitical leverage.

Top Biden administration officials have engaged in a flurry of diplomacy with their Ukrainian and Russian counterparts as Moscow has mustered more than 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders. But some Eastern European officials fear that Washington and other powerful NATO members, including Germany, the United Kingdom, and France, aren’t providing enough tangible support—military exercises or the delivery of more materiel—to deter Moscow.

“Deep concern is not a weapon,” one frustrated senior Eastern European official said.

Some international policy conferences have turned into stilted and scripted affairs, ladled with a generous serving of bland corporate-sponsored side events. The Halifax Forum, by contrast, has a reputation for being less flashy but more substantive, with smaller crowds and tougher conversations. The weekendlong forum offered a useful barometer for how Western policymakers view their response to national security challenges, where there was a healthy dose of self-criticism, particularly when it comes to blunting the rise of China.

“We have to recognize that there is strategic competition,” said James Appathurai, NATO’s deputy assistant secretary-general for political affairs and security policy. “And that is economic, it’s related to our values, it’s related to our security, related to the systems and standards. So get in the game. There is a game on, and we’re not playing.”

The head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. John Aquilino, said the United States and its allies need to ramp up cooperation to meet China’s growing naval power and military strength in the Asia-Pacific. “President Xi [Jinping] has tasked his forces to be at a level of military parity with the United States by 2027—those are his words,” Aquilino told a group of reporters at the conference. “We need to deliver capabilities sooner and faster.”

Still, it wasn’t all doom and gloom, according to some top conferencegoers, who concluded that despite all the setbacks and pitfalls, the United States and its democratic allies have gone through worse before and come out on the other side.

“We gave people a booster shot of confidence that although there are challenges, homegrown challenges as well, that the United States and its democratic allies are going to get through this,” Peter Van Praagh, the president of the Halifax Forum, told Foreign Policy.

A new global poll conducted by Ipsos for the Halifax Forum, for example, found significantly more trust in institutions led by democratic nations over the West’s autocratic rivals, including Russia and China. The study polled more than 22,000 people in 28 countries.

Democracies “have taken a few losses—it’s down but not out,” Van Praagh said. “The best way to knock ourselves out is not to acknowledge some of the mistakes and some of the flaws and some of the challenges that we haven’t overcome as well as we could have. We’ve got to learn from the past 20 years. We can’t just go forward as if the entire post-9/11 era didn’t happen.”

The conference also grappled with the threat of climate change and uncertainty over the health of U.S. democracy, not to mention the seeming paralysis in U.S. national security staffing that has seen the Biden administration unable to fill key posts almost a year after taking office.

There are around 100 U.S. ambassador posts abroad that are unfilled, and dozens of Biden nominees stuck in limbo, in large part due to gridlock in the Senate after Republican Sen. Ted Cruz vowed to place a hold on all of Biden’s State Department nominees over a dispute on Nord Stream 2.

One conferencegoer pressed Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on the matter. “I was a governor. I understand you have to have a team in place in order to govern,” Risch said. “I have been as energetic as I can about getting those through. I think we should have a much better system for doing that.”

Democratic Sen. Chris Coons cited a conclusion from the 9/11 Commission report on those attacks that an absence of top Senate-confirmed administration positions undermined U.S. national security. “This is putting us at real risk as a country,” Coons said.

Looming above it all at the conference was the stinging defeat in Afghanistan, where the chaotic and tragic endgame soured U.S. allies in Afghanistan and elsewhere on America’s reliability and pushed Afghanistan into a new era of crisis.

“I’m not sure how I slept for the past three months,” said Sabrina Saqeb, a former Afghan member of parliament, during the conference’s opening panel, speaking to an audience that included some of the lawmakers and policymakers who played key roles in forming Western policy on the 20-year war. She urged policymakers not to give up on Afghanistan, and to increase the flow of humanitarian aid there, but not before voicing her anguish at the fate of her country.

“How have you done, the world watching us dying a thousand times over one life?” she added. “I feel that we have been sold out to terrorists.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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