Justin Trudeau is remaking Canada's military in a Liberal image. But it remains an unfocused picture. If Canadians think he can bring back the past of Canadian peacekeeping, they have the wrong impression.
On Wednesday, Mr. Trudeau's Liberals will open a debate in Parliament on the revamping of the military mission against Islamic State. And when United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Ottawa Friday, Mr. Trudeau delivered a reminder that he has promised to revamp the overall mission of the military, and bring the Canadian Forces back to UN peacekeeping.
Together, it presents an image of a military that will be less warrior and more peacekeeper, less bombing and more blue beret.
But Mr. Trudeau's disjointed reasoning for withdrawing CF-18s from air strikes in Iraq and Syria makes it hard to tell what his view of the military's role really is. And reaching back to the iconic peacekeeping of the past presents an expectation that will clash with reality.
"One of the problems is that peacekeeping is a lot more kinetic or violent than it used to be," said Stephen Saideman, a Carleton University professor and author of Adapting in the Dust: Lessons Learned from Canada's War in Afghanistan. Spoilers who seek to disrupt peacekeepers' missions have learned one way is to shoot at them. There's often not much peace to keep.
Part of Mr. Trudeau's reach for peacekeeping is political myth-making, playing on a popular Liberal legacy in peacekeeping.
His predecessor, Stephen Harper, also tried to alter the image of the military, playing down peacekeeping and stressing combat capabilities. He made a show of refunding the military and declared Canada a stalwart ally ready to fight. The image stuck even after Mr. Harper withdrew troops from Afghanistan and tightened defence budgets.
Whatever the Liberals say now, drawing a contrast with Mr. Harper's image was the reason that Mr. Trudeau, in opposition, opposed sending CF-18s to bomb Islamic State. His other arguments, such as insisting other contributions could be more effective, were accessories to his main message that Mr. Harper was a warmonger, and he was not.
Now he's trying to square that position with governing. He must wrestle myths, too. Mr. Harper was never all-in against Islamic State: the CF-18s were a modest contribution to a low-risk campaign. Still, Mr. Trudeau's attitude to combat needs explaining.
So does his promise to bring Canada back to peacekeeping. That can be a useful contribution to global security – U.S. President Barack Obama asked countries to step up. And it's popular. An Angus Reid Institute survey taken last fall found 74 per cent felt peacekeeping should be the military's priority – just 26 per cent chose preparing for combat.
But most modern peacekeeping isn't like guarding the line in Cyprus, as Canadians once did. The Liberals complained that Canada is now far down the list of peacekeeper contributors, with just over a hundred deployed. But Canada won't rise high up that list any time soon. Bangladesh tops it now, alongside other developing countries. The UN pays $1,028 (U.S.) a month per soldier – decent revenue to poorer countries with large armies.
UN missions don't need thousands and thousands of Canadians. "What is needed is quality, not quantity," said Walter Dorn, a peacekeeping expert at the Royal Military College.
To their credit, the Liberals have recognized some modern needs. Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Ban discussed the need for female police officers to deal with sexual assault in conflict zones, and more francophone officers. The Liberal platform also promised aircraft engineers and peacekeeping training. That's all on Mr. Dorn's list of what is needed.
But it leaves out the pointier stuff. The Netherlands sent 100 special forces troops to the UN mission in Mali. Mr. Dorn thinks the Canadian Forces could provide crucial intelligence and reconnaissance, notably with reconnaissance-equipped Coyote armoured vehicles. The UN might even seek a highly capable battle group, not unlike those sent to Afghanistan.
That's because peacekeepers now face dangerous spoilers in dangerous environments, like the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo. Mr. Dorn sees potential for a UN mission in chaotic Libya. To Canadians, that might seem more like Afghanistan than Cyprus. It's still hard to see that reality fitting Mr. Trudeau's image of the military.