Canada: A Global Peacekeeper?

Support for peacekeeping has waned since the Pearson era. Although it is still formally one of the four roles of Canada's armed forces, it is not given the attention one might expect. Peter Meincke claims that we can play a vital part in preventing regional conflicts from escalating.

By Peter Meincke | 1988-08-01 12:00:00

Support for peacekeeping has waned since the Pearson era. Although it is still formally one of the four roles of Canada's armed forces, it is not given the attention one might expect. Peter Meincke claims that we can play a vital part in preventing regional conflicts from escalating.


As Arnold Simoni has stated, "there is no reason to believe that violent conflicts between states will not remain as much part of our future as our past, although the consequences are now much more dangerous. . . . Thus the best we can hope for is that new social institutions can be created which will help to avoid war, or to limit the frequency and intensity of war."

The greatest danger in the next decade is likely to come from the horizontal proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in volatile regional conflicts, such as the Middle East. Israel already has nuclear weapons and some Arab countries are bound to acquire them. Iraq is already using mustard and nerve gases in its war with Iran. Israel will surely use nuclear weapons if its back is to the wall. Pakistan feels a need for such weapons as a deterrent against the threats from India. Brazil will soon be able to manufacture nuclear weapons, both for its own defence and to add to its flourishing sale of arms to relieve its foreign debt problems. Despite the Treaty of Tlatelolco, nuclear proliferation in other Latin American countries is a possibility.

The problems associated with horizontal proliferation can also apply to other technologies such as the cruise missile. This weapon is cheap, relatively simple to manufacture, unmanned and extremely hard to defend against. It is so accurate that it is very effective even with conventional payloads. Imagine what might happen if cruise missiles were introduced in the Middle East or Pakistan -- or if Brazil added them to its catalogue of arms for sale. The pressure to acquire nuclear and/or biological weapons will become irresistible unless less developed countries are given an alternative to buying arms at the expense of their socio-economic development.

Major wars usually start for unexpected reasons in areas where the countries are least prepared. Both the West and the USSR are prepared for direct attack and war in Europe. However, the superpowers are not prepared for regional conflicts that escalate. It is in Canada's interest to defuse such situations.


Although the U.N. has done more for peacekeeping than any country or organization, its effectiveness is disappointing. As long ago as 1969, George Ignatieff wrote that "We must admit that the U.N. is not capable of fulfilling the defence needs of its members. It also has to be accepted that the U.N. cannot 'ensure' world peace for the simple reason that member states, including the Permanent Members of the Security Council, look to the U.N. primarily as a diplomatic instrument rather than as an organization which is capable of enforcing solutions."

There are a few examples of effective peacekeeping outside the U.N. from which lessons can be learned. In the case of Korea, all subsequent actions, after the initial authorization of the force in Korea, were dealt with by the General Assembly, so as to avoid a Soviet veto. The U.N. members turned over all responsibility to the United States. Thus the U.N. itself established a way to authorize peacekeeping in spite of the veto powers, by delegating complete responsibility to an individual country. The U.N. can act only if a crisis is so bad that a majority of the U.N. members believe that something must be done.

Would it not be better to have a two or three stage process in which the U.N. was brought in at the last, most serious, stage? Since the composition of the peacekeeping force is often a major stumbling block to approval by the U.N. Security Council or General Assembly, a two stage process could expedite matters if a number of countries were ready to go in. It would leave the hard composition questions to be dealt with at the second stage.


The three main global problems are all connected: the international anarchy which produces wars, the gap between the developed and underdeveloped countries, and the infringement of human rights. No single one of these can be handled by itself.

When the cost of a country's security increases at the expense of its social and economic development, problems result that in turn exacerbate the perceived need for more security. Many of the less developed countries struggle to remain nonaligned but find themselves forced into the Eastern or the Western camp as the result of a local conflict. However, more people are coming to see that development is one of the most effective defences in rural areas bordering on hostile states.

What are the implications for Canada? Does Canadian aid to less developed countries simply enable them to spend more on security? If Canada were to provide, on request, some sort of observer team or even a peacekeeping force closely integrated with development assistance, it would help those governments to devote more of their scarce resources to economic development. Such an approach will not work, of course, when one country wants to invade the other. However, in some cases both sides are trapped in a spiral of suspicion, fear, and arms build-up that Canada could help to resolve.


The involvement of the U.S. and Russia can turn a border dispute or internal political unrest into a major East-West confrontation, to the dismay of the local leaders, who nevertheless often have to ask one of the superpowers for military aid.

The superpowers find such situations awkward. (Afghanistan and Nicaragua are recent examples.) As they become embroiled in the internal affairs of supposedly sovereign states, they are criticized, not thanked, for their assistance. Nevertheless, when urgent action is required, nations seem to turn to them rather than the U.N. or even regional organizations. Canada might possibly even persuade the superpowers sometimes to disengage from a regional conflict and let Canada try to solve it.


Canada has won widespread respect for its ability to understand both sides of a controversy. Its two founding cultures link it with both the Commonwealth and the Francophonie nations. Its credibility is enhanced by being the one nation that had the capacity to develop nuclear weapons but chose not to do so. One is more likely to find real peacekeepers among the military of Canada than among those of most other nations.

Three possible options for Canadian defence policy can be considered: (1) maintain the status quo; or (2) allocate sufficient resources to meet existing commitments and make peacekeeping and conflict resolution the cornerstones of defence and foreign policies; or (if there are not enough resources for this option) (3) reduce commitments such as those to the European theatre in order to specialize in peacekeeping, defence of North America and assertion of sovereignty.

The status quo is not without problems. All political parties now agree that Canada's armed forces are stretched so thin and equipped so poorly that something must be done. New military equipment will be bought by this government or by the next one. However, if the status quo were kept (even with new equipment) Canada's armed forces would be left without a clear mandate.

The second option is to make peacekeeping and conflict resolution the cornerstones of policy. Canada would continue to provide forces for U.N. peacekeeping operations and might add new peacekeeping communication and support units.

Canada should also be prepared to respond to requests from regional organizations such as the Organization of American States to help resolve a local conflict. Right now there is no place for them to go if they do not want to involve the U.N. or the superpowers. Canada might even respond to joint requests from one or both superpowers. It would be prepared to deploy, at the request of the antagonists, and outside the auspices of the U.N. or even regional organizations, a complete, stand-alone peacekeeping force and a contingent of skilled negotiators from External Affairs. When appropriate, development assistance also would be included. Such a service would provide a rapid, first stage response to an expressed need without the manoeuvring that must accompany the establishment of a U.N. or regional force.

A second stage, more deliberate response could involve regional organizations or the United Nations if the first stage response had not resolved the problems. A two or three stage response provides a means for escalating pressure for a resolution of the conflict without the use of military force. Because the U.N. does not have to become involved until the final stage, it has more opportunity to gather information before entering. Time is also gained for both sides.

As far as the development dimension is concerned, Canadian troops have built bridges and roads on previous occasions; they might also organize water management projects, electricity production, airports, harbors, communications and schools.

Such a mission would benefit the Canadian economy. Specialization in peacekeeping would encourage research, development, and production of such technologies as remote patrol vehicles, infrared scanning, high resolution image processing, image intensifying techniques, open communications systems, and electronic surveillance. Canada's research strengths already lie in these areas; its size demands the most up-to-date commun-ications and surveillance technologies. The international markets for such products will be enormous in the future. Canada will lose what it has unless it invests in research and development to stay at the leading edge. Increasing Canada's involvement in peacekeeping could also increase the opportunities for women in the armed forces.

Because of its location between the superpowers and its expertise in communication, Canada could be the site of a Crisis Management Center where US and Soviet experts might work side by side to prevent escalation because of misinformation.

Canada should negotiate a new relationship with NATO, in which it would take on a share of the peacekeeping obligations of its NATO allies in exchange for withdrawing Canada's forces from Europe. Its contribution to NATO would not be diminished. Canada can contribute to NATO without stationing its troops in Europe. It could provide training facilities such as the Cold Lake range. It could assert its sovereignty in the Arctic by inviting other northern NATO nations to participate in joint exercises. Canada can make its most effective contribution by emphasizing peacekeeping both inside and outside the United Nations, even if it means withdrawing its troops from Europe.p

Peter Meincke is a Physics Professor at the University of Prince Edward Island who developed this proposal during a year at the National Defence College in Kingston, Ontario.

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1988

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1988, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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