The Canadian government has announced it intends to augment Canada’s contribution to UN peacekeeping and has gone in search of a mission to make good on this commitment. The region it has selected is Africa, where there is no shortage of strife to be alleviated. Nine of the UN’s 16 current peace operations are in Africa, some recently begun, others dating back a decade or more, one to 1991. The government has sent exploratory missions to six African countries and says it expects to make a selection before the end of 2016.
This is a curious reversal of the usual process by which countries end up contributing to an international peace operation. In most cases member states do not go looking for causes to support but respond to a request from the UN, NATO or regional organization to contribute to an operation being assembled to deal with a crisis. So it is fair to ask: what is the point of Canada’s peacekeeping mission in Africa? Three questions in particular arise:
- What is the government’s motivation and does it matter?
- What are Canada’s security priorities and is peacekeeping in Africa one of them?
- What’s the value proposition of an Africa mission? What are the benefits to be gained from the resources to be committed and the risks to be run?
The government’s motivation
Peacekeeping is a noble activity, no question about it. To bring peace where it is absent and to keep the peace where it is in peril have been honoured throughout history. “Seek peace and pursue it”. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.” So any state willing to take a step to help solve others’ conflicts deserves credit, whatever the motivation might be. The onus has to be on the critics to make the case that the state’s proposed involvement would be detrimental to the cause of peace. Clearly no such case could be made against any planned Canadian peacekeeping mission in Africa. It would take a real stretch of the imagination to conceive of circumstances where the introduction of Canadian soldiers and police officers, among the most competent in the world, would make any conflict situation they encountered worse than they found it.
Nonetheless, the government’s motivation is at issue – for motivation is critical to the success of any peace mission. Properly motivated, a government would place great weight on ensuring the mission succeeded. It would plan for success, it would be willing to devote the necessary resources even if more ended up being required than initially contemplated, and it would stick with the enterprise in the face of adversity. Ill motivated, one would expect a government to settle for making a good effort, “stay within budget”, and leave after a “decent interval”. Since the benefits would be front-end loaded, the government would pocket the public relations benefits it secured and try to minimize the risks of public relations losses – notably casualties — by looking for an early opportunity to withdraw from the venture.
As it happens, it is not unreasonable to wonder whether the main driver of the Africa venture isn’t actually peacekeeping but being seen to contribute to peacekeeping. In opposition, the Liberal Party charged the government of the day with having diminished Canada’s “international standing” and promised to restore it by returning to Canada’s hallowed tradition of contributing to UN peacekeeping missions. So the government is now out looking for a mission that would deliver on this promise. But why is “restoring” Canada’s international standing so important? For most countries, image is not what drives their foreign policy – unless a country is positioning itself for a popularity contest. As Canada is doing.
In 2010, Canada put its name forward for election to a two-year term on the UN Security Council and lost. It was a “humiliation” the bien pensants in Canada ascribed to the erroneous foreign policies of the Harper government who they claimed had alienated many in the “international community”. The new government has determined to try again and has announced Canada would stand for a Security Council seat in 2020. The strategy decided on is to burnish Canada’s credentials as a peacekeeper and UN supporter in the expectation this will help garner the necessary votes in the UN General Assembly when the time comes.
It’s the strategy foreign policy traditionalists have fixated on and it has some prospects for success, but it has two major flaws. First, it leaves Canada’s fate to be decided by the votes of those who sit in the General Assembly, the great majority of whom are representatives of failed states, corrupt regimes, and despots. Second, it could turn out to be very expensive: the forfeit of the lives of some of the 600 soldiers sent into harm’s way in Africa, the initial commitment of $450 million for the mission, and whatever “considerations” might have to be extended to secure the votes needed. As it happens, there are alternatives which would not run these risks but the government appears never to have looked at them.
Canada’s security priorities
The international security environment has been turbulent for some time. So turbulent, in fact, there have been periodic bouts of nostalgia for the “stability” of the Cold War. Now, on any given day, Canadians worry about Islamist terrorist acts, aggression on the part of the Russians and Chinese, the spread of nuclear weapons to rogue states like Iran and North Korea, uncontrolled refugee flows. Some worry about a global warming Armageddon.
What Canadians don’t worry about is Africa. All most of them know about the continent is that it seems to be a disaster just about everywhere, has been for a long time, and probably will be for years to come considering how little impact the large aid programs have had. This is not a completely faithful reflection of African realities, but it is close enough that the government has some ‘splainin’ to do. Why seek out a peacekeeping mission in Africa when Canadians have greater worries about dangers elsewhere?
A case in point would be Europe which three times Canadians have crossed an ocean to defend and which today is threatened by a resurgent Russia. Canada is already helping to enhance Ukraine’s military capacity; it has deployed 470 troops as well as aircraft and ships to help defend the eastern flanks of NATO in support of the Alliance’s Operation Reassurance; and it has recently committed to being one of four “framework nations” to enhance NATO’s forward presence in Eastern Europe with the intention to despatch a 450-strong contingent to Latvia in 2017. Another case is the Middle East where Canada currently has some 800 military personnel in northern Iraq and Kuwait on various missions including Operation Impact directed against the Islamic State. Meanwhile, Canadian interests have grown and are increasingly at risk in Asia-Pacific though no Canadian government has yet devoted any significant resources to protecting those interests. If Canada has “spare” military capacity to deploy abroad, any one of these regions would appear to deserve a higher priority than Africa.
The government hasn’t addressed the issue of relative priority, but it would likely argue that Canada has interests beyond its own immediate defence and that resolving disputes anywhere including Africa makes a net contribution to the peaceful international environment on which Canada’s security and prosperity ultimately depend. True. But every defence policy review ever conducted in Canada has accorded the highest priority to the security of Canada and much lower priority to good works in aid of international stability. With the government reducing defence spending, is it sensible to devote even a small share of the country’s diminished defence resources to an inevitably expensive peacekeeping mission somewhere in Africa?
The value proposition
What, then, would be the benefits to be gained from the resources which would have to be committed and the risks run in mounting a Canadian peacekeeping mission to Africa?
In the government’s mind, the main benefit would be an improvement in Canada’s “international standing”. It’s an argument with some validity, but ultimately not much durability or weight. There might be some African votes in it, but there are other ways of buying good will on that continent – through humanitarian relief, development assistance, trade concessions – which would surely have more impact than a single Canadian peacekeeping mission in a single African country. Moreover, the alternatives properly targeted would help build relationships which were more solidly grounded and likely to last a lot longer than the fleeting presence, even if over a few years, of a Canadian military or police contingent. And what would be the state of relations once the Canadians had packed up and the locals left to struggle on by themselves?
It is also a fallacy to believe Canada’s international standing hinges on how many of its soldiers are on missions run by the United Nations. First, because the worthiness of a peace mission is not greater by virtue of being led by the UN rather than by another organization or indeed by an individual country. And second, because virtually all peace missions (the exception is Kosovo) have been authorized by the UN – including the NATO missions to which Canada contributed thousands of troops in the Balkans and Afghanistan. In fact, increasingly the UN has had to rely on regional organizations – NATO, EU, African Union, ECOWAS – to manage operations which were too large or difficult for the UN itself.
In the final analysis, Canada’s reputation in the world has long been and remains top-tier: a large, wealthy and stable democracy, with an enviable record as a faithful friend, a reliable ally in adversity, and a selfless and often imaginative leader in international affairs. That reputation is deserved – though more in some years than others.
Might a Canadian mission actually be able to achieve the “just and lasting peace” so often aspired to in the resolutions passed at the United Nations? As a general proposition, this is unlikely; as far as Africa is concerned, it is not likely at all.
A “just and lasting peace” is a truly noble goal. But as a rule the world has settled for much less – typically no more than a ceasefire which freezes a conflict for a few weeks or months, sometimes even years, without resolving the matters in dispute. There are two main reasons.
First, the days of “traditional” peacekeeping, when lightly armed forces were sent in to monitor an armistice consented to by warring states, are long gone. Most conflicts today are not between states at all but within failed states. The warring parties are governments under siege and insurgent groups, they are often involved in very protracted ethnic or tribal disputes, forces and battlefields are not clearly delineated, the parties typically do not abide by accepted laws of armed conflict, in many cases they refuse mediation and try to exploit external assistance, the agreements they do reach are routinely violated, and “spoilers” who opposed the agreements do their best to obstruct them. So in the 21st century, the operations which have to be organized are not pacific settlement missions under Chapter 6 of the UN Charter but enforcement actions under Chapter 7. The troops don’t wear blue berets but blue helmets.
Second, peacemakers today are generally a feckless lot. The UN Security Council might authorize a mission and the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations might work out the modalities, but member states have historically failed to provide the quality and quantity of military and police they require or to cede them the authority required for success. As a result, the contributions have come from member states whose forces do not possess the needed capabilities and professionalism but who willingly supply them in return for the UN paying them US$1,332 per soldier per month. It is a measure of how far the noble profession of UN peacekeeping has deteriorated that the top 25 military and police contributors do not include a single developed country but do include a dozen who rank among the very highest on the Fragile States Index — and whose motivation is not altruism but financial gain. The top five contributors all make more than US$100 million a year. Canada, the supposed UN deadbeat, is the ninth largest contributor to the UN peacekeeping budget and its 2.92% annual share is enough to pay for the two largest troop contributors, Rwanda and India.
In the circumstances, the best a UN operation can hope for is to mitigate the worst of the killing and destruction for as long as possible. But the cost of this temporary relief, applauded for its humanitarianism, has been high. Typically, the warring parties have used a truce period to replenish their forces before resuming hostilities – with the result that conflicts have been prolonged and at a much higher level of violence. Meanwhile, the international organizations which have tried to help and the member states who have contributed soldiers, police and civilians to the peacekeeping operations have paid a high price. The UN has sustained 3510 fatalities since it got into the peacekeeping business – a business nowhere mentioned in the UN Charter – and the pace has been accelerating in recent decades. The worst of it has not been in the Middle East but in Africa. In just the last dozen or so years, the UN’s nine African peacekeeping missions have suffered 890 fatalities, some 25% of the entire UN total since 1947.
The financial cost has also been enormous. The approved budget for UN peacekeeping operations for the current fiscal year (2016/2017) is $7.87 billion. That’s a lot of money to be spending to secure lulls in the fighting, produce no “just and lasting peace”, and lose hundreds of lives every year.
It is time Western governments, including Canada’s, raised their sights from alleviating problems to fixing them. If this sounds naive, consider: Some 65% of the UN peacekeeping budget comes from just eight Western countries (the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Canada, and Spain). Were these countries to resolve to work together to improve UN peacekeeping, they would not lack the financial weight to force change. If the Canadian government is looking for a UN peacekeeping vocation, the place to find it is at UN headquarters in New York not Africa. It will also make a lot more friends doing so.
Links to Fragile States Index data on the six African countries visited by Canadian government exploratory teams during the summer of 2016:
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