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Opening Remarks by Peter Van Praagh, 2014 Halifax International Security Forum

Your Excellencies,

Ministers, Members of the Congressional Delegation, Distinguished Officers,

Ladies and Gentlemen, colleagues, and friends,

My name is Peter Van Praagh, and on behalf of everybody who has worked to put this forum together for you, welcome to Halifax.

In 2009, at a major international conference in Europe, Afghanistan was being discussed.  

A prominent European minister belittled the NATO effort, including Canada’s role in helping that country. Peter MacKay, then Minister of National Defense, was in the audience.

His response – to create a venue in Canada where Canadian ideas, and the ideas from other democratic countries, big or small, would come together to promote peace, sparked the creation of what has become known as the Halifax International Security Forum.

Today, three-hundred participants have travelled from 60 countries to join a select group of fellow democratic thinkers to have a real conversation about international security, foreign policy and the challenges facing our nations now, and into 2015.

In a moment, you will hear from Rob Nicholson, Canada’s Minister of National Defense, and your host for the weekend.

Before that, I do want to make a few introductory remarks.

For those of you who have joined us before, you already understand how it works here at Halifax International Security Forum and I encourage you to help your colleagues and new friends who are here in any way you can.

We take pride in creating an atmosphere that provokes serious conversation and debate.

The agenda is intentionally provocative.

And I want to thank our Agenda Working Group who worked with me during the summer to ensure all major issues were addressed.

In this program, you will find opinion essays, by distinguished authors, that set the stage for the panel conversations.

They are meant to start the conversation. Please take a moment to read them.

Those who have been here before have come to appreciate our opening videos.

As you will see, they are sometimes uncomfortable to watch.

That is intentional.

This group, a group whose decisions affect the lives of real people around the world, must stomach 2 minutes of discomfort.

It has been a difficult year in international security and the pursuit of peace.

We meet in Halifax this weekend in the shadow of a very turbulent year internationally, and a terrorist attack here in Canada.This year we mark the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One and this month the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The struggle for modernity—the fundamental struggle of the 20th century— is not yet won. So it continues.  

Indeed, if one were to believe the international press, it might seem that the powers and forces that appear most hostile to our ideal of democratic modernity are in the ascendancy.

In their different ways, a rising China, a resurgent Russia and Islamic extremism in all its manifestations, are antithetical to the free and secure world that we, in this room, and beyond, are striving for.

In China, despite predictions that the economy is slowing down, its meteoric rise over the past two plus decades has given people around the world a reason to believe that its model is and will continue to be a successful one.

Russia, having seemed to be down and out not so long ago, manufactured a heist of its neighbor’s territory and, lo and behold, gave its citizens a reason to believe that it is again a major player on the world stage.

The Islamic State, Islamist Extremism’s newest success story as a fighting force in Syria and Iraq, despite its appalling tactics, has given a growing number of Sunni Muslims a reason to believe they can grab the upper hand.

Its successes to date inspired the October murder of two Canadian soldiers and an attack on Canada’s national parliament and war memorial.

Perhaps China, Russia, and the Islamic State have successfully created a reason to believe because they’ve come up from such lows.

They have created the impression that it is they who have the momentum.

And yet, over time, China, Russia and the Islamic State are going to run up against their biggest obstacle: the challenge of modernity.

That word modernity is a highly contested one.

But to those who believe that modernity and justice go hand in hand, we should be clear about what we mean by it.

A modern society, as my friend, and our colleague at this conference, MJ Akbar reminds us, has four, key components:

 1) freedom of faith,

2) gender equality,

3) economic equity, and

4) democracy.

Whether the leaders of China, Russia and the Islamic State want to admit it or not, they know full well that their regimes are on borrowed time because, at the end of the day …whenever that day is… their peoples are going to demand these requirements in full.

To delay the inevitable and allow more time on their authoritarian clock, China and Russia have decided to pursue dangerous revisionist policies that feed off national pride and deeply held resentments about the Western world.

In the first stages of Islamic State rule, it is generating terror to establish and extend its position in much the same way that Lenin and Stalin in the Soviet Union and Mao in China did with a view to consolidating power once the population was too terrified to resist.

The picture can seem bleak. But we are not helpless.

There are three things that modern forces on the outside can do to help safely bring about the inevitable empowerment of modernist forces on the inside, in those very countries that most concern us.

First, start succeeding.

Nothing succeeds like success, and as the modern economies recover and generate wealth, they will again expand the greatest power that they have: the magnetic power to attract.

Signing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, leaving out China, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, leaving out Russia, will go a long way toward that end.

Second, stop pretending.

While tactical cooperation between virtually all nations is necessary at some time or another, strategic cooperation is a different matter altogether and can only be successful between nations who have a shared understanding of an end goal.

And both China and Russia – because of the very nature of their current leadership and how it is chosen – will never share a modern society’s understanding on any major strategic issue.

For that reason, the G-20 will remain limited in what it can accomplish and the idea of a USA-China G-2 will never become anything but an interesting idea.

Without insulting any members of the G-20, the modern economies and emerging democracies among that group might consider announcing enhanced cooperation on strategic issues without falling back on the all-too-comfortable G-7.

Third, and finally: We must meet.

An Alliance for democratic Modernity that includes not only governments, but also influential individuals selected from modern democracies, and modernists from academia, business, civil society and journalism – selected from countries working toward a modern future – should meet regularly to exchange ideas and experiences.

Over time, it will become a group dedicated to maintaining the modern world, and giving those currently left behind a true reason to believe.  

This Forum, the Halifax International Security Forum, is an Alliance for Modernity.

This Forum brings together people on the frontlines facing consequential local threats, writers who challenge and influence the world’s thinking on security and decision-makers who make the tough choices. 

None of this would be possible without you, our participants. Thank you for making the trip.

Senator McCain, you have been a steadfast supporter of this Forum since it began in 2009. Thank you.

Thank you Senator Kaine for coming back to Halifax—it’s great to see you again.

Thank you both for bringing your colleagues and friends from Congress.

Your participation at Halifax is vital.

Bill McCaffrey, founder of Calgary-based MEG Energy, founded of the Halifax Canada Club to ensures that industry’s ideas for international security are included in the conversation here at Halifax. Thank you.

Thank you also Nancy Southern, CEO of ATCO Group for your unwavering support.

Thank you to the government of Canada, the Department of National Defence and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) for its continued support.

Thank you also to NATO and to Foreign Affairs magazine, our media partner.

Finally, I want to thank members of our board of directors for their leadership and for being with us this weekend, Jonathan Weisstub, Jonathan Tepperman, David Kramer, and general counsel Dean Fealk.

Ministers Nicholson, Minister MacKay, Minister Baird, Minister Blaney: thank you for your leadership.

Thank you also to General Lawson, Chief of the Canadian Defense Staff and Commissioner Paulson, who leads the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Last months’ events in Ottawa tested Canada and Canada demonstrated its strength and resolve.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is my privilege to welcome to the podium, the Honourable Rob Nicholson, Minister of National Defense, and your host for the weekend.


For more information about the Halifax International Security Forum please contact our communications team at

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