Sunday, June 25, 2006

After Peacekeeping

By Richard Norman

Stephen Harper’s Conservative party came to power earlier this year promising to reinvest in the Canadian military after more than a decade of martial downsizing under the previous government. In late June came announcements, thematically staggered in four Canadian cities, that Ottawa would be investing fifteen billion dollars ($C) in military hardware including supply ships, new trucks, new helicopters, and new strategic lift airplanes.

The announcements come at a time of great debate over the role of the Canadian military in the world, and a larger debate over the part to be played by middle powers in the increasingly “managed” conflicts of the world.

2006 is an appropriate year for such a debate in Canada. Fifty years ago, the Suez Crisis, a potentially major conflagration, was averted in part by Lester Pearson, the Canadian foreign minister at the time, who advocated what was then a new idea: sending UN troops to the region with a mandate to keep the peace. In the intervening years, a commitment to peacekeeping has come to be seen by Canadians as a national value. Not only does the idea of such a commitment make Canadians feel good about themselves, but as a cornerstone of Canadian foreign policy it distinguishes that country from the United States (widely seen in-country as an added bonus).

But the involvement of Canadian soldiers in an aggressive and dangerous mission in Afghanistan has led to new discussions about the role of Canada's military. The federal Liberal Party, suddenly out of power for the first time in thirteen years, is one of the places this issue is being debated. The party, currently in the midst of a leadership campaign, is divided into two camps. One is led by Bob Rae, who in a recent debate suggested that the Canadian mission in Afghanistan runs the risk of turning “into a combat force that's engaged in counter-insurgency and counter-guerrilla forces," and warned that Canadians would lose their way "as peacekeepers and as people who believe in the maintenance of peace.” The other faction is led by Michael Ignatieff, the current frontrunner. Ignatieff has taken fire for his outspoken support of the Bush administration’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, both in his former career as an academic at Harvard and now as a freshly elected member of parliament. Responding to criticism from Mr. Rae, among many others, Mr. Ignatieff said recently that he felt he “had to make a choice to stand with [the Afghanistan] mission, stand with the troops, and stand with their extension . . . because Canada is a serious country.” While neither man makes a particularly eloquent case—withdrawing troops from Afghanistan is a way of “maintaining peace”? In what way is peacekeeping an un-serious pursuit?—their views are representative of an increasing number of citizens who are being polarized by casualties and frequent violent engagements in Afghanistan.

If Michael Ignatieff becomes Liberal leader there will be an unlikely consensus between Prime Minister Harper and himself—two intellectuals who have never served in uniform—that the Canadian military has outgrown (or has the capacity to outgrow) its days as a middle power peacekeeper and instead take an active and engaging role in the international scene. A striking symbol of this change in thinking is the recent endorsement of Mr. Ignatieff by Romeo Dalliare, of the UN peacekeeping mission to Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. General Dallaire, an eloquent and outspoken critic of the bureaucratization of conflict management, entered the political arena last year when he was appointed as a senator for Quebec. His endorsement reconfirms an increasing shift away from the mealy peacekeeping of yesteryear.

But in the midst of this vital policy debate it is important to remember that the reason a rejuvenated Canadian military can be effective in a new and international context is because of the moral capital Canada itself has built up over a half-century of peacekeeping. Too often this debate involves false dichotomies: the Canadian military must turn to American jingoism or face total obsolescence. A reorientation is clearly important, but a reorientation outside of the current strictures of the debate. A revitalized, deployable, development-oriented force is what is required--one that can engage the enemy (because enemies do exist), but set its own priorities and defend its own interests.