Peacekeepers: How Canadians Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Treading Water

“I believe in peacekeeping, not policing.”

The above words, made famous by Molson Breweries, resonate with Canadians. For nearly half a century, they have informed our military policy, our smug sense of superiority to Americans and our unwavering belief in our international significance. The image of Canadians standing morally resolute before warring factions and imperious allies, engendering stability by their mere presence, is definitely appealing. But the ubiquitous Canadian belief that our peacekeeping efforts are making our nation conspicuous on the international stage has been used by successive political elites as a Trojan horse: By passionately invoking our national ‘calling’ as international peacekeepers, politicians have inhibited debate about numerous policies and decisions that have harmed our relationship with the United States, harmed our armed forces, and harmed our ability to realize the very goals we purportedly seek to achieve through our peacekeeping efforts. Ultimately, our self-styled identity as global peacekeepers has accomplished only creeping complacency in Canada. Canada is now a nation of peacekeepers, seeking to protect what we perceive to be our unique contribution to the world by doing what is minimally required of us. Lamentably, given the impoverishment of our military, this is now often the limit of our capabilities.

In the interests of our nation, and in order to truly influence global affairs, we must do more than simply try to keep pace with the myths we tell ourselves about Canada’s place in the world. First, we need to ensure that our goals, whatever we might deem them to be, dictate our deployments and investments, rather than our fear of losing our (largely fictitious) reputation as the world’s most prolific wearers of blue helmets. Acting out of this fear has produced policies and decisions that are confusing, contradictory, and counter-productive. Second, as a nation, let us revisit the character of Pearsonian foreign policy. In this way, we might avoid making pro forma decisions predicated upon an erroneous recollection of the character of Canadian foreign policy during our ‘golden age’ in the wake of the Suez Canal Crisis. We might, indeed, come to appreciate that Canada’s peacekeeping efforts are most effective when coupled with a value-driven foreign policy, and a resolve to do some policing when necessary. Pearson himself did not believe that a commitment to human security should determine, or even primarily condition, Canada’s troop deployments, and he certainly didn’t believe that only the United Nations could assure the security of human beings. Moreover, he certainly wasn’t motivated, in formulating the notion of a ‘peacekeeping’ force, by the nihilism that now seems to prevail when Canadian troops pin a blue flag to their lapel; a nihilism that views the cessation of open hostilities as the sole goal of peacekeeping. Finally, once we’ve come to appreciate that mythical perceptions of our importance, and mythical histories, ought not to condition our foreign policy, we might once again honestly appraise, on a situation-by-situation basis, which organization and allies are best suited to help us achieve our goals. Ultimately, by ending our fawning devotion to those organizations to which we’ve ceded our moral authority, we might be able not only to achieve real good in the world, but also reform those same dysfunctional institutions.

Deconstructing Myths

Our basic problem, when it comes to foreign policy, is that Canadians are deeply schizophrenic. We simultaneously want the United States to look upon us as their most critical ally, the community of nations to view us as the best intermediary for dealing with our superpower neighbour, the world to view us as a beacon of morality, and of course, we want to be viewed as the champion of the United Nations through our peacekeeping efforts. While all of these goals are reasonable – even laudable – our problem is that we are so enamoured of the thought of being seen as all of the foregoing, at all times, that with each foreign policy decision we take, we attempt to achieve all of these things, and wind up achieving only confusion.

My colleague Jennifer Welsh (2004) offers an excellent example of this tendency in examining Canada’s decision to refrain from participating in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.[2] As she discusses, there was never a question of whether Canada could make a strong military commitment to the American-led attack on the regime of Saddam Hussein, given the state of the our armed forces, and with more Canadian troops being seconded to the stabilization force in Afghanistan. What the United States truly wanted from Canada was legitimacy for its use of force in Iraq. Ultimately, Canadians were inclined, out of concern for our political and economic relationship with the United States, to give them that legitimacy, as was confirmed by Ipsos-Reid polling in March 2003. However, at the United Nations, where the United States sought authority for an invasion of Iraq, countless nations expressed indignation at the fact that the United States felt itself unilaterally able to topple Hussein should the ‘diplomatic track’ fail. Canadians, concerned for the reputation of an institution that they believed they could disproportionately influence (grace of our peacekeeping efforts), felt obliged to side with these nations and condemn unilateral action against Iraq.

Welsh argues, correctly, that a nation finding several of its interests at loggerheads is not a unique, or even a rare, situation. However, rather than making a difficult decision and accepting the consequences, Canada instead chose a strategy that sought to minimize the damage that might be done to any of our cherished myths about ourselves. First, then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien sought to maintain Canada’s moral authority by publicly proclaiming that “not everyone around the world is prepared to take the word of the United States on faith”.[3] Then, consistent with our self-perception as the model member of the United Nations, Canada announced that it would not participate in the invasion of Iraq without a war-authorizing Security Council resolution. There was no mention whatsoever in this announcement of whether the government of Canada felt that the use of military force against Iraq was warranted, which by itself demonstrates that we have perversely divorced ends from means in our foreign policy. Subsequently, seeking to maintain our reputation as an ‘honest broker’ between America and the world, Canadian diplomats attempted to start a ‘Canada’ round of diplomacy at the United Nations. The focus of their efforts was Security Council Resolution 1441 (which dealt with Iraqi compliance with international conventions regarding weapons of mass destruction), which they attempted to rework in order to provide a measure of legitimacy for the pending American invasion. This futile effort served simply to confuse the members of the United Nations, who found themselves wondering precisely what Canada wanted, beyond some measure of significance in the process. Most confusing, however, was the manner by which Canada tried to say ‘no’ to the United States, while trying to maintain the illusion that we were still their most trusted friend. When the House of Commons met in the wake of the diplomatic failure at the United Nations, Chrétien publicly disapproved of the unilateral actions of the Bush administration, while simultaneously wishing the United States military well, and expressing the hope that it would accomplish its mission “as quickly as possible with the fewest casualties”.[4] This statement ultimately touched off three of the most nonsensical days in the history of Canadian government: First, then Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham publicly stated that Canada would welcome the fall of Saddam Hussein, followed almost immediately by Chrétien rushing to a podium to declare that his administration disapproved of the goal of regime change. Then, after some additional squabbling, a motion was tabled in Parliament declaring Canada’s support for an American victory. Not surprisingly, American political elites were not charmed by these confused messages, and did not respond, either officially or privately, with gratitude. Rather, many prominent Americans, including Ambassador Celluci, mused publicly that if Canada had made a decision as to its preferred outcome in Iraq, that it was ludicrous to refuse to commit troops to that end on account of devotion to the United Nations.

In the final analysis, during the weeks leading up to the American-led invasion of Iraq, Canada demonstrated that it was more concerned in believing itself significant than in achieving substance. In an effort to convince ourselves that our preferred multilateral institution could change the course of global affairs, we took a principled stand that was, confusingly, not predicated on any decision vis-à-vis our preferred outcome for Iraqis. At the same time, in an attempt to convince ourselves that we could still be a bridge between the United States and the world, we embarked on an ill-conceived attempt to barter at the United Nations, that was ultimately confusing to our friends and foes alike, and in an attempt to convince ourselves that we were still a critical ally of the United States, we wished them well, and facilitated their invasion by augmenting our contribution to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, which allowed for the removal of additional American troops to Iraq. But combined with condemnatory statements made about the invasion, this certainly didn’t mark us out as worthy of reward when it came time to tender infrastructure contracts in Iraq. In short, by frenetically trying to fulfill all of the roles that we envisage ourselves playing at the same time, we weakened our ability to successfully fulfill any of these roles. Our plan, seemingly, at the end of the day, was to tread water and hope desperately that, when we woke up the day after shock and awe, we would be able to tell each other the same myths about our global importance.

This pattern is discernable in countless other decisions made by Canada in the past ten years: We pouted in a corner, rather than criticize or contradict the United Nations, when General Dallaire discovered an active genocide in Rwanda, and we were quiescent about the terrorist activity of Hamas for years, holding out hope that we might be called upon to serve as a mediator between the Arab League and Israel before the General Assembly. Disturbingly, as Canadians, we seem collectively capable of rationalizing an ineffective foreign policy based entirely on servicing our egos, and it starts with a mistaken belief in our ability to be uniquely devoted to the fulfillment of non-combat roles, while maintaining the respect of nations.

Reconstructing History

Perhaps the best way to beget the process of designing a foreign policy that services values and interests, and not egos, is to honestly revisit the ‘golden age’ of Canadian diplomacy. After all, our collective ability to rationalize our current water-treading is our belief that, once upon a time, Canada played a prominent role in world affairs, through a series of non-combat deployments. The problem, as prominent Canadian historian J.L. Granatstein has pointed out, is that this recollection of our foreign policy in the 1950s is deeply flawed. Granatstein has drawn attention to four truths about Pearsonian diplomacy that Canadians would do well to remember.

First, it was never Pearson’s intention for the United Nations to be dispassionate about the root causes of armed hostilities. As a Canadian diplomat, Pearson played a major role in the creation of the United Nations charter, lobbying vigorously for provisions that would condemn aggressors.[5] We tend to forget, when considering the Suez Canal Crisis, that while Pearson did propose that a non-combat UN force stabilize boundaries until a political resolution could be negotiated, he concurrently condemned the United Kingdom and France for their invasion of Egypt. In reality, it was the political pressure brought to bear upon the United Kingdom and France by Canada, Australia, and the United States, that ultimately brought the stand off to an end. Moreover, our administration unequivocally opposed the aggression of the United Kingdom despite the fact that, at the time, the United Kingdom was arguably our most important ally; they did not try to walk a middle line between condemning an ally and supporting them, out of fear of what it would do to our friendship. Ultimately, we successfully resolved the conflict, and merited the Nobel Peace Prize, because we ensured human security in the short term, but stood resolute in defence of our values, and helped force the ‘correct’ resolution to the crisis.

Second, as the promiscuous usage of vetos at the Security Council paralyzed the United Nations during the early years of the Cold War, Pearson was a vocal supporter of the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). His premise was that, if the United Nations could not guarantee peace, security, and the furthering of human liberty, then western democracies would have to achieve that task.[6] In short, he was unafraid of unabashedly abandoning dysfunctional institutions, and striking smaller multilateral alliances in order to help Canada protect its interests and further its values. In short, he granted no body or organization a monopoly on Canada’s time and effort.

Third, when Pearson became Foreign Affairs Minister in the St. Laurent Government, he worked hard at Cabinet to ensure that Canada was living up to its commitments to the western world, and he worked to strengthen the defence relationship between Canada and the United States. By 1955, he had successfully lobbied for the national defence budget to be raised to 7% of the Gross Domestic Product, so that Canada might project its power anywhere in the world. On his watch, Canada sent over 10,000 soldiers (a force approximately one-quarter of the size of the current Canadian Armed Forces) to Europe in defence of democracy.[7] Additionally, he supported the construction of radar warning lines in the Canadian north, and agitated for the harmonization of our national air defence policy with that of the USA via the North American Air Defence Agreement. Importantly, he did this not to ingratiate us to the United States in a sycophantic way, but because he viewed the Cold War as a fight between the forces of liberty and those of totalitarianism, and he knew which side Canada ought to stand with.

Finally, with the fortuitous boycott of the Security Council by the Soviet Union during the debate about the invasion of South Korea, Pearson was instrumental in pushing through the resolution which created the UN force to intervene on behalf of South Korea. Subsequently, he offered a brigade group of Canadian soldiers, naval ships, and air transports to the group; Canadians wearing blue helmets who were engaged in policing rather than simple peacekeeping.[8] The point of all of the foregoing is that Pearson was no pacifist. He knew that for Canada to ‘punch above its weight’ in international affairs, it needed to be able to use ‘hard’ power, it needed to use alliances that were situationally-appropriate, and it needed to buttress its foreign policy with a clearly articulated statement of values. Most importantly, while Pearson was committed to human security, he knew that a commitment to human security alone was an impoverished foreign agenda. Accordingly, he supported furthering those regimes committed to liberty, freedom, and tolerance, and was opposed, in all instances, to naked aggression. These values often came into conflict, but even when they did, debate about our preferred ends always dictated our means.

Far too often these days, Canada seems unconcerned with ends, and overly concerned with our preferred means of participating in international affairs. Ironically, our politicians invoke the memory of Lester Pearson as they argue that our nation ought to view our prominent involvement in every non-combat force deployed by the United Nations as a national aim. Even though we can sense, as a nation, that this strategy is not bringing notoriety to Canada, our false perception of our history induces us to stay the course, as we are convinced that this strategy is the only winning one we’ve ever conceived. Cynically, our political leaders abet this impression, knowing full well that it is easier to maintain a defence budget predicated on a limited need to periodically sojourn with the United Nations. In the final analysis, if Canada decides that regular participation in United Nations missions is all we’re able to afford, all the risk that we’re able to stomach, or all the good we’re prepared to do for the world, then so be it. But let’s not pretend that the ghost of Lester Pearson smiles at our efforts, or that if only ever conflict in the world was mediated by a non-combat Canadian force, that the world would be bereft of conflict. Lest we forget that United Nations peacekeeping missions have proven uniquely unsuccessful at ending long-term conflicts.[9]

Setting A New Pace

Let us do more than believe in peacekeeping. More importantly, let us not view the task of peacekeeping as our best hope of being “in the room” when important decision are being made. Instead, let us set about rebuilding the Canadian military, even if we envisage it doing little more than carrying sandbags around African villages. The possession of projectable military power, even if it is never deployed, would allow us greater license to dictate, amongst other things, the disposition of those United Nations missions we choose to participate in. Let us then have an honest public debate about the type of values we wish to transmit to the world, be they democracy, capitalism, multiculturalism, or a meaningful human security predicated upon a minimal social security provision. Then, let us honestly appraise the value of all bodies and organizations we belong to, and re-consider how best to achieve this mission.

Subsequently, with these elements in place, let us do what we have always done on the world stage: innovate. For that is truly the Canadian legacy to the world. Be it the creation of a multinational body of adjudication, or the creation of special military force capable of forestalling conflict, or the creation of new alliances between states and non-government organizations to ban indiscriminate weapons of war, we have always been at our best when, from a position of power, we seek new partnerships and new answers to old problems that plague us. The current mode of Canadian foreign policy, which sees us unflinchingly devoted to a practice that works only superficially without concomitant ‘hard’ power, is made all the more sad given this history.

Let’s work formally with international financial institutions and other nations to end terrorist transmission belts, so many of which are located right here in Canada. Let’s work with the G8 to develop a “rapid reaction” force, capable of being deployed to the site of a genocide (as defined by the members, not the United Nations) within 48 hours of a determination being made. Let’s revisit the concept of a peace-making force, made up of engineers and administrators, who can deploy alongside peacekeepers.

Let’s do anything but continue to do what we’ve always done, purely because we’ve always done it, and because it feeds the national ego.

[1] The Canadian Gospel According to Molson Breweries. April, 2000.
[2] Jennifer Welsh. At Home in the World: Canada’s Global Vision for the 21st Century. (Toronto, Harper: 2004) P. 38.
[3] “Canada Two-Faced? It All Depends” Globe and Mail. March 29,2003.
[4] Jennifer Welsh. At Home in the World: Canada’s Global Vision for the 21st Century. (Toronto, Harper: 2004) P. 39.
[5] J.L. Granatstein. “Mike Pearson’s True Heir: Stephen Harper” National Post. February 2, 2008.
[6] J.L. Granatstein. “Mike Pearson’s True Heir: Stephen Harper” National Post. February 2, 2008.
[7] J.L. Granatstein. “Mike Pearson’s True Heir: Stephen Harper” National Post. February 2, 2008.
[8] J.L. Granatstein. “Mike Pearson’s True Heir: Stephen Harper” National Post. February 2, 2008.

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