Although Canada has a long and distinguished history as a peacekeeping nation, our role in such operations is now almost negligible. As Fergus Watt, Executive Director of the World Federalist Movement—Canada, points out, Canada’s disappearance from the field has happened even though the number of UN peacekeeping missions has increased and both traditional allies and emerging powers have significantly expanded their contributions of troops (Fergus Watt, “UN peace operations need Canada’s help,” Embassy, 28 November 2012):
As always, Canada’s military should promote our country’s interests and values. Bordered on three coasts by oceans, and with no significant immediate threat to our territory, Canada’s interests as a trading nation and middle power are best served by working toward a more stable and peaceful world.
United Nations peacekeeping remains one of the best tools to achieve that goal. For four decades up until the mid 1990s, Canada was a leading contributor to UN peacekeeping missions. However, Canada now ranks 57th in combined military and police deployments to UN operations.
But while Canada’s commitments are much diminished, the number of United Nations deployments has been rising steadily since 1999. According to the UN, it currently supports approximately 120,000 military, police and civilian personnel serving in 17 missions around the world.
In fact, other than the United States Department of Defense, the UN has more troops in the field than any actor in the world.
Watt emphasizes that peacekeeping efforts best reflect the kind of international involvement Canadians want for their military and that greater participation in them would constitute a beneficial strategy for a middle power:
Canada gained considerable influence and respect on the world stage when it was a leading contributor to UN peacekeeping. It made sense for Canada’s interests as a middle power back then, and it still does today.
Despite the recent decline in our contributions, polling in Canada demonstrates that UN peace operations are still the public’s most preferred institutional arrangement for Canadian overseas deployments. NATO allies such as France, Italy, and Spain have all ramped up their commitments to UN peacekeeping in recent years. So too have rising powers like Brazil, India, and China.
In Canada there are strong institutional voices and industry lobbies that stubbornly insist on avoiding the UN, preferring a singular emphasis on joint operations with the United States. However, there are some military operations that the US is not well suited for, and peacekeeping is one.
The more prudent course for Canadian defence policy planners would be one that leaves a variety of options open. A return to significant numbers of Canadian soldiers joining UN peace operations would be a long overdue and much welcomed development.
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