Derek Burney was Canada's ambassador to the United States from 1989-93. Fen Osler Hampson is a distinguished fellow and director of global security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and chancellor's professor at Carleton University.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has injected a much-needed note of restraint into the federal government's vocabulary on peacekeeping and future action, with his observation that the world has changed and there is little peace to keep in many of the globe's hot conflict zones. He is wise to dispel old peacekeeping myths. Nostalgia is seldom a wellspring for sensible policy.
Mr. Sajjan is also prudent to undertake his own fact-finding mission to Africa to see first-hand what the actual challenges are before deciding to commit Canada to a new "peace operations" mission.
Nevertheless, his powers of observation won't answer the really tough political questions: What are we trying to do, and why? (Pursuit of a seat on the UN Security Council should not be the defining criteria.) Is the mandate clear and achievable? Do we have reliable partners in both the mission and on the ground in the zone of conflict?
Whatever the government decides to do, the ghosts of Canada's ill-fated mission to Somalia (1992-93), of our woefully underresourced peacekeepers in Rwanda (1993-96) and our 11 long years in Afghanistan, for which we were, initially, ill-equipped and inexperienced, will haunt the government.
Neither good intentions nor lofty principles will sustain public support for very long, as former prime minister Stephen Harper discovered in Afghanistan, especially if there are casualties and uncontrollable mission creep. The Canadian public has grown weary and cynical about foreign entanglements in countries where conflict is endemic and corrupt elites and warlords are not serious about coming to the negotiating table.
Nor should Canada expect much of a payoff from the Americans or our other NATO allies for stepping up to the plate. Canada barely got a mention from President Barack Obama for our major contribution to fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. He certainly didn't cut us any slack on matters that were vital to our own national interests, such as trade or energy.
Whatever the government decides to do should be informed less by a desire for Washington's or the UN's approbation than a hard-headed calculation of Canada's own national interest.
We should also be concerned about the competence of those who are in charge. The UN mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been accused of major human-rights abuses by its personnel. The charges involve sexual abuse of minors, including allegations of rape and forced prostitution. UN peacekeepers in the DRC have also been faulted for being "tourists in helicopters" for failing to avert attacks on civilians.
If we were to participate, we would find ourselves doing more than peacekeeping and it is difficult to see how a modest deployment of Canadian troops could put that mission back on the rails. We would almost certainly want to look carefully at its mandate and leadership. And we won't win any popularity contests if we have to become the guardian of the guardians in that highly criticized mission.
There are many perils and pitfalls to be avoided. Mr. Sajjan should pay careful attention to the lessons of former Canadian general Roméo Dallaire's experience leading the UN mission in Rwanda – a mission paralyzed by an inadequate mandate and lack of proper staffing and resources.
There are also important lessons from Somalia and behaviour of Canadian troops who committed human-rights abuses because they were inadequately trained for a mission that presented many cultural and operational challenges.
As graphically described by former United Nations assistant secretary-general Anthony Banbury in an article in The New York Times, the problems of corruption and malfeasance by the UN itself loom large in any contemporary peace operation. Canada might do better to join our French ally in Mali, which is operating alongside the UN stabilization mission there, as France requested of us in 2013.
Whatever the government decides to do, security should be the watchword, not nebulous, nostalgic notions of peacekeeping of a bygone era, which are now seen as more myth than reality.