Beyond War and Peacekeeping

With armed conflict in steady decline, the usual debates over Canada’s military seem increasingly dated.

On December 30, 1941, as part of his wartime visit to Canada, British prime minister Winston Churchill addressed an extraordinary joint session of the Senate and House of Commons in Ottawa to thank our country for its steadfast commitment to the Allied cause—through troops, equipment, food and finance, and through its indispensable Empire training scheme for pilots from across the Commonwealth.

Churchill’s purpose, however, went beyond expressions of gratitude. His task was also to prepare Canadians for the gruelling months ahead in the fight against Nazi Germany (and, due to the attack on Pearl Harbor earlier that month, Imperial Japan as well). “In a few months, when the invasion season returns,” he warned, “the Canadian Army may be engaged in one of the most frightful battles the world has ever seen.” In that legendary Churchillian prose, he reminded his listeners of the justness of their cause and the certainty of victory. “There shall be no halting, or half measures, there shall be no compromise, or parley. These gangs of bandits have sought to darken the light of the world; have sought to stand between the common people of all the lands and their march forward into their inheritance. They shall themselves be cast into the pit of death and shame, and only when the earth has been cleansed and purged of their crimes and their villainy shall we turn from the task which they have forced upon us.”

According to newspaper accounts of the time, Churchill’s words electrified the packed chamber, and consolidated the backing of Canada’s political elite behind his leadership of the war effort. The journalist Margaret Lawrence, a writer for Saturday Night magazine, chronicled how a normally dull and grey Commons was transformed by the lights of photographers and movie crews and a powerful microphone to carry Churchill’s booming voice—which she described as “a gift from God”—to the whole world. “As the people dispersed and left the Chamber to go their various ways,” wrote a reporter for the Ottawa Morning Citizen the next day, “all realized that somehow a strange, indefinable transformation had been worked within their hearts. They weren’t quite the same people.”1

The support for Churchill was matched by a more general embrace of the war effort by the Canadian population. Numerous polls by Gallup and the newly created Canadian Institute of Public Opinion showed in the early months of 1942 a high level of willingness on the part of citizens (both French and English) to accept wartime controls and endure personal sacrifice—including wage and price ceilings, rationing and government control of production in factories. In August 1942, a poll demonstrated that Canadians, both English and French (although the latter less overwhelmingly), opposed any peace deal with Hitler—something Churchill, of course, had tirelessly fought to avoid at all costs.

This was Canada at war. And it is an image that contemporary figures from the Harper government are fond of appealing to. In a speech to the United Nations in September 2011, foreign affairs minister John Baird compared today’s critics of Israel, who in his view underestimate the threat from Iran, to the appeasers of fascism prior to the Second World War. Quoting Churchill, he described an appeaser as “one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.” Stephen Harper also has a penchant for invoking the “good versus evil” Churchillian mantra, as in an interview with Maclean’s last July, when he claimed that moral clarity was among the greatest assets one could draw on for foreign policy making. The prime minister went a step further, proclaiming that Canada’s history of being on “the right side of important conflicts” had shaped its identity and trajectory as a nation.

Contesting the “Warrior Nation”

For an increasingly vocal set of commentators, the tendency of the Harper government to elevate our experience in armed conflict and to depict the world as one marked by danger and epic struggle is part of a broader campaign to transform Canada into a “warrior nation.” In a new book with this title, Queen’s University historian Ian McKay and writer Jamie Swift contend that determined right-wing forces within the government, academia and the media (including even Hockey Night in Canada’s Don Cherry) are endeavouring to fundamentally shift how Canadians think about their country and its history. This “new warrior project” includes efforts to increase military spending, inculcate greater respect for soldiers and “martial values,” rebrand Remembrance Day as a celebration of war and instil more muscularity into Canada’s foreign policy.

By examining the lives of particular Canadians—including the war veteran turned disarmament advocate Tommy Burns and the Cold War diplomat and founder of the peacekeeping formula Lester Pearson—the authors demonstrate that our country actually has a rich but mixed experience of war, moral crusades and efforts to foster global peace. Indeed, these tendencies have often been mixed within a single figure, as their treatment of Pearson the fierce Cold Warrior (willing to support strong anti-communist measures at home and abroad) and Pearson the peacemaker clearly illustrate. The cardinal sin of the Harperites, McKay and Swift argue in Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety, is that they honour and promote only one part of that national story—the tale of Canada defending and promoting western, imperialist values by putting its “boots on the ground.”

Not surprisingly, peacekeeping is a key aspect of Canada’s past that McKay and Swift wish to salvage from the clutches of those peddling the new warrior project. Noah Richler, in another new Canadian book, What We Talk About When We Talk About War, constructs a similar defence of peacekeeping against its depiction by right-wing historians, politicians and journalists as “a moniker of political futility, dysfunction of the UN and the misapplication of the strengths, resources and precious lives of the Canadian Forces.” The war in Afghanistan, he argues, presented a golden opportunity for the disgruntled opponents of peacekeeping—and its hold on the Canadian imagination—to reorient the Armed Forces toward their “core business” and remind our country’s allies that Canada was not averse to the rough and tumble of combat. The success of that venture, of course, has not been so clear-cut.

Like McKay and Swift, Richler bristles at the notion that war fighting has been the defining experience of the Canadian nation. “The claim that the country’s borders, its francophone-anglophone duality and its relationships with the United States and abroad were shaped either by wars forced upon it, or by other conflicts that it chose to take part in,” he writes, “is the fantasy of a political lobby that, unchecked over the course of the last decade, has seen the country’s ability to fight wars as the truest indicator of its maturity.” Instead, Richler suggests, it has been resolution of conflict through dialogue and compromise—and not the use of force—that more faithfully reflects the essence of the “Canadian way.”

Both of these books are bound to stir up controversy in the months ahead. Their central mission—to wake up Canadians to the ongoing project to militarize their history before their country is changed beyond recognition—will no doubt find a captive audience among those who are both opposed to and inherently suspicious of the Harper majority government. Of the two works, McKay and Swift’s seems the more substantive, as it digs more deeply into the historical record and draws more convincingly on deep connections with military figures and families in Kingston, Ontario. But in both cases, many readers will suspect that the scale of the right-wing plot is overblown.

While I am persuaded that there is a clear intent to change both the tenor and substance of Canadian military history and contemporary foreign policy—and I do not much like it either—the Harperites are given rather too much credit in terms of the success of their efforts to rebrand Canada as a warrior nation. Moreover, there are real questions to be asked about the sustainability of such a project. For some inconvenient data, one need only consult the 2012 Harper budget, which illustrates that the regular rises in defence spending that have occurred over the past five years are at an end. It is not just a case of reducing spending increases, but concretely scaling back: by 2014–15, $1.1 billion (or 5 percent) will be cut from the defence budget and equipment purchases in the range of $3.5 billion will be delayed.2

Seeing the Bigger Picture

These are the details that will no doubt be bandied about in the responses both to Richler and to McKay and Swift. My broader argument, however, is that this particular, and I daresay narrow, debate about militarization under Harper is an unhelpful distraction from a much more important story about the profound changes that have taken place in the nature of armed conflict. It is this transformation, and its implications for Canada, that should be the focus of our attention.

We have seen the effects of this kind of distraction before. Think back, for example, to the hand-wringing over whether or not Canada was still “America’s best friend” after distancing itself from the United States during the Iraq war. This concern—which was matched by a series of attempts to “make up” for our dissent, including even our involvement in Afghanistan—not only misconstrued the nature of our relationship with the U.S. (which has withstood many bumps in the road) but diverted our gaze from the seismic shifts in the global distribution of power, which have generated the comparative rise of states such as China and India. Our myopia about the United States left us ill prepared to deal with the opportunities and challenges that such a recalibration of power represent.

Human Rights and Armed Conflict

Of the many transformations that have occurred in the causes and conduct of armed conflict, including those wrought by revolutions in technology, two stand out.

The first can be broadly described as the increasing prominence of the individual, rather than the sovereign state, in the practice and law of armed conflict. This trend, which is both linked to and fuelled by parallel developments in human rights, has had three principal effects.

First and foremost, it has made the individual one of the central reasons for going to war. So whereas conflicts in previous centuries were about the gain of territory or resources, or defence against attack, many contemporary conflicts have as one of their central purposes the protection of individuals’ physical security. The action led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Libya last year is the culmination of this trend.

Second, the individual has become an accountable agent for certain criminal acts undertaken during the course of war (whether at the level of commander or soldier), as witnessed by the recent extraordinary trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor, accused of sponsoring atrocities in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

And third, the centrality of the individual means that international humanitarian law—the law applicable in wartime—is no longer purely a body of reciprocal legal rules agreed to by sovereign states to limit their conduct during war, in order to minimize the suffering of innocents. Instead, those who become embroiled in armed conflict are still seen to possess their core human rights, regardless of what the warring parties believe they need to do out of “military necessity.”3This has spurred a variety of path-breaking legal challenges by individuals against the actions of military establishments, such as the 2007 Al-Jedda case in the United Kingdom, where a dual Iraqi/British national protested against his detention by British forces in Iraq.

Realists will no doubt retort that these shifts are peripheral, and do not constrain states from pursuing—if necessary, by force—their core national interests. But this assertion is not matched by the concrete steps being taken by many military organizations—for example through changes to training and doctrine and efforts to both count and report civilian deaths—to come to grips with the impact of human rights on the causes and conduct of war.

If the elevation of the individual (and his or her rights) has transformed war, so too has it transformed the practice of peacekeeping. Beginning with the conflict in Sierra Leone in 1999, the UN Security Council now routinely includes civilian protection in peacekeeping mandates, calling on UN contingents to stand up for extreme violations of human rights. Thus, as Canadian scholar Emily Paddon has shown, while during the Cold War–era peacekeepers practised a more passive kind of impartiality, concerned primarily with treating all parties to a conflict in an equal manner, contemporary peacekeepers are expected and mandated to be more assertive, by “penalizing infractions” (as the 2008 United Nations Peacekeeping Operations: Principles and Guidelines puts it) against the peace process or broader international norms and principles.4

This trend, it seems to me, raises some difficult issues for those such as Richler, who on the one hand want to claim that the essence of the Canadian way is a commitment to human rights, support for international projects such as the International Criminal Court, and strong backing of multilateral organizations such as the United Nations—yet who also long for a supposedly golden era of neutrality. To begin, there is the technical point that peacekeeping has never been about neutrality, which entails standing aside from engaging in political activity; rather, the UN has always described its actions as impartial—a principle that entails positive duties to act without bias toward any party.

But more importantly, when Richler describes peacekeeping (or his preferred catch-all term, “peace operations”) as centred on negotiation and nation building, he forgets not only that very particular, liberal values inspire those activities, but also that the “just peace” (his words) he seeks to promote globally is based on a contestable view of justice. So while he may be right in saying that peacekeeping, even in its more muscular form, is not synonymous with war (despite the wish of some Harperites to make it so), it does implicate peacekeepers in activities beyond “tempering” and “adjudicating.”

This is not to say that peacekeeping in the traditional sense, as literally keeping warring factions apart through the creation and monitoring of a buffer zone, will never again be relevant. In fact, as I write, international policy makers are wondering whether such an operation might be mounted to keep Sudan and the newly created South Sudan from a devastating and self-defeating military confrontation. Instead, it is to recognize that in many of the UN’s more recent peacekeeping efforts, the meaning of impartiality has been stretched almost to the breaking point. This can be demonstrated, for example, by the UN’s military strikes against hardware close to the palace of Laurent Gbagbo, the former president of the Ivory Coast, following the stand-off over elections in 2011—an act seen by some as decidedly partial. If the protection of individual civilians has become an explicit goal, then it is difficult to treat all sides as equal.

To understand this dilemma more fully, consider the challenges that civilian protection created for the UN’s largest and most expensive peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC, which operated from 1999 to 2010). On the one hand, the robust mandate (which by 2008 had come to include 41 different peacekeeping tasks) raised expectations within the population that the UN would save them from violence. So when the people of Bukavu were raped and massacred in 2004, and MONUC stood by, violent anti-UN protests ensued. On the other hand, since peacekeeping forces operate in a state on the basis of that state’s consent, action that is viewed as violating impartiality can jeopardize the UN’s relationship with the host government—as it did when MONUC began to criticize the Congolese government’s military action against rebel factions and was subsequently asked by President Joseph Kabila to leave the DRC.

As a result, the consensus on the legitimacy of what Paddon calls “assertive impartiality” is extremely fragile, due to a deep discomfort among some states about the ambitiousness and normative dimensions of recent UN mandates. The March 2011 action against Libya (although not a peacekeeping operation) has heightened the concerns of those states that remain wedded to the norms that underpinned the more passive, Cold War United Nations—namely, self-determination and non-intervention. For those who support the continuation of multilateral approaches to managing international peace and security, understanding and addressing the tensions within the contemporary practice of peacekeeping is a vital task.

THE END OF WAR AS WE KNOW IT?

The second transformation poses a much more serious challenge to those on both sides of the warrior nation divide, for it suggests that our very subject matter here—formal armed conflict—is becoming a relic of the past. If we need to be honest and rigorous about Canada’s past and present wars, we should be equally rigorous in analyzing the bigger picture in which our country’s particular experience is embedded.

Researchers have noted for at least 20 years the dramatic decline in the incidence of international armed conflict (such as conflict between two states). So, for example, while in 1950 there was an average of six international conflicts per year, there is currently less than one. The reasons for this shift are hotly debated, with some, like Steven Pinker, emphasizing the impact of norms, institutions and changes in values, and others the effect of deterrence (whether through conventional or nuclear arms).5 Nevertheless, even dyed-in-the-wool realists, who stress the need for states to prepare for the ever-present possibility of armed attack, have been forced to admit that something pretty interesting is going on here.

But what is truly striking about more recent data sets is that they point to the decline and severity in all types of conflict, including civil war.6 This latter finding challenges the narrative of the first decade of the post–Cold War period, which predicted that “new wars,” driven by ethnic hatred, would constitute the policy dilemma of the 21st century.7 While 81 internal armed conflicts occurred in the 1990s, there were only 39 in the following decade. Moreover, those civil wars that did occur—despite the horrific images on our television screens—were less severe, for both civilians and combatants, than those of previous periods.

These figures suggest that Prime Minister Harper’s mental map—of a long-term and epic struggle against terrorists and rogue states like Iran—may be the product of a common ailment: the tendency to idealize the past and exaggerate the dangers of the present. They also highlight that treatises about how to make or keep or build peace are focusing on a kind of conflict (in this case, usually civil war) that—while undoubtedly devastating for those it affects, both directly and indirectly—may be an increasingly rare occurrence.

But although we are seeing a decline in international and civil wars, as they are legally understood, there is a new category of “generalized violence” that is hidden by these formal categories. According to a 2011 report titled The Global Burden of Armed Violence, while on average just over half a million people now die annually in violent circumstances, just 10 percent of those die in formal conflict settings. Instead, the growing phenomenon of generalized violence accounts for the lion’s share of violent deaths around the world, and is concentrated in a relatively small number of countries, such as El Salvador, Jamaica, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico (Canada’s partner in the North American Free Trade Agreement).

These countries do not tend to feature in many discussions about the future role of the Canadian armed forces, or our broader foreign policy. Yet they all experience widespread, large-scale and indiscriminate violence—whether through the systematic repression of their government or their government’s failure to effectively address drug, gang or political violence.

Such societies provide a reality check for those who assume that the decline in the incidence of war means we can all “go back to our barracks.” Surely these situations call out for some kind of response, if the United Nations is now about protection. And if Richler is right, that the essence of the “Canadian way” is what he calls our “humanitarian internationalist tendencies,” then surely we should have something to contribute to these tragedies—many of which are in our own hemisphere.

It has been said that generals too often “fight the last war.” That might be true, too, of those who write about and analyze war. If Canadians want to adapt to the changing nature of war, they first need to guard against simplified dichotomies—war versus peace or conflict versus crime—and recognize that today’s armed violence has multiple and overlapping motives, and that different types of violence can exist and interact in the same setting.

The next step is to think in more creative, even radical ways about the different entry points that national, regional and international actors might have to both prevent and address today’s most dangerous environments. The tragic situations in Guatemala, or Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez, require policies that directly address perpetrators and their particular economic motives (such as poverty and unemployment), the means they have to commit violent acts (such as the flow of cheap arms) and the wider institutional setting that permits violence to occur with impunity (such as weak adherence to the rule of law). In the case of Guatemala, for example, the role of the UN has not involved peacekeepers, but rather—through a novel agreement with the national government—assistance in investigating crimes and instances of violence, and efforts to strengthen Guatemalan institutions (such as the Public Prosecutor’s Office, civilian police, and national courts) that are confronting illegal groups.8

This is a very different agenda for promoting international security than either buying more F-35s (a central plank in Harper’s vision for the Canadian military) or creating a new, dedicated peace operations regiment (an idea proposed by Richler). Indeed, it is an agenda that may not engage military actors much at all.

This does not mean that national armed forces, to safeguard our sovereignty and security, are a relic of the past. But it does mean that we need to talk not only about Canada’s history of war, and the mistakes of current wars such as Afghanistan, but also of what war is likely to look like for our children and grandchildren.

Note: I am grateful to Anouk Dey for her research assistance for this article.


  1. For more on Churchill’s visit and speech, see David Dilks’s The Great Dominion: Winston Churchill in Canada, 1900–1954 (G7 Books, 2005).[back

  2. It should be noted that the controversial plans to buy new F-35s do not figure into the budget figures. This purchase will still go ahead, but will not show up on the books until 2016.  

  3. For more on this first transformation, and the particular relationship between human rights and armed conflict, see Ruti Teitel’s Humanity’s Law (Oxford University Press, 2011).  

  4. For further discussion of the tensions inherent in contemporary peacekeeping, see Emily Paddon’s “Partnering for Peace: Implications and Dilemmas” in International Peacekeeping, volume 18, number 5 (2011), pages 516–33.  

  5. For a comprehensive treatment of the data, see Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes (Allen Lane, 2011).  

  6. The main sources consulted for this piece are the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, available at <www.pcr.uu.se//research/ucdp>; the 2009–10 Human Security Report, available at <www.hsrgroup.org>; and The Global Burden of Armed Violence: 2011, available at <www.genevadeclaration.org>.  

  7. This thesis was most clearly expressed in Mary Kaldor’s New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era (Polity, 2006).  

  8. The agreement, signed in late 2006, created the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala.