BY DAVID MCDONOUGH, CDA Institute,
David McDonough, CDA Institute Research Manager and Senior Editor, recently published an article in The Embassycommenting on the government’s promise to renew Canada’s role in UN peace operations.
The new Trudeau government has shown an interest in renewing Canada’s commitment to United Nations peace operations. The ministerial mandate letter given to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion spelled out this promise quite clearly, even if neither went into much detail on how this commitment will be realized.
A key problem is the commitment’s lack of context. By itself, it is hard to argue that renewing Canada’s role in UN peace operations is a bad thing. But such policy options cannot be judged in a vacuum. They must be placed within a context that recognizes the national interest, competing policy priorities and limited resources available to achieve such priorities, as well as the inevitable trade-offs that come with such a means-ends chain. Such a commitment should more properly be assessed as part of the government’s recently announced defence policy review.
The three pillars of priorities
It’s useful to return to the key priorities outlined in the last defence white paper: defence of Canada, continental defence, and international security. In some respects, these three reflect a rising degree of discretion for Canadian decision-makers: no discretion when it comes to Canada, very little for North America, and greater discretion in how we approach expeditionary operations abroad.
Clearly, UN commitments relate to international peace and security. Canadian decision-makers need to ensure that their non-discretionary priorities are achieved first—such as monitoring our coastal waters, aerospace surveillance and defence of North America, search and rescue, and protection of our Arctic sovereignty and resources—before opting for more discretionary missions abroad like UN peace operations.
Yet not all missions in the third pillar are created equal or are equally discretionary. Canada also has the option of working primarily with key allies in pursuit of international security, including the United States, key European countries in NATO, as well as Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, among others. In so doing, Canada can better align its military role abroad with its interest in maintaining and strengthening relations with such countries.
The same cannot readily be said about UN operations, which might help burnish Canada’s reputation with the world body but where the national interest is hard to identify—a fact that will undoubtedly cause problems if and when a UN mission results in casualties.
A different, more dangerous, era
Such a possibility should not be discounted. Today’s UN missions are distinct from the past. Current missions retain the size and complexity of post-Cold War operations, but now Blue Helmets can quickly become a participant in the conflict, such as when an “intervention brigade” was mandated to neutralize armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
We need to understand and appreciate that the game has changed. Future so-called peace operations, including those established by the UN, will likely require robust military capabilities and entail possibly more dangerous operations, especially if more UN peacekeepers begin to fully apply their more proactive mandates.
Importantly, if Canada does undertake peace operations, it might be better served working with key allies and organizations like NATO. Canada would gain the additional benefit of working with like-minded states with advanced, interoperable militaries that can bring considerably more firepower and sophistication to any mission. In NATO’s case, Canada would benefit from an organization with a strong command structure and extensive experience with robust peace or stabilization missions in places such as Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan.
One should also remember the continuing gap between UN mandates and deployed forces. A good example is the hybrid UN-African Union force in the Darfur region of Sudan, which despite a robust mandate adopted a non-confrontational approach that has failed to halt attacks against both civilians and its own peacekeepers.
It might even be worse if peacekeepers began fulfilling their Chapter VII mandates to use force. Blue Helmets, not all of whom will be well-trained or armed, will then likely be seen as more legitimate targets by non-state armed groups with an increasingly sophisticated capacity for violence.
These missions can also not be easily separated from the wider post-9/11 environment, given the presence of jihadist groups from Boko Haram to Al Qaeda to ISIL (also called ISIS and the Islamic State) in numerous failed or failing states like Mali and Libya. This might increase the Canadian interest in undertaking such missions, but it also raises important dangers—from the possibility of our soldiers being specifically targeted to potential terrorist blowback both in Canada and to its interests overseas.
Context is key
This does not mean that Canada should eschew UN peace missions. But the Canadian government needs to take into account competing priorities and the possible dangers that could arise from such missions. Above all, strategic-level thinking on the benefits, value, and possible costs and trade-offs of undertaking these missions need to be carefully and diligently assessed.
In other words, if Canada chooses to undertake a significant UN mission, it needs to first ensure that this does not come at the expense of its non-discretionary missions. Then it needs to assess its capacity to undertake such a mission in addition to its current operational tempo and, if that proves impossible, weigh the relative merits of a UN mission compared to other missions abroad, such as its role in NATO reassurance measures or as part of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL.
Of course, Canada could try to avoid such trade-offs by simply adding a significant UN role to its other commitments. But, absent a significant and sustained infusion of resources, this will prove exceedingly difficult.
What needs to be avoided at all costs is a fixation on UN peace operations that overshadows and supplants other priorities.This could endanger the non-discretionary missions crucial for Canadian security and defence, as well as damage our relations with allies and long-standing alliances like NORAD and NATO.
It could also have serious consequences to the future force structure of the Canadian Armed Forces. In light of budgetary shortfalls and recapitalization challenges, the government may be tempted to achieve cost savings by opting for an unbalanced force structure—one that is lightly armed, constabulary focused, and specializing in peace operations rather than combat-capable, multi-purpose, and joint.
Yet such a force would be ill-suited for the range of missions (from constabulary to combat, and including robust peace operations) facing today’s CAF. It would also necessarily be manpower rather than capital intensive, meaning that the high personnel costs eating up much of the defence budget are unlikely to dissipate. As such, any cost savings will likely prove more illusory than real.
The strategic consequences of such a shorted-sighted move will be severe and long-lasting. Rather than simply affecting the government’s current choices, it would constrain the policy options available to Canadian decisions-makers for decades to come. In that case, the Trudeau government’s adage that “Canada is back” may be remembered as more of a lament rather than the dawn of sunnier ways.
Originally published in The Embassy.
Dr. David S. McDonough is research manager and senior editor at the CDA Institute, and a research fellow at Dalhousie University’s Centre for Foreign Policy Studies.