Whatever happened to peacekeeping in the country that invented it?

NOAH RICHLER May 26 2008


Whatever happened to peacekeeping in the country that invented it?

NOAH RICHLER May 26 2008



Whatever happened to peacekeeping in the country that invented it?


Canada’s debunking of its peacekeeping heritage is almost complete. In the political landscape as it has emerged since 9/11, the long shadow of Vimy Ridge has been pitted against the iconic figure of Lester Pearson— who, as Louis St. Laurent’s minister of external affairs, is widely credited with having “invented” interpositionary peacekeeping (as a solution to the 1956 Suez Crisis)—and put the fabled Liberal PM in the shade. To have supported the popular view of Canada as

peacekeeper is, according to the now dominant outlook of many of Canada’s eminent political analysts and historians—including Andrew Cohen (whose mini-biography of Pearson is out in September), Jack Granatstein, David Bercuson, Sean M. Maloney and Janice Gross Stein—to have participated in Canada’s diplomatic, military and effectively moral decline.

At its moderate end, this new school and its acolytes in the media applaud the courage and the achievements of Canada’s restored military, though are prone to whitewashing the country’s legacy of peacekeeping as if they were embarrassed by it. In its extreme expression, of which Granatstein and Maloney are the purveyors, to support the “myth” of Canadian peacekeeping is to be ignorant of our history, and to deny the valour and the sacrifice and even the point of Canadian troops. It is to be unaware that

Canadian soldiers kill, shoot first, put their lives in danger and take sides. It is to be ignorant of the sheer numbers of Canadian troops that were stationed in Europe during the Cold War, in much greater numbers than the peacekeepers serving at the time, or the paltry number that Canada, now ranking 54th among contributor nations, has committed to various UN missions around the world (today there are 169 Canadians on nine UN missions, according to the UN’s most recently published figures).

So vociferous and deliberate has this attack on a prior version of Canada been, that to support the idea of peacekeeping is presented as a naive, hopeless and even unpatriotic choice. It is evidence of a “sixties generation’s ideology” (Maloney) and “wishful thinking” (Granatstein) of peacekeeping’s supporters, and a misguided belief that “the United Nations [is] doing the Lord’s work” (Granatstein). In particular, Liberal prime ministers Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien come in for calumny. They are the despised leaders who are regarded as having run down the military to fund lavish social programs even as they put the country’s miserably under-equipped soldiers in harm’s way. They are the internationalist toadies who, in doing the UN’s and not the United States’ bidding, allowed continental relations with the U.S. to deteriorate.

We are, in Canada, in a period of intense historical revisionism, and the rapprochement of ordinary Canadians with a rehabilitated military, as well as a concomitant assault on the peacekeeping role that buttressed our prior sense of identity, has been at the heart of it. Canada is, today, a warrior nation and not a peacekeeping one. Indeed, the transformation of the character Canada presents to the world has been successful to such a point that, in April, Britain’s Daily Mail ran an impassioned front page photo spread comparing England’s treatment of its fallen soldiers (no police escort, hearses held up in traffic) to the patriotic cavalcades along the “Highway of Heroes” that are now, in Canada, routine.

Behold the spectre, yet again, of the slaughter of the First World War. Our founding moment. A time when Canadians of all backgrounds met each other in the trenches and distinguished themselves—or so the story goes. (All countries have a version of it.)

Over 100,000 Canadians also served in UN peacekeeping operations since 1956, and more than 100 soldiers’ lives were lost in them—but that is useless, inopportune knowledge now.

History, Margaret MacMillan reminds us, is subject to uses and abuses—and, as it should be, to contest. But without competent oppos-

ition in Parliament, and with so few Canadian historians arguing the nation’s story, the conservative view of a misled, gutted military now restored to its proper position in a society that was, pace the peacekeeping camp, always militaristic, has proceeded unimpeded.

There is no one who is arguing, for instance, that rather than Canadians’ support of peacekeeping being a betrayal of the country’s history, the truth of Canadian military operations is that from the Boer War forward, Canadian soldiers have always been committed to the service of some greater cause. In the Boer War, that cause was Empire. Canada fought for Britain in the First World War, the Allies in the Second, and for the UN (before it was tabling “peacekeeping” forces) in Korea, and stood with NATO during the long Cold War in Europe. That Canada, for the last half of the 20th century, sent its troops to serve for the “international community”— of which the UN, whatever its logistical problems (and they are sizable), is the present guardian—can surely be seen as the logical extension of that century-old idea. And it gave Canadians pride. The “wishful thinking” of many Canadians’ belief in some greater community than their own—and their willingness to serve it, whether as soldiers or as peacekeepers—has roots in citizens’ profound knowledge of their own extraordinary good fortune and their desire to share it.

And, too, it could as easily be argued that the idea of peacekeeping, whether of the “classic” interpositionary kind or some more forceful variety, appeals to Canadians because we have benefited from the practice of it right here at home. The fact of our country not being born in revolution—so irritating to those who would prefer the cauldron of some more exciting history of wars and rebellions— could be said to precede and explain Canadians’ affinity for the peacekeeping idea, as could the country’s not very successful, but now centuries-old experience of negotiating with the First Nations whose territory much of the land was. We fight as a last resort. Even the long separatist quarrel in Quebec, and the standoff with the Mohawks, in 1990, at Oka (Canada having sent its own troops in as “peacekeepers” in both these situations) could be said to underlie Canadians’ attachment to the Pearsonian doctrine. Hell, while we’re at it, we could say that Canada itself Is the result of having sent the North West Mounted Police out west to keep the peace between settlers, natives and drunken whiskey traders. Out of that 19th century protoUN exercise, a nation was forged.

And yet a Canadian, today, is not able to speak of the country’s peacekeeping legacy without fear of reproach. (“There is no such

thing,” said a CBC national reporter to me when I mentioned that I was preparing a radio program on the subject.)

Any consideration of the wane in support for the idea of peacekeeping must take into account three pivotal points in our recent history.

The first, of course, was the sequence of UN missions in Somalia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, during the first half of the ’90s. Failures in each of these conflicts cut Canadians close to the bone.

In the Balkans, the futility of the UN operation as it had been mandated led to profound feelings of frustration on the part of nowretired Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie—in particular, at the stringent requirement of his troops’ terms of engagement as decreed by the UN Charter’s Chapter VI, obliging the lightly armed UNPROFOR soldiers to settle disputes by “peaceful means,” meaning they were not able to shoot until fired upon. This did not mean that the peacekeepers were not involved in some fierce battles—notably in the Medak Pocket, in September 1993, in a firefight with Croatian forces that was described, subsequently, as the biggest battle involving Canadian soldiers since the Korean War. It went largely unreported, however, and became Canada’s “secret battle,” mostly because of the scandal involving Canadian peacekeepers that had occurred six months before, grisly photos of which horrified the nation.

In Somalia, a rundown, infrequently used army had resulted in bad discipline in the field and the infamy, in March 1993, of the

savage beating and murder of a Somali teenager, Shidane Arone, by members of the subsequently disbanded Canadian Airborne Regiment. And then, in April 1994, the experience of Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire, inside Rwanda for what the UN anticipated would be another Chapter VI operation of interpositionary peacekeeping between the mainly Hutu government of Juvénal Habyarimana and Paul Kagame’s Tutsi rebels (the RPF) amassed on the Ugandan border, turned into the horror of the Rwandan genocide and a long nightmare for the FrenchCanadian UN commander. The story of Dallaire’s urgent communications to the UN’s office in New York warning of plans for an imminent and highly organized massacre, and how they were ignored, is deeply ingrained in the Canadian psyche.

It is the Chapter VI constraint—what Can-


adían Michael Gaouette, currently the leader of the UN’s integrated operational team in Darfur, calls a “red herring”—that has been used so expertly by the Canadian critics to characterize peacekeepers, in Granatstein’s words, as “little more than a badly trained and lightly equipped gendarmerie wearing UN blue helmets and subject to the will of a wobbly multilateral consensus at the United Nations.” The Chapter VI requirement of “peaceful means” is subjected to caricature, as if the UN itself had not learned from the painful experiences of the early nineties; as if the more proactive terms of engagement of the Charter’s Chapter VII and VIII (per-

mitting military action and regional involvement, Security Council permitting, as a means of peace enforcement) did not also exist.

In fact, the need for “classical” interpositionary peacekeeping such as Pearson himself envisioned still exists between plenty of states—in Africa, most of all, but in divided Cyprus, and probably in Sri Lanka one day soon—despite the changing nature of war that critics frequently invoke to argue the redundancy of Chapter VI operations. And, if recent history is true to itself, the time is fast approaching when the UN will be asked to clean up in Iraq and Afghanistan, too. (If the UN did not exist, says MacMillan, “then we would need to invent it.”)

But the effect of the perception, in Europe and America, of the UN’s Chapter VI failures in the early nineties led to the second watershed moment for the peacekeeping doctrine when, in 1998, the Serbs escalated their ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians. NATO,

without the imprimatur of the UN’s Security Council, promptly started an “intervention” of its own. In March 1999, the military alliance commenced 78 days of air strikes with the explicit aim of bombing Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic into agreement in his negotiations with the American envoy, Richard Holbrooke. (Addressing the Donner Canadian Foundation in Toronto in November 2007, Holbrooke spoke of the effectiveness of this peacemaking tactic jauntily.)

A UN administration followed, but the controversial bombardment was patently a sign of American and European impatience with the UN’s ponderous performance in the first half of the decade. It was an operation that the UN had to follow because NATO had given little thought to what would come afterwards. It set a precedent for what was to follow, after 2001. Says Misha Glenny, the author of The Balkans, “Kosovo is when the dam breaks. Afghanistan is when water starts pouring through, and Iraq is when the dam collapses altogether.”

What the Anglo-American countries of the NATO alliance had learned and become impatient for was the expediency, where it could be applied, of a little muscle. Gen. Sir David Richards led the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan in 2006-07, headed British forces in UN operations in East Timor in 1999, and Sierra Leone in 2000. “Fighting is a symptom of failure,” Gen. Richards, now commander in chief of Britain’s Land

Forces, said to me, when we discussed his experiences with the UN and in Afghanistan. “If you don’t send in sufficient force then you will have to fight. If your opponent knows that if he comes near you he’ll get a bloody nose, he’ll probably be leery of doing so. At that point, you establish a moral ascendancy, and from then on you start calling the shots.” Gen. Richards is a thoughtful and communicative man, who also spoke to future issues of security that might be caused by global social inequities, famine, water wars, mass migration and even climate change. It

is a more generous and worldly view of security than Sean M. Maloney, a historian at the Royal Military College, takes. He argues, in his meticulously researched work, that all of the peacekeeping operations in which Canada has participated were motivated not by humanitarian concerns but by the necessities of “Forward Security”—in other words, that they were missions undertaken in the national interest, or to cement alliances, and not altruistic at all.

Either way, the present experience of Somalia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and then Kosovo is to have altered the political will of wealthier member nations to take part in UN peacekeeping operations or see even the most urgent of these missions as critical to their present political needs. And the effect of the war in Afghanistan, says Janice Gross Stein—the author, with Eugene Lang, of The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar— may well have been to signal “the end of the liberal imagination.” At the very least, through a sheer paucity of troops, to utterly undermine these countries’ capacities to even think of taking part. To wit, when I asked retired Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire, now a senator, what number of troops he would require were he to lead a stabilization force in Darfur, he answered, with a straight face, “one hundred thousand.”

“He was being ironic,” Michael Gaouette later said. “He was making a point.”

There are presently 9,200 peacekeepers in Darfur, though the joint UN/ African Union mission would like twice that number. In Afghanistan, there are 47,000 troops, of which roughly 2,500 are Canadian. And we are asking for help. What chance does Darfur have for more than the mere handful of Canadian peacekeepers—seven at last count—that are working there at the moment? Until humanitarian crises such as exist in Darfur, or that UN peacekeepers have attended to in Angola, East Timor and elsewhere, are seen as security issues in the larger community Canada once distinguished itself in, the point has been made. M

Noah Richler’s radio documentary, “Fighting for Peace,” will be broadcast on CBC Radio One’s Ideas at 9 p.m. on May 21.