Canada as Peacekeeper

Its public has a deep commitment to involvement in UN operations

CANADA'S per capita spending on defense has traditionally ranked just above that of Luxembourg and Iceland but way, way below that of France and the United States. That has always irked the Pentagon. The American military maintains that Canada should carry a bigger share of the financial burden for world security. But it's just the way the Canadian people like it. Modest, unaggressive, and cheap.

Ever since the end of World War II, the Canadian public has demanded that their armed forces be unthreateningly small. Canadians have also insisted that their troops be chiefly committed to peacekeeping rather than warmaking.

On the whole, the country's politicians and generals have delivered brilliantly. Canada's military has been more active in the cause of policing peace in the last half century than that of any other nation.

Canadians consider international peacekeeping their own invention, and in the minds of many citizens it falls just short of free, universal health care as a defining policy of the nation.

The rightness of the country's role as the United Nations' foremost peacekeeper is so ingrained that there is far more controversy when Canadians are shooting at others than when they are being shot at.

No public clamor was heard when Maj. Gen. Lewis MacKenzie took 800 Canadian troops on a UN peace mission to the besieged Sarajevo airport.

The father of one Canadian soldier said he thought that the mission was crazy, that it "was like going into a gunfight with a hockey stick." But when General MacKenzie said morale was so high he was going to have trouble getting his men to leave - even after more than a dozen had been wounded - the issue dropped from sight.

But there was intense national debate in advance of the Gulf war about whether Canada was betraying its peacemaking tradition by joining even in a UN-sanctioned military adventure. Some worried that Canada would lose its clout as a mediator in the third world by joining the coalition.

The hawks eventually won out over the doves - just as they had when Canadian troops were sent to fight in Korea - but many citizens remained convinced that the attack on Iraq was wrong politically and strategically, as well as morally, for Canada.

The late Lester Pearson, a former Canadian prime minister, external affairs minister, and UN representative, was the father of most of the enduring principles of Canadian international policy. He saw peacekeeping and international activism as both consistent with the tradition of Canadian do-gooderism as well as the best strategy for Canadian national survival.

Mr. Pearson reasoned that operating internationally with many partners - as at the UN and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) - allowed Canada to exert much more leverage in the world than its tiny population would otherwise permit. It also meant Canadians only rarely had to deal with their overwhelmingly powerful southern neighbor in lonely, extremely unequal, bilateral settings.

It was Pearson who first proposed that UN troops police the peace in the aftermath of the Suez crisis in 1956. The idea and his role in its execution won him a Nobel Peace Prize.

Since then, Canadian forces have served in every peacekeeping mission the UN has mounted. More than 60,000 Canadian servicemen and women have worn the UN's blue helmets in 31 missions, and 83 have died in UN service.

UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has chosen a Canadian general, Maurice Baril, as his military adviser on peacekeeping. The Germans, who intend to expand their participation in UN peacekeeping work, are looking to the Canadian military for advice and training.

A statue honoring Canadian peacekeepers has been commissioned and will be unveiled in Ottowa this year. And the fallen peacekeepers are now commemorated, along with the war dead, each Remembrance Day.

With the end of the cold war, UN missions have become more numerous, more complex, and more dangerous. From the UN's founding after World War II, until 1988, the international body launched just 13 peacekeeping efforts - superpower politics made the necessary cease-fire assurances almost impossible to obtain from the warring parties.

Since the collapse of the Soviet empire, eight new UN operations have already been undertaken, including a mission to Cambodia that dwarfs virtually all others.

More and more of these peacekeeping missions involve civil wars or ethnic wars, as in the remains of Yugoslavia and rebellion-wracked Cambodia. Policing internal conflicts has always been by a long margin the most dangerous job UN peacekeepers have taken on.

The UN lost 24 men in what is now Zaire during the Congo crisis, 138 in Cyprus, and 11 in Lebanon. If policing such struggles becomes a bigger share of UN work, casualties will inevitably rise among lightly armed peacekeepers.

Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney urged sending peacekeepers into Yugoslavia many, many months ago before civil society there began to unravel. But his advice and warnings were ignored.

Now Mr. Mulroney says that as a matter of general policy, the UN must be prepared to send troops into troubled regions at the first sign of violence.

Critics of Canada in the international community (including US conservatives who are irritated by their northern neighbor's persistent busy-bodying) consider peacekeeping the domain of idealists. Canadians see it as a practical solution to recurring international problems. Mulroney is convinced that a modest force policing an uneasy peace can prevent a divided nation or continent from entering a cycle of accelerating violence.

The Canadian prime minister's view is now getting some consideration from UN members. There is also discussion of a proposal to create a UN peacemaking force of more heavily armed troops that would force belligerents to come to the bargaining table.

MacKenzie, whose tour in Sarajevo is ending, says his experience tells him that diplomacy, not firepower, is the only answer in hate-choked quagmires like the Balkans.

But he admits to a feeling of frustration at leaving Bosnia still in the grip of civil war. "No soldier ever likes to leave a job like this. You like to see things through to the end. But if you want to stay to the end in Bosnia-Herzegovina, you'd better be younger than I am, because [otherwise] you're not going to live long enough.... I just hope that we made a small step in the right direction."

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