By: Campbell Clark, Globe and Mail
A month ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau knew that a return to UN peacekeeping would automatically be seen as a useful global contribution by Canada’s major ally in Washington. Donald Trump’s election changed that.
That’s why sending Canadian peacekeepers to Mali should now be an obvious political choice for the government, which has pledged to announce a deployment of up to 600 peacekeepers within weeks.
It’s not that the African country matters to Mr. Trump. It seems likely the president-elect couldn’t find Mali on a map and that his national-security staff might not bother pointing to it in his early briefings. But Mr. Trump’s priority is combatting the spread of Islamist terror, and that’s key to the mission in Mali.
That makes sending peacekeepers to Mali just the sort of international security initiative that fits a Canadian Liberal prime minister.
“It has both the realpolitik as well as the more idealistic liberal international justifications,” said Walter Dorn, an expert in peacekeeping and professor at the Royal Military College and the Canadian Forces College.
Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals want to embrace do-gooding internationalism that makes peacekeeping popular with Canadians. It was also something U.S. President Barack Obama urged allies to do.
Mr. Trump, however, doesn’t appear to have any interest in UN peacekeeping. But that still might suit Mr. Trudeau in one way: When the U.S. president is unpopular in Canada, Liberal prime ministers like to be perceived as pursuing an “independent” foreign policy.
Even so, it’s still valuable to be seen as a useful ally in Washington. Canada depends on U.S. co-operation. When the U.S. and other allies complain Canada’s military spending is half its expected NATO obligation, Ottawa likes to point to an active role in missions. Canada has troops advising Kurdish peshmerga forces in Iraq and joined efforts to bolster NATO presence in Eastern Europe, but Ottawa will also hope its peacekeeping mission will be seen in Washington as helpful.
Mali means sharp-ended UN peacekeeping. It operates alongside a French-led counterterrorism mission fighting insurgents in northern Mali and across the Sahel-Sahara region. The peacekeepers are trying to stabilize the country, including the vast north that still suffers disaffection from the government in Bamako – the same vacuum that helped fuel insurgents who were on the verge of taking the capital in 2013, until French troops intervened.
Mr. Trudeau’s government hasn’t yet said where in Africa it will deploy peacekeepers. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan visited Mali earlier this month, but the Liberals have also considered UN missions in Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are arguments for going to a less-dangerous place. Former senator and retired lieutenant-general Roméo Dallaire has suggested Canada should send troops to CAR, where peacekeepers are tasked with tamping down sectarian violence. Ottawa is likely to choose one main mission but could send a handful of troops to others.
But there are also calls for Canada to send its peacekeepers to Mali precisely because it is dangerous. The UN’s under-secretary-general for peacekeeping field support, Atul Khare, said this weekend the Mali mission needs critical elements like helicopters.
“I think the most important contributions currently would be devoted to Mali,” he said in Halifax after meeting Mr. Sajjan and his British counterpart, Michael Fallon.
Mr. Dorn thinks Canadian troops would be more useful in Mali. They have Afghanistan experience, can offer equipment such as Chinook helicopters and expertise such as engineering, communications and possibly intelligence – the Mali mission has more intelligence personnel than any UN mission before it.
But it is more dangerous. So far, 109 peacekeepers have died, including a Togolese soldier two weeks ago. Statistically, Mr. Dorn said, peacekeepers in Mali have a 0.3-per-cent chance of fatality, compared with 1 per cent for Canadian troops in Afghanistan. That’s the biggest risk Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals must weigh. But the Mali mission has a purpose, protecting civilians in a fragile country threatened by insurgents, and it’s one that can be clearly explained to left and right, around the world, in Washington and at home.