Many Canadians look forward to the day this country can leave the war in Afghanistan behind and return to the softer challenges of blue-helmeted peacekeeping.

There is still a dogged belief that UN-sponsored peacekeeping, a term introduced by then secretary of state for external affairs Lester Pearson in 1956, is our true national vocation.

In 1990, fully 10 per cent of all UN missions were staffed by Canadians and the image of blue-helmeted Canadian soldiers policing the world's flashpoints — from Cyprus and Sinai to Kashmir — became almost as iconic as the beaver.

But those days are gone. It's time to face the harsh reality.

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United Nations peacekeepers patrol in territory held by Laurent Nkunda's rebel movement near Rutshuru, 80 kilometres north of Goma, in eastern Congo in November 2008. (Jerome Delay/Associated Press)

Canada has avoided traditional peacekeeping missions in all but a very few and rather minor instances for more than a decade now precisely because the Pearsonian model of soldiers acting as diplomats and friendly neighbourhood referees is almost impossible to replicate in this far more chaotic era.

The lines between internal disputes and war have becoming blurred to the point where factions and armed movements rather than national states now dominate conflict zones.

In these mash-ups, countries flounder, while non-state armies flourish and often several renegade or rebel groups — even criminal armies and now, of course, pirates — compete within the beaten-down body of a damaged nation.

Not for the pros

Peacekeeping as we used to know it is now shunned by most of the developed world.

It may be sad, but it is also true that the better-off nations feel UN missions are increasingly dangerous, underfunded, badly led and difficult to end. Exactly the kind of scenario that professional soldiers don't want anything to do with.

As a result, the top generals in the more advanced armies spend considerable time arguing politicians out of embracing these kinds of humanitarian forays. A case in point: when former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin asked the Canadian Forces to get ready for service in stricken Darfur in Sudan, he ran into a wall of polite but firm military resistance.

That broad resistance to peacekeeping is certainly to become even more pronounced in the wake of the current international recession. In fact, the recession could well prove a fatal blow to many of the 16 UN missions that are already stretched to the limit.

But it is not just the money that is sounding the death knell for peacekeeping in the traditional sense.

Even the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said this month that he wants to significantly reduce UN peacekeeping missions. Why? Because he feels they are an inadequate response to today's conflict.

In fact, he says, "the higher the number of peacekeeping missions, the higher the state of global instability."

Too few and too many

There are currently 112,000 UN-sponsored troops in an odd jumble of peacekeeping forces and they are eating up $8 billion annually in scarce UN funds. That number is too few to fulfill all the duties assigned to them, but too many to be handled safely by the flimsy UN command in New York.

"Absent decisive action at this time, I'm afraid we face the real prospect of our existing system unravelling," Ban says.

Canadians who seek a return to strict peacekeeping in low-conflict areas should realize that outright defeatism hangs over UN headquarters these days when talk turns to blue-helmet missions.  

No less a figure that Alain Le Roy, the head of UN peacekeeping, warns that the desperately outnumbered Sudan and Congo missions, for example, cannot take much more hardship.

Unkept promises

Two years ago, the Security Council approved 26,000 UN and African Union troops for a joint peacekeeping force in the troubled Darfur region of Sudan. Today, after 200,000 civilians have been killed, only 15,000 poorly equipped soldiers have shown up, mainly African.

The force has pleaded for critically important helicopters to no avail. Last month a promise of help came from two sources: actor George Clooney who gave $5 million of his own money and one country — Ethiopia — that offered five. Something surely is wrong with this picture.

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Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, wearing the blue cap in Rwanda in 1993 (Canadian Press)

Just to the south, a slightly larger UN force of 16,500 is adrift on the dangerous currents of the Democratic Republic of Congo where a combined animosity among eight neighbouring countries plus 20 armed groups has led to the deaths of up to five million people.

After three weeks of trying to run a skeleton UN force there, its Spanish commander abruptly resigned last winter, claiming national units refused even to move without approval of their own top officers.

And that, he told Spanish media, was just one part of the nightmare. "There was no assessment of the risks and threats. Security plans had to be revised. There was no plan for intelligence gathering and no reserves."

In other words, no improvement at all since then Canadian general Romeo Dallaire was similarly set adrift during the Rwanda genocide in 1993/94.

The big stick

Many UN contingents are notorious for arriving without equipment or the means to pay their soldiers, a situation that has only increased as rich nations have largely abandoned these missions.

In terms of blue helmets, Pakistan is now the world's lead peacekeeper, followed by Bangladesh, India, Nigeria and Nepal. Also in this top group are such impoverished nations as Rwanda, Ghana and Ethiopia.

Some of these contingents are often very fine soldiers. Still, this is not a healthy balance of countries or a sign of confidence in the UN when the weakest are asked to carry the most onerous load.

Meanwhile desertion from peacekeeping ranks continues. Poland just announced the economic crisis is forcing it to pull its troops out of Chad, Lebanon and the Golan Heights.

So what is to be done? The secretary general is now talking about the urgent need for a "new multilateralism" and has told the UN that 2009 will be the make or break year.

By this term he appears to be thinking of limiting the peacekeeping model in order to embark upon new "alliances of the willing," which would be designed to fit a particular crisis region and have the necessary authority and resources to make its presence felt.

Examples of this would seem to be the UN- and NATO-led incursions into the Balkans in the '90s and Afghanistan today (not a fortunate example as yet).

Under this model, future non-UN alliances would be forged with UN blessing only. (Haiti, for example, might be better helped with a Western hemisphere force of mainly police and civilian units from North and South America.)

Above all, the top levels at the UN are convinced that countries are finally learning the lesson that obscure little peace missions are no substitute for immediately capping conflict in our time.

The way to do that, they seem to be saying, is through direct and urgent pressure from the important players who would be ready to marshal their powers — economic, diplomatic and military if necessary — to force peace rather than to posture endlessly about it.