Five questions left unanswered following Canada’s peacekeeping commitment

Four ministers promised new funding and troops for peace operations in Africa last week. Was it an announcement or a placeholder? Steve Saideman unpacks their message.    

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August 30, 2016
UN Mali
UN peacekeepers stand guard in the northern town of Kouroume, Mali, May 13, 2015. REUTERS/Adama Diarra

Some perspective for Canada’s “new” United Nations (UN) “commitment.”

These are not scare quotes — as if these things are supposed to be scary.  Nope, I am raising the question of how real these commitments are.  In short, last week, several cabinet ministers committed to spending more money on peacekeeping ($450 million), which is fine, and to setting aside 600 troops to be deployed someday in UN operations.  This, again, is fine, but the lofty rhetoric and the announcement made by not one, not two, but four cabinet ministers about Canada being back is a bit much.

I get it that this government had to make some kind of commitment so that, it appears, Canada would be invited to a 
major conference in London in two weeks focusing on peacekeeping.  I also get it that the Minister of National Defence, Harjit Sajjan, had to say something after spending some very visible time checking out a series of potential missions in Africa recently.

But no decisions of any consequence were made or announced.  What kinds of details will I now be looking for?

1. Distribution of troops

The first obvious one to ask is: Will that be 600 troops in one spot or will they be divided over five or 20 spots?  If one spot, then we can ask different questions than if five or 20.  If one, what is the mission?  What are the goals of the effort?  Will Canada lead the entire effort or a regional piece of the larger effort? If many missions, what does Canada hope to achieve? 

Yes, Canada can provide "enablers" who are force multipliers — they make everyone else more effective.  But that usually is going to be in a role where the Canadians would have little in the way of leadership posts or influence. There are tradeoffs between going big and focused or small and many, and we have yet no clue about what tradeoff.

2. Location of missions

The second question, which the media is focused on, is where?  Almost all of the focus has been on various ongoing missions in Africa. Lots of these missions are not going well, so perhaps a Canadian deployment can make a difference by changing what the mission is doing or adding a particularly effective unit. Of course, as the military always says, reinforce success, not failure, as pouring troops and material into a failure (the Somme, for instance) is not good.

3. Explaining the Colombia omission

This leads to the third question: why not Colombia?  There is now an agreement to enforce. Unlike Mali, Colombia has not (as far as I know) experienced much in the way of suicide bombers. The Colombia peace may not be easy to enforce, but it will be not nearly as hard as helping France out in Mali. Do we want to be helping the French out in an Islamic country at a time when French politicians are outbidding each other to discriminate against Muslims? Just curious. 

4. Time to drop the “Canada is Back” rhetoric

The rhetoric of being "back" is kind of silly if the number is 600. That is roughly the size of what Canada did in East Timor and in Haiti in the 2000s, but Canada was doing more than one mission at a time before it mostly got out of the UN business. So, this would be more than what former Prime Minister Stephen Harper was doing, but much less than what Jean Chretien was doing. 

A battalion — the military unit closest to 600 —  is the basic minimal deployable unit. It is, in some ways, the least one can do. Maybe Canada is stretched by the forthcoming Latvia mission and the ongoing Iraq training effort, but Canada did manage to send 3,000 troops to combat in Kandahar and send a battalion or so of peacekeepers to Haiti. So, Canada could do more, but it would cost money.

5. An honest assessment of ‘whole of government'

Finally, the announcement invoked "whole of government" — in other words, this effort will involve multiple agencies working together.  As I criticized in my book on the Afghanistan mission, this whole of government thing is over-rated.  Agencies don't play well together, and it requires intense attention by the Prime Minister himself to make sure that the agencies cooperate much at all. 

Does this promise to do "whole of government" mean that Canada's development aid will switch to whatever mission that is ultimately chosen? What does that mean for Global Affairs and the ongoing review of international assistance efforts? Some missions would not need much "whole of government" at all (Colombia) and others might need a good bit more. And, please, don't be too nostalgic for how wonderful Canada's "whole of government" effort was in Afghanistan.  Other countries admired it, but they were starting from a low basis of comparison (their own whole of government efforts).  

Overall, the point here is that what Canada is doing thus far is being oversold. The stuff that was announced on Aug. 26 is significant and welcome, but the rhetoric is over the top for a decision that is mostly about delaying a decision. 

 This is a very big rollout for a placeholder — ‘we will be making decisions, not just today.’  OK, thanks.

 An earlier version of this article can be found on the author’s website.