War or Peace? A fundamental choice for Canada

In September 2015, the Angus Reid Institute asked Canadians about their country’s general military priorities. 74% said that ‘Canada should be focused on peacekeeping’, with the other 26% choosing ‘military preparedness’. This is in line with the main tradition of Canada’s peacetime military role, but is somewhat surprising in view of the deep transformation of Canada’s military under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper. Despite ever-increasing demand for personnel for UN operations, Canada currently has some 100 military personnel so deployed.

Master Bombardier Nathan Cousineau (C) of the Canadian Armed Forces smiles after returning from operation ATTENTION at 17 Wing in Winnipeg, Manitoba, January 20, 2014. REUTERS/Lyle Stafford

Until 1996 Canada was a peacekeeping superpower, routinely sending troops and equipment to UN missions, and providing senior officers including force commanders. Canada proposed and led the very first UN peacekeeing operation during the 1956 Suez crisis, winning a Nobel Peace Prize for its architect, Lester B. Pearson. When UN peacekeepers also won the 1988 Nobel Peace Prize, this was seen as a fresh source of pride for the Canadian military, and Canadians were leading members of the huge expansion of peacekeeping operations in the 1990s, led by Kofi Annan: which ended in failure. One of the disasters that marked that failure affected Canadians deeply. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, the commander of UNAMIR, the 1993-94 mission in Rwanda, was forced to stand by and watch the massacres in the streets, prevented by his mandate from intervening. The mission in former Yugoslavia, UNPROFOR, also went badly wrong, and as part of the international collapse of confidence, Canada suddenly stopped providing troops in any numbers for UN missions.
The world entered a new phase of military confrontation with 9/11 and the subsequent American-inspired operations in Afghanistan and then Iraq. Canada found a new path to international cooperation, above all by supporting the American-led coalition operations against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Ten years in Afghanistan transformed the Canadian army, something best explained by the officer named as ‘Chief of Transformation’ in 2010, and a veteran of peacekeeping in Croatia, Lt. Gen. Andrew Leslie.
Speaking on Canadian TV, he accepts that the primary role of Canadian arms has always been ‘to protect the weak and the innocent.’ Even in the context of the Afghan coalition operation, Canada went in with a role of ‘enhanced peacekeeping… separating the warlords’, but this role was changed by a ‘forcing function of blood: the blood shed by those extraordinary young Canadians who sacrificed all, especially in the period of 2006-2010.’ The experience of taking casualties during the Afghan campaign changed the Canadian military in its training, equipment and doctrine, until, in the view of many of its officers and also many Conservative politicians, it was no longer a provider of international peacekeepers but, in the words of Gen. Leslie, ‘superbly equipped, one of the best small armies in the world.’
However, the coalition operation in Afghanistan – let alone the wider American-led efforts in the Arab world, in which Canada has not played an important role – has not been much of a success, and it is hard to see how anyone can describe these operations as advancing the cause of peace. Does Canada want to stay on board the merry-go-round of war as it spins faster and faster? Not really. Even Harper’s militaristic interpretation of Canada’s policy stopped short of taking on ISIS on the ground, and Canada’s contribution is limited to low-risk air operations and a few symbolic assets.
So is the tide turning again? Gen. Leslie, architect of much of the technical change in the Canadian military, has now joined the new Liberal government, and provides advice to Justin Trudeau, who has promised to take Canada back into peacekeeping.
There are some technical challenges with this – the Conservatives withdrew funding and thus closed down the Lester B. Pearson Centre, the world’s leading peacekeeping institute, in 2013, and inside the military training would need to be changed to get back up to speed for today’s peacekeeping operations – but the public clearly still supports a humanitarian role for the military, and the new, tougher and combat-hardened army would be an extraordinary asset for an international peacekeeping structure that has some serious problems.
The UN pays $1028 per month per person for peacekeepers. This fact alone is enough to create a division between rich and poor countries. For Canada or the Scandinavian countries, this is a reasonable way of financing the operations, so the soldiers and civilian staff can get paid as normal. For poor countries – the leading providers of UN personnel are currently Bangladesh and Pakistan – things are very different. The basic pay of a Bangladeshi sainik (the lowest rank) is 4500 taka, which is 56 dollars per month. A captain makes about three times that. So participating in UN operations is a viable money-making enterprise. In a perfect world, the large amounts of money paid to national ministries of defence by the UN would all be spent on peacekeeping-related activities. But whatever really happens to the money, the soldiers certainly don’t get to see it.
This has led to a general degradation in the motivation of UN personnel, with a corresponding loss in quality for operations. A rich-world peacekeeper has volunteered for a mission he believes in; for a poor-world peacekeeper, it is just a chance to get shot at. Morale is also damaged by persistent cases of rape and assault by UN personnel, mostly but not exclusively from third-world armies.
So a tougher, smarter UN peacekeeping corps, with Canada returning to its leading role, looks like a good idea. Conservative critics in Canada ridicule the idea, asking if ISIS are likely to respect blue helmets on the ground; but this is not really the point. A better example of the need for rich-country participation in peacekeeping is provided by the Central African Republic, where the risk of complete breakdown into civil war and ethnic conflict has been prevented by the international presence, led in this case by France. France in fact intervened alone in its former colony, but this made it possible to deploy MINUSCA, which has concentrated not just on stopping conflict, but on a range of positive activities in support of justice and democracy, plus infrastructure repair and provision. These are all missions that Canada can do in its sleep, and one particular thing that only rich countries can provide is helicopters. The UN mission in the CAR has been dogged with cases of abuse, and last August the Senegalese head of mission resigned, taking responsibility for alleged cases of rape and murder by soldiers from Cameroon and Rwanda.
The larger question facing Canada is not one of military technique, but a moral and political one to do with the role of a rich-world military power in the 21st century. For fifteen years, Canada has found itself involved in the American plan to make peace through war, mainly through its operations in Afghanistan, but as part of a larger campaign that has led to the collapse of Iraq, Libya and Syria and the creation of the jihadi monster. Everyone knows that this has not worked, and even the United States has now declared that it will support the United Nations in its military operations (though with money and equipment rather than troops). The Canadian population has suddenly swung behind Justin Trudeau, and while it is not going to solve the problem of what to do about the Middle East, Trudeau’s proposal for the return of Canada’s armed forces to international peacekeeping operations would be welcomed by all.
The matter is being debated in Parliament today.

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