If there was an overriding theme at the Halifax International Security Forum, a marquee global gathering of defence and security officials and experts, that took place over the weekend it was one of confusion. Globally, no-one is in charge and Western democracies have turned inwards. They are tired and world weary after a series of costly, inconclusive interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. They are hesitant and stumbling badly.

Those hoping to get some clarity at the Forum about the world’s most pressing security challenges around which Western nations should rally were sorely disappointed. That is not the fault of the Forum’s organizers but the harsh reality of global politics.

As many participants noted, there is also no consensus on the major security challenges the world faces today. And there’s the rub. If you can’t agree on the problem then cooperation is exceedingly difficult. That is why Western democracies are in such trouble.

The Forum also underscored that the luxury of feeling tired is one that some states, like Israel, who live in deeply unstable neighborhoods cannot afford.

Israelis are deeply troubled by what they see as Neville Chamberlain-style negotiations and agreement with Iran that will see a partial lifting of sanctions, but very little in the way of real concessions from Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions by dismantling its centrifuges and heavy water reactor.

Israelis also fear that what Sec. of State John Kerry and his fellow negotiators see as a stepping stone agreement. It purportedly buys time for further negotiations that might lead to a more comprehensive agreement, will become a pause in which sanctions are lifted but only Iran benefits because it retains its nuclear program. A pause that, in time, may be irreversible except by military means.

They see the US as having negotiated from a position of weakness and not strength, coupled by a failure to recognize that Iran sees the US and the West as the “Great Satan,” not Israel.

Those defending the negotiations and the new agreement see it as the ‘least-worse’ out a bad set of alternatives where a continuation of the status quo will inevitably lead to war. The same might be said about the recent agreement on Syria.

For many at the Forum the dominant narrative is one of US decline in both absolute and relative terms. The US defence budget has been axed with little prospect that the spigot in Washington’s bruising budget wars will be turned on any time soon. But even if you have to do more with less — and use smarts instead of your brawn — there is also an acute sense of unease about Washington’s lack of strategic direction and its failure to lead.

Many also worry that the retraction of America from the world, but especially in the Middle East, is creating a strategic void that others — the Russians, in particular — are rushing to fill, with adverse consequences for regional stability and the key interests of Western allies and friends.

The antics of President Hamid Karzai over the security agreement which would enable a continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan underscore the fading influence of America even where its sacrifice in blood and treasure has been substantial.

But don’t look for leadership from any of world’s other Western democracies. Europe is still too mired in is own economic mess and internal difficulties to be a major player on the world stage even though some countries, like France, are occasionally prepared to step up to the plate to deal with problems in their former colonies like Mali or put their foot on the brake on nuclear talks with Iran because they fear that the West is conceding too much without getting much in return.

The one piece of good news is that, in spite of all the talk about rebalancing in the Pacific with the rise of China and its flexing of military muscle in the China Sea as it asserts its inflated territorial claims, there is more of a sense that we are simply seeing a return to traditional great power politics.

The reason for that is China’s embrace of capitalism and deep integration with the global economy where it has more to lose than gain from going to war with its adversaries. And China’s domestic challenges are growing, not shrinking, thus diminishing the threat of global adventurism.

However, reason and good judgment may not prevail if there is a crisis. In a neighbourhood where defence spending is on a rapid upswing, old animosities die hard, and resurgent nationalism runs rampant, matters could foreseeably get out of hand.

Another piece of good news coming out of the Forum is that Western values have not completely lost their allure.

Notwithstanding all of the talk about the global attractions of an Asian model of “authoritarian capitalism,” the reality is that China and world’s other dictatorial regimes are confronting their own versions of the “Arab Spring” as their own publics seek an end to dictatorship, greater respect for human rights and freedom of expression, and opportunities for political participation. On the street and because of the Internet, the Jeffersonian impulse runs strong.

The bigger message coming out of the Forum, however, is that confusion and lack of leadership will come back to haunt it if Western democracies don’t get their collective act together soon. The threats to Western values and interests are not existential, at least not yet, but there are enough snakes and alligators in the global swamp that could well deliver a series of lethal blows from which it would hard to recover.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.