Brian Stewart: Time for Canada to get back to peacekeeping

We have a well-trained army, a young officer corps and no Afghan-style mission on the horizon. Maybe it is time to rethink our phobia about the UN and get back to what we were once so good at, Brian Stewart argues.

For years now, the Canadian army has fretted about finding a new role for itself after Afghanistan. Well, that day has arrived and it can no longer dodge the stark post-war questions: What next, and where?

Spare us an eternity of training at home and aiding with floods and ice storms, is a common lament among soldiers who see little that's challenging or career-enhancing ahead.

With little chance of another overseas mission in the foreseeable future, there is little for our 25,500 regular army soldiers and 16,000 land forces reservists to do, and it's not hard for them to read the tea leaves. An inactive army is both easily bored and easily cut at budget time.

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently called for a leaner military "as ready to bring disaster relief as to deliver lethal force," grim images of snow shovels and sandbags surely flashed through many a military mind.

From a command perspective, this is a critical worry for an army that saw both its political clout and domestic popularity soar to remarkable heights over the past decade, even after Canadians soured on the Afghan war itself.

Now all that remains is a little-noticed, short-term training role in Afghanistan.

In Ottawa, the political masters have learned that sending ships and a few aircraft, as we did in the overthrow of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, is a far safer security investment than putting infantry boots on foreign ground.

What's more, the country has had its fill of fighting land wars in far off places. 

But the irony in all this is that Canada — with our military's eager blessing — has ditched the alternative international role our soldiers were long renowned for: peacekeeping.

A dirty word

For more than a decade, Canada's top military officers along with staunchly pro-military politicians and a dedicated handful of academics and journalists, battered and besmirched UN peacekeeping to the point that it became a dirty word uttered with a sneer within the Canadian Armed Forces.

An Italian peacekeeper helps a UN investigator track the source of rocket fire from southern Lebanon in 2011. Is this a job Canadians should be doing? (Mohammad Zaatari / Associated Press)

"The UN itself couldn't run a one-man race to the outhouse," wrote Canada's super-star general Rick Hillier in his memoirs a few years ago. He's not always that polite on this subject.

I know many officers and military writers who share the view that UN peacekeeping doesn't deserve us.

But to me this looks like a case of that old adage "Be careful what you ask for." Or in this case, what you are too proud to ask for.

My guess is that a few big peacekeeping operations in Africa and perhaps even the Middle East won't look so bad to a generation of young soldiers and junior officers who feel Afghanistan prepared them to face the real challenges of the world.

32 soldiers

The irony, however, is that at a time when the UN is making serious strides to reform and expand peacekeeping, Canada, which largely invented the practice in the 1950s, is noticeably absent, and unless Ottawa has a change of heart, will remain so.

Since the late 1990s the pro-military lobby did such a good job bad-mouthing UN operations that both Liberal and Conservative governments have been only too happy to eviscerate our peacekeeping contributions.

The Harper government in particular treats the UN as an irritating irrelevance at best, to the point that we forget a UN operation like peacekeeping is something we used to be pretty good at, and that helped define us as a country.

In fact, more than 100,000 Canadian military personnel have worn the blue armband abroad over the years, usually with great distinction.

In the 1990s, Canada made up 10 per cent of all peacekeeping troops worldwide with as many as 4,000 soldiers serving at any one time in places like Cyprus, Lebanon, the Golan Heights, the Balkans, Africa and parts of South America and Asia.

Today, as peacekeepers from other countries have quadrupled in just a dozen years (from 20,000 to 95,000) we have shrunk to a near invisible 52nd place, alongside Fiji and Paraguay.

While nations like India, Brazil and the still impoverish Ethiopia are now the main peacekeeping forces in the UN arsenal, Canada's entire 100,000-strong land, sea and air components contribute "less than a school bus-load of Canadian soldiers" in the striking image of the Globe and Mail's Paul Koring.

That's right, only 32 soldiers, according to the latest UN figures. And these are doled out in tiny packets: one in Cyprus, three in the Golan Heights, six in Darfur, and so on.

'Warrior nation'

When it comes to peacekeeping, we can't blame our low effort on the strain of Afghanistan, for some of our allies in that struggle continued to maintain respectable numbers, particularly Britain (278 soldiers), France (916) and Germany (207).

What degraded peacekeeping here was the mindset that used Afghanistan as a way to seek a full revival of a "warrior nation" ethos through support-our-troops campaigns and media messaging that seemed determined to crush all that was allegedly squishy about our past internationalism.

"The damning of peacekeepers became, among the coterie of military historians and fellow travellers in the media, something of a blood sport, and the game in their sights was liberal Canada," writes Noah Richler in his recent polemic What We Talk about When We Talk about War.

Yes, the critics of UN peacekeeping often had real grievances. It can be inefficient, poorly led, and will forever be identified with disasters like Somalia, Rwanda, and Srebrenica.

But only emphasizing the negatives distorts the picture and takes no account of the many successes, from Mozambique to Cyprus and East Timor, that saved countless lives and regional peace.

In fact, countries caught up in civil war have a 50 per cent greater chance of finding lasting peace if peacekeepers are deployed, according to the most detailed study to date, Does Peacekeeping Work? Shaping Belligerents' Choices after Civil War, by Virginia Page Fortna of Columbia University. 

Canadians, to their credit, never entirely bought the anti-peacekeeping vitriol that was making the rounds.

Two years ago, pollsters at Nanos Research found 52 per cent of respondents considered peacekeeping the most important role for our military; only 21 per cent saw combat as the priority.

Yes, we do need an army that can handle combat in crisis zones when necessary, but we also need one that can also use the sophisticated, patient and humane skills required for robust peacekeeping in a world that badly requires such help.

The UN very much wants Canada to return. But one can only imagine the embarrassing back-flips our military boosters will have to perform before our current government says it is time we volunteered again for more UN duty.