It's so hard to square mythology with reality. While 70 per cent of Canadians consider military peacekeeping a defining characteristic of their country, Canada has turned down so many United Nations' requests to join peacekeeping missions during the past decade that the UN has stopped asking.
In 1991, Canada contributed more than 10 per cent of all peacekeeping troops to the UN. Sixteen years later, its contribution is less than 0.1 per cent.
On this month's fifth anniversary of Canadian troops being sent to Afghanistan and one year after assuming responsibility for the counterinsurgency campaign -- a war by any other name -- in Kandahar province, one of the country's biggest unanswered questions is: What is Canadian military policy? It's certainly not to be the global leader in peacekeeping the country once was.
Little more than a year ago, Colonel Michael Hanrahan, the Canadian Armed Forces' top expert on peacekeeping, was offered the job as chief of staff of the UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations. His Ottawa superiors nixed the idea. There is, in fact, not a single Canadian officer in the UN's peacekeeping headquarters.
The Department of National Defence website touts in glowing terms Canada's support and participation in SHIRBRIG -- the Danish-inspired multinational Standby High Readiness Brigade for United Nations Operations designed to provide rapid deployment of peacekeeping troops for up to six months. In reality, Canada's SHIRBRIG commitment is a will-o'-the-wisp.
Canada invented the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect that the UN accepted in 2005. Since then, successive Liberal and Conservative governments have stood by with their hands pretty much in their pockets while the doctrine glaringly failed its first test: The call for robust and, if necessary, uninvited UN military intervention to halt the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.
The military has been given the money to upgrade its equipment, increase its personnel and enhance its capability. Now, what's it supposed to do? In particular, what's it supposed to do after Afghanistan?
Is it to play deputy sheriff to the U.S. military in hot spots such as Afghanistan, fighting so-called three-block wars few people believe can be won?
Is it to fight terrorism militarily? Or acknowledge that resistance to international terrorism likely comes first and foremost from intelligence and the military should be used for other tasks?
Should it follow a Canada-first policy -- which, as former UN ambassador Paul Heinbecker points out, leads inevitably to the next question: What would the military be defending Canada against? "I don't see a threat myself," he says.
Should it serve Canada's national interests, however those are defined? David Carment of Carleton University's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, suggests the Conservative government has little enthusiasm for a military mission in Africa, but more interest in treating the Caribbean and Latin America -- regions with large diasporas in Canada and considerable Canadian economic involvement -- as a sphere for possible engagement in the event of trouble.
Should it reflect Canadian values and interests in advancing the concept of Responsibility to Protect -- R2P, as it's abbreviated? If so, how does Canada persuade the world to embrace a doctrine that supersedes the principle of sovereignty of states, because Sudan does not want a UN force on its territory?
Or is the problem really as described by Ann Livingstone, director of research for Ottawa's Pearson Peacekeeping Centre: In the wake of the Cold War, where everyone more or less knew the rules and what to do, no one today, including the Americans, has accurately nailed down what the role of their respective militaries should be.
"The hard reality of the complexity of conflict is so significant that our reactions and responses universally are changing," she says. "How do you deal with the intersection of security with development? And how do you deal with the intersection of development and humanitarian assistance, negotiations at the diplomatic level and safety and security? It's another huge conundrum."
The best anyone can do is look at patterns, Dr. Livingstone says. Although, she adds, to predict the future on that basis would be an act of hubris. "We're feeling our way into a new way of thinking . . . and I think acting as responsibly as anyone does in the middle of significant change."
Fen Hampson, director of the Norman Paterson School, notes that, while the world overall is more peaceful since the Cold War ended at the close of the 1980s, significant terrorist attacks have risen steadily, global crime networks have become key players in today's conflicts, more nations are acquiring nuclear weapons and great power rivalries are coming back into fashion (with China and India, for example).
In addition, he says, the conflicts still remaining in the world are becoming more intractable and more prone to escalation, and separatist clashes are on the rise. And while the world needs the United States to maintain international order, the U.S. also threatens it -- it got things horribly wrong in Iraq, Prof. Hampson says -- and it may become isolationist post-Iraq, which would put it in opposition to Canada's tradition of multilateral global involvement.
All of these factors, he says, "reduce the likelihood of coherent and effective international responses to global security challenges.
"In view of the multiple security challenges we now confront, we should be extremely skeptical about arguments that the days of peacekeeping are over and our armed forces are now only in the business of fighting insurgents and targeting terrorists."
Yet several academics who study Canadian military and foreign policy see patterns of anti-UN bias among senior army officers and a preference for operating beside the United States. The anti-UN bias comes from their experience in UN peacekeeping missions of the past, and their U.S. preference is based on top-grade logistics and tactical support that the U.S. military can offer their own troops.
Thus Afghanistan -- a U.S.-led NATO mission authorized by the UN Security Council -- is ideal for them, even though Department of Foreign Affairs officials have been heard talking about the operation as "un-R2P-able," one that can't be won.
One Canadian academic, who asked to speak anonymously because he works for the military, said he had been told confidently by a senior army officer that Canadian troops would never take part in another UN-led operation. But Prof. Roland Paris, a specialist in international security at the University of Ottawa, is less convinced that Canada is deliberately turning away from the UN. He cites previous cycles of troughs in Canada's peacekeeping involvement.
In any event, the patterns seen by Mr. Heinbecker, now director of the Centre for Global Relations, Governance and Policy at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., suggest traditional UN peacekeeping operations are a thing of the past, that they have become more akin to the mission in Afghanistan.
"They are almost all complex missions now. They involve combat. Very often the UN is expected to get involved before the fighting is over. There's very often more than two sides to the fight. In the Congo [where a UN force successfully ended hostilities] at a certain stage there was 12."
Walter Dorn, an academic specialist in security studies at Royal Military College now on sabbatical with the UN, says Canada's military still possesses superb conflict-resolution skills and has enormous expertise in peacekeeping operations. "Yet my fear is that we're rapidly becoming a single-mission military . . . and the UN is being dropped by the wayside."
The difficulty in getting R2P back on track at the UN is sizable, but experts such as Mr. Heinbecker and Prof. Hampson say it lies within Canada's capability -- if the government has the will.
Many poor countries are afraid of it because they think it will be used against them. The U.S. did not help by at one point citing R2P as a rationale for invading Iraq, Mr. Heinbecker said. At the same time, several powerful countries, such as China, don't like it because it might interfere with their interests.
"R2P will be a hard sell," Prof. Hampson says. "And the selling gets harder post-Iraq. Darfur meets the test of R2P, it meets all the benchmarks, and it may make Afghanistan look like a picnic. No one wants to engage in what's becoming a regional conflict. No regional actor is willing to take the lead. It underscores the need for UN leadership."
Says Mr. Heinbecker: "I'm not sure if Canada could lead a Darfur mission. Although Hillier [General Rick Hillier, Chief of the Defence Staff]could lead anything."
Canada's contribution to United Nations peacekeeping operations around the world has slipped dramatically since 1991.
Canada's contribution to UN peacekeeping*
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*As of Jan. 31, 2007
Total military personnel on UN peacekeeping operations
Jan., 2007: 72,784, Canada's contribution: 56 (0.077%)
Aug., 1991: 10,801, Canada's contribution: 1,149 (10.6%)