While it breaks a promise made last year to engage in one large-scale mission, Trudeau's 'Smart Pledge' to contribute small, targeted resources to a number of peacekeeping missions is the right choice, writes Jeffrey Collins. 

Jeffrey Collins, Nov. 17 2017

Canada is back in the United Nations peacekeeping game – although not in the fashion that many were led to expect over the past two years.

Critics have (rightly) noted the Trudeau government is backpedaling from its 2016 commitment to spend $450 million and deploy 600 Canadian troops to an unnamed UN mission in Africa (an ode to past Canadian battalion-sized UN contributions of the past). Yet Ottawa’s ‘Smart Pledge’on UN re-engagement is, in many ways, a commendable policy.

Smart Pledge, with its emphasis on addressing the UN’s niche capability shortfalls and training requirements, represents a pragmatic and prudent use of Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) resources without overburdening the military and preventing it from responding to a fluid international security situation.

Ottawa’s revised UN commitment avoids a return to the operational burn-out period of the 1990s.

In short, Ottawa’s revised UN commitment avoids a return to the operational burn-out period of the 1990s. Then, steep defence budget cuts of 25 per cent and a reduction from 74,000 troops to 60,000 were met with persistent over-commitments to the UN by Conservative and Liberal governments alike.

While the government hinted that it was aiming for a UN training and support role in its June 2017 defence policy statement, Ottawa’s new UN plans also happen to coincide with the expert recommendations outlined in a 2017 Macdonald-Laurier Institute report, First Principles and the National Interest.

That report provides a sweeping overview of Canada’s defence policy priorities. Relying upon the input of 19 experts (although not necessarily endorsed by them), it looked at the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of Canadian defence. When it came to UN peace support operations, the report recommended that Canada avoid large-scale deployments, as these carry the risk of getting bogged down in protracted inter-ethnic and sectarian conflicts for which peaceable outcomes are unlikely.

Such missions, which Canada experienced first-hand in the Balkans and Rwanda in the 1990s, have been the norm since the end of the Cold War. Gone are the missions of Canadian peacekeeping lore — the kind the Liberals campaigned on, when lightly armed blue berets patrolled the armistice line between two warring factions.

Today, peacekeeping forces in Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan are frequently targets of, and engage in operations against, non-state militias with little in the way of a functional central government for support. As such, the MLI report recommended that any Canadian military role in the UN focus on strengthening its operational weaknesses, chiefly in niche technical support and the training of foreign peacekeeping forces, typically composed of troops from developing states like Bangladesh and Nepal.

The small size of the CAF (roughly 68,000 regular force personnel) precludes any long-term, significant ground contribution like that envisioned by the Trudeau government in 2016. With ongoing missions against ISIS (850 personnel), training Ukraine’s armed forces (200 personnel), and reinforcing NATO in Eastern Europe (450 ground troops, plus 135 CF-18 pilots/ground crew and rotations of 240 crewed Halifax Class frigates), the burden of meeting Canada’s international obligations disproportionately falls on the shoulders of the Canadian Army.

As such, any multi-year, battalion-size contribution to a single UN mission would further constrain the CAF to meet other, more pressing demands — an escalation in Eastern Europe, for example, or a natural disaster at home.

In this context, the reversal of the 2016 promise is a welcome relief.

Gone are the missions of Canadian peacekeeping lore, when lightly armed blue berets patrolled the armistice line between two warring factions.

With its Smart Pledge commitment, Ottawa has offered the UN access to the type of niche capabilities and personnel the organization admits it sorely needs. A good example is tactical airlift support from two C-130Js, with one based at the UN’s Regional Support Centre in Entebbe, Uganda. Such resources provide an advanced, highly-capable asset to move large numbers of troops and supplies to the largest, complex UN missions in Africa. The availability of six armed ‘Griffon’ helicopters likewise provides an asset that has long been requested by the UN to support its Mali mission.

A 200-person CAF Quick Reaction Force plus training for UN peacekeeping forces at sites throughout Africa, both before and during deployment, improves the UN’s ability to respond to crises while enhancing the skills and capacity of international peacekeeping forces (building off CAF training experiences gained in Afghanistan, Ukraine and Iraq). Again, there is precedent here: Canada deployed a quick reaction force with the UN’s Standby High-Readiness Brigade in 2000-01 to Ethiopia-Eritrea and (ad-hoc) in 2004 in Haiti.

Although it is debatable whether the Smart Pledge contributions will “restore Canada as a leader in the world,” as promised in the Liberals’ 2015 platform, Wednesday’s announcement does represent a pragmatic and prudent engagement with the UN.

MLI author Jeffrey F. Collins is a research fellow with the Centre for the Study of Security and Development at Dalhousie University and a research associate with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. A PhD Political Science candidate at Carleton University and lecturer in political science at the University of Prince Edward Island, Jeff’s research interests include Canadian defence policy, military procurement, and Atlantic Canadian public policy. 

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