Lester B. Pearson, in his 1957 Nobel Lecture, declared, “While we all pray for peace, we do not always, as free citizens, support the policies that make for peace or reject those which do not. We want our own kind of peace, brought about in our own way.” The previous day, Pearson had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his pivotal role in resolving the Suez Crisis of 1956, when he was Canada’s secretary of state for external affairs. In Oslo, he spoke in a language that is instantly recognizable to Canadians more than six decades later. Forward-thinking, cosmopolitan, and hopeful, his words invoked, if only implicitly, a long tradition of liberal internationalism dating back to Kant — a tradition in which humanity, through reason, prudence, and enlightened government, can overcome the horrors of war and enjoy the benefits of a lasting peace. Such an idea is the great promise of the post-war international order. It is also, as Pearson suggested, inherently fragile.
Canadian history does not naturally lend itself to political jeremiads. Because Canadians lack a shared teleology or missionary zeal for our foundational values, we are uncomfortable with political discourse that appeals to lost morality or an unfulfilled national destiny. A colonial past, a large southern neighbour, and a multilingual, multi-ethnic population have all hamstrung the emergence of the kind of cohesive national identity that can provide a reference point for such lamentations and allow us to understand our country’s place in the world, beyond a common insistence on what we are not: in but not of the British Empire; Québécois but not French; North American but not American. Positive affirmations about what it means to be Canadian and about what sets us apart in an increasingly interconnected and homogenized world remain hard to come by.
It is in this void that peacekeeping has come to serve as a central reference point for how we view ourselves. It is easy to be for peace — easier still when doing so provides a sense of collective purpose. Peace, along with the sense of virtuous altruism that its promotion brings, has a value that is so universal that it is one of the few things that can overcome divisions imposed by language, culture, geography, and history. Crucially, peacekeeping also allows Canadians to step outside of a central national narrative — the gradual but steadfast pull away from the gravitational orbit of Britain to that of the United States. It also makes it possible, however briefly, to understand our position in international affairs without reference to our junior status in either unequal partnership. The eagerness with which we have seized on peacekeeping as a defining feature of national identity is regularly reflected in public opinion polling, media representations, school curricula, and political discourse. Pearson’s legacy, it seems, remains firmly intact.
Yet this vision of ourselves is increasingly out of touch with reality. Since April 1993, Canadian troop contributions to United Nations operations have been in steady decline: by April 2017, we had just twelve peacekeepers deployed in five missions, down from the peak of 3,222 across eleven missions fourteen years earlier. In early 2018, several national media outlets reported that Canadian troop contributions to UN missions had reached a nadir, leading to a rare moment of concern that we might be, as Maclean’s suggested, “failing the global community.” Within weeks, the Trudeau government, which had not delivered on its loudly trumpeted pledge to return to peacekeeping as a core feature of its foreign policy, turning down several direct requests from the UN and European allies in the process, announced that it would send six helicopters and up to 250 troops to support the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, or MINUSMA. Ottawa placed strict limits on the size and duration of its commitments, brushing off international concerns about both, dropping earlier and more ambitious promises, and rejecting a brief extension, requested by the UN to fill a potential service gap. On August 31, 2019, Canada’s involvement in MINUSMA came to an end, just thirteen months after it had begun. Our long-awaited return, it seems, has come and gone.
The world’s most intractable problems tend to transcend borders. International peace is a public good that, in a globalized world, benefits all. Like all public goods, it presents a fundamental collective action problem: if it is possible to enjoy the benefits of peace without bearing any of the costs of promoting it, then governments everywhere, if they can get away with it, have a strong incentive to free ride on the efforts of others. Canada has, of course, long been accused of freeloading in international affairs, of sheltering itself under the umbrella of American power while neglecting its own security commitments. Capturing this sentiment, The Economist — still the world’s most influential proponent of classical liberalism — described Canada, in 2015, as “strong, proud and free-riding.” Despite our desire to view ourselves as “global benefactors,” it contended, we go about “pinching pennies on aid and defence.” The charge that we do not pull our own weight in efforts to promote international peace is far more unsettling given how enthusiastically we have embraced peacekeeping as a central pillar of who we are. It is nevertheless correct.
A simple explanation for Canada’s retreat from peacekeeping can be found in geopolitical changes since Pearson’s time. The end of the Cold War brought a close to the great power struggle that had for decades provided moral clarity about Canada’s place in the world. But the period of liberal triumphalism that followed proved to be short lived, and traumatic experiences in Bosnia, Somalia, and Rwanda — some self-inflicted and others stemming from the brutality of mass violence, the failure of the international community, or both — left lasting scars that impact decision making to this day. With the advent of the War on Terror and Canadian involvement in the war in Afghanistan, our governments have adjusted priorities and redeployed limited resources to combat. Our national commitment to peacekeeping, one might assume, has been a casualty of events.
Such a narrative does not tell the whole story, however. Most egregiously, key aspects of its timeline are not aligned with the record: Canada’s role in Afghanistan, and particularly its major commitment beginning in 2006, did not precipitate a decline in UN personnel contributions, nor did these rebound with the end of the country’s combat mission in 2011. Extensive research into our dwindling commitments has convinced me that the real source of our disengagement lies much closer to home. Pointing to external explanations too easily excuses both the politicians who direct Canadian foreign policy and the voters who elect them. While the shifting contours of global politics may be beyond our control, our leaders still choose how to act in the world, and we, in principle, have the power to hold them accountable. If Canada has turned away from peacekeeping, it is the result of either a conscious political choice or, no less damningly, the inertia and apathy of policy makers and the voting public.
Blame for this shift does not belong to one party. Still, the Conservative Party’s electoral victory in 2006 represents a profound turning point. Rejecting the liberal internationalism that had defined the country’s approach to international affairs since Pearson’s time, the new government instead adopted a Manichaean foreign policy that blended ideological conservatism and domestic political considerations, in an effort to expand the party’s loyal but relatively limited voting base. Under Stephen Harper, peacekeeping and multilateralism were replaced by a new prioritization of military interventions in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, and Syria; support for Israel and Ukraine, and opposition to Iran; the protection of religious minorities; promoting the export of Canadian oil; and withdrawal from international agreements, most notably the Kyoto Protocol. Rather than supporting liberal internationalism, the Conservative government used its foreign policy (and several domestic programs) to promote a version of Canadian identity based on apparently traditional values and military might. Peacekeeping was conspicuous by its absence.
The return of the Liberal Party to power, in 2015, seemed to herald a renewed commitment to liberal internationalism. Peacekeeping was to be at the heart of this promise. Canada would “recommit to supporting international peace operations with the United Nations,” the Liberals pledged in their election manifesto, “not only because of the help they provide to millions of people affected by conflicts, but also because they serve Canada’s interests.” Although voters, as usual, gave little priority to foreign policy when casting their ballots, this stance appeared to enjoy popular support, with one pre-election poll finding that 74 percent of respondents believed that the military “should be focused on peacekeeping” instead of “combat preparedness.” Crucially, however, respondents were divided along partisan lines, as supporters of the Liberals and New Democratic Party, at 80 percent or more, were far more likely than Conservative voters, at just over half, to prioritize peacekeeping.
Of perhaps even greater significance, subsequent polling suggests that Canadians favour peacekeeping more in principle than in practice. A 2016 poll revealed that only 56 percent of voters supported a proposed but still vague plan to send 600 peacekeepers to Africa, and when informed of the possibility that these men and women could come under fire, support dropped to 44 percent. The idea of peacekeeping as a central pillar of Canadian identity may be popular, but its reality and potential costs are not. Such a contradiction incentivizes politicians to offer rhetorical support for peacekeeping while refraining from actual commitments as long as possible.
This is the uneasy balance that the Liberal government struck after coming to power. But as its failure to meaningfully re-engage in peacekeeping began to receive greater attention in the corridors of the UN, potentially harming Ottawa’s chances of achieving its stated ambition to win a temporary seat on the Security Council from 2021, it reluctantly changed course with its limited commitment to MINUSMA. The decision proved divisive at home. The Conservatives were quick to emphasize the potential risks of the operation, which defence critic James Bezan described as a “combat mission” in “a war zone.” Although troops would be relatively safe — a fact that foreign allies apparently felt was poorly communicated by the government — the media amplified this message: an opinion piece for the CBC warned that the mission was “destined to become the folly in Mali,” while another in Maclean’s claimed that it “could become a new Afghanistan.” Even ostensibly neutral coverage discussed at length the potential dangers that our soldiers would face. The public was similarly unconvinced. In a poll released shortly before the first peacekeepers were deployed, 41 percent of respondents — including 59 percent of Conservative, 29 percent of Liberal, and 31 percent of NDP voters — agreed with the statement that the Mali mission “is too risky and Canada shouldn’t get involved.” Revealingly, while 83 percent believed that Canada has a positive international reputation, and 70 percent claimed that Canadian peacekeeping is a personal source of pride, more than half agreed that “ultimately, the situation in Mali is not Canada’s problem.”
Canada’s retreat from UN peacekeeping comes at a delicate historical moment. The liberal international order, which the modern peacekeeping ethos was designed to uphold, is under threat from both domestic democratic backlashes and resurgent authoritarianism around the world — shattering the illusion of a global consensus. Such a challenge has taken many by surprise and caused much hand-wringing by those who have benefited most from the status quo while, perhaps, taking the international order’s durability for granted. But it is no historical accident.
Liberal internationalism has never been particularly democratic. Its central institutions — the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund — are far removed from voting publics in both their design and their function, as if popular input, while invaluable for arranging domestic affairs, has no place in global governance. They are also creaking under the strain of progress: profound economic and technological change, the decline of great powers, and growing demands for political inclusion mean that the post-war world in which they were founded no longer exists.
Canada remains one of the few wealthy democratic countries where overt nationalistic populism has not taken root at the federal level, a status that was, however temporarily, reaffirmed in 2019 with the electoral success of progressive parties and a poor performance by the nascent People’s Party of Canada. But that does not mean that voters back liberal internationalism. Some are openly hostile or support a more militaristic, nationalistic view of Canadian identity (witness the fallout from Don Cherry’s last “Coach’s Corner” broadcast); others, perhaps the majority, are simply unwilling to bear the costs that meaningful support entails. Perhaps this is understandable: liberalism and democracy are two distinct traditions that actually have little in common and often exist in opposition to each other. While one ascribes supreme importance to universal rights and values, the other takes popular will as the foundation for organizing political life. It should not be assumed that liberal principles and the institutions that uphold them always, or indeed often, enjoy popular support; it is possible that the post-war period was a brief historical moment in which circumstances allowed them to align before they inevitably came apart once more, as we are now witnessing. Peacekeeping, of course, cannot save the international system. But by turning our backs when asked for meaningful commitments, we are doing little to sustain it.
In truth, the liberal international order needs Canada less than Canada needs liberal internationalism. Our role within multilateral institutions has served as an important basis of national identity. It has also allowed Canada to exercise its influence on the international stage and rise above its middle-power status, so that we might pursue our interests, particularly in the spread of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. We imagine ourselves pursuing peace and human rights — or, in a nod to our history, peace, order, and good government.
Beyond peacekeeping, Canada has enjoyed significant success in working with like-minded governments, regional organizations, and civil society groups to ban land mines, establish the International Criminal Court, champion women’s rights, and set the agenda for humanitarian intervention and human security protections. None of these achievements would have been possible if the present international structure had not amplified our efforts. Canada can ill afford to remain idle as it all comes apart at the seams.
Canada’s declining peacekeeping contributions will soon come under greater scrutiny. In elections for the UN Security Council, scheduled for June 2020, we will compete with Norway and Ireland for the two spots open to the Western European and Others Group. While officials publicly express confidence that Canada’s campaign will be a success, our rivals boast credentials we can no longer so easily claim: Norway is the world’s largest per capita provider of foreign aid, and Ireland is a reliable contributor to peacekeeping operations. Our foot-dragging and limited commitments have not gone unnoticed, and even close allies have reportedly expressed frustrations about our failure to deliver on our promises. Our involvement in the Mali mission now over, there is little on the horizon until, according to the Liberals’ 2019 election platform, the government earmarks $50 million a year to UN peacekeeping starting in 2021–22 — just when, coincidentally, we would take up a Security Council seat. It would be understandable if observers were skeptical of this stated commitment.
Our loss to Germany and Portugal in the 2010 Security Council election was, despite efforts to frame it as the price of moral clarity in a compromised world, an embarrassment for the Conservative government and a clear indication of how far Canada’s international standing had fallen under Stephen Harper. “The country’s profile at the UN,” an editorial in the Globe and Mail remarked at the time, “is a shadow of its former self.” But given the Harper government’s thinly veiled disdain for multilateralism, the rebuff was hardly a surprise. A similar rebuke of the Trudeau government would be harder to explain away, given the extent to which it has placed re-engagement with the UN at the centre of claims that Canada is back on the global stage. It would also fit neatly into the growing narrative of personal hubris around Trudeau, who constructed, in the words of the Guardian, “a brand so well-devised, so symbolic and emotive” that it encouraged “idealisations that in reality no politician could match.”
But Trudeau’s hamartia may well be our own, and it could be that what is really unsettling about his apparent failure to live up to lofty expectations is that he personifies a declension that shakes the foundations of our national identity by laying bare an ever-present disconnect between self-image and reality. Perhaps his flaws are a little too recognizable, a little too Canadian.
Another high-profile failure to secure a Security Council seat could have a silver lining. If, for the second time in a decade, we are forced to confront the gulf that continues to grow between our perception of ourselves and the realities of our global commitments, we may finally come to realize that support for liberal internationalism requires more than lofty rhetoric and good intentions. While a reckoning will surely be uncomfortable, an open and honest discussion about our role in the world is long overdue.
In reality, the fallout would likely be dispiritingly predictable and prosaic. For those who view the prime minister and his team as heavy on style and light on substance, such a public humiliation would provide yet more political ammunition to use against a government that no longer commands a parliamentary majority. Considered self-reflection will be drowned out by the din of partisan politics, blame will be assigned to political rivals, and little will ultimately change. And for those who believe that Canada can once more make an outsized contribution to the promotion of global peace, the sense of disappointment will remain.
There is also the possibility, of course, that none of this will come to pass. The outcomes of UN elections still owe much to the backroom dealing and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring that have historically made a mockery of its democratic credentials, in which case Canada’s recent record may prove to be of little consequence. A coveted seat at the table on the body that, while in desperate need of reform, remains at the centre of global politics may yet beckon. But really, deep down, we must know that we no longer deserve it.