General John Hyten, the man in charge of the US’s strategic nuclear weapons, seemed otherwise relaxed: "I provide advice to the President. He'll tell me what to do, and if it's illegal, guess what's going to happen? I'm gonna say, 'Mr. President, that's illegal.' Guess what he's going to do? He's going to say, 'What would be legal?' And we'll come up with options of a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is, and that's the way it works." Hyten probably didn’t realise it there and then but his statement sent shockwaves throughout international media. Within the hour, his statement was in global media headlines: “U.S. nuclear commander says he would resist 'illegal' order from Trump”.

Hyten is just one of dozens of global geopolitical luminaries who meet to talk geopolitics on the austere, but incredibly welcoming Canadian island. I was lucky to be in attendance for the fourth time. This is what I heard and saw:

Russia continues to cast a long and dark shadow over Europe. These were the thoughts of Ukraine’s foreign minister and Poland’s defence minister, both of whom deal with this challenging reality on an ongoing basis. Russia’s attempts to influence election outcomes and geopolitical realities in Europe and the Middle East will continue unless challenged in a unified and coherent manner. Panelists discussed what a post-Putin Russia was likely to look like, though that may mean waiting at until 2024, at least. They were also critical of Russia’s "cyber war" with the West and “Putin’s confrontational stance" in Georgia and Ukraine.  

China's trade policy is becoming increasingly weaponised. The panellists on the “One Belt One Road” discussion interpreted President Xi Jinping's increasingly outward-looking posture through an economic lens. There was a clear consensus that the US-EU's inward looking trade/foreign policies have emboldened China's senior leadership to take a larger role in global affairs and international trade.

Then to the latest frontier in geopolitics: outer space. Aside from looking after nuclear weapons, Hyten is also the US’s military space guru. Space, Hyten said, will soon be just "another medium of military activity", like ships at sea or planes in the air. “Star Wars” isn’t likely in the near future, but Hyten admitted that the US military is currently developing some “pretty cool gadgets and equipment”. For the time being, the biggest threats to human activity in space are the thousands of pieces of space junk that prevent satellites and space stations from operating and moving freely. Other panellists emphasised the need for states to come together quickly to form common normative rules and laws on the use of space to prevent crises.  

Eric Schmidt, the head of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), then explained the pace at which tech companies are developing AI, and the implications this would potentially have for international affairs in the coming decades. 

Hyten’s remarks on the president and following orders came in response to an audience question on North Korea. As rhetoric between North Korea, Iran and the US escalates, Hyten and other panellists emphasised the importance of dialogue to de-escalate. The general also explained that major infrastructure and equipment upgrades were needed for the US to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent.  

As an aside – US military officers feel like they have become a solitary "voice of reason" in the US government under President Trump. That frustration was expressed in almost all statements made by the dozen or so generals present at the forum.  

By the way, the Halifax forum, like Halifax itself, isn’t all about war and bombs. Political officials, Nobel Prize winners and global CEOs like to relax, too. And there was plenty of that around – there’s a bit of jogging and a bit of hobnobbing. What would a Nova Scotia event be like without lobster? A red lobster pin, the forum's mascot, was on every lapel. The lobster service is accompanied by a military marching band during the forum's big gala dinner every year. Watch it here. Steve Clemmons of the Atlantic clearly didn't just eat his lobster:

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