Justin Trudeau Is Taking His Time With Peacekeeping Promises, Too

Making Canadian peacekeeping great again might take awhile.

by Drew Brown
May 15 2017, 1:59pm

Photo: Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Back in the ancient days of 2015, one of the Liberals' biggest promises was to renew Canada's commitment to UN peacekeeping missions. Peacekeeping is major part of a certain Canadian identity and it had lapsed dangerously under Stephen Harper, costing the country a seat on the UN Security Council in 2010. (Getting that seat is another major Liberal foreign policy objective.)

But as with so many other of the promises Justin Trudeau made during his election bid, the fate of this one also seems uncertain. A renewed Canadian commitment to peacekeeping is unlikely to come anytime soon—assuming it comes at all before 2019 and the next election.

You can't lay all of this at Trudeau's feet, of course. A big factor is all the instability and uncertainty among Canada's major military allies. The British are caught up in a snap election at the same time as they're trying to negotiate their way out of the European Union, which makes it difficult to make any certain predictions about their foreign policy goals. Similarly, it's unclear what impact the election of Emmanuel Macron in France will have on that country's current military engagement in Mali, which has been regularly floated as a candidate for UN intervention. And literally nobody knows what the Donald Trump White House is going to do on any given day at all, which makes it hard to coordinate international action on much of anything, let alone the armed forces. The Canadian government is, understandably, wary of getting bogged down in a foreign adventure without its big brothers and sisters there to help shoulder the burden.

That said, even if Canada's allies had their wits together, there is little indication our own military would be ready to go anyway. While the Liberals are slated to roll out a new plan for the armed forces in the coming weeks—one which would outline its place in future Canadian foreign policy, as well as how it will be funded—the suddenly mysterious military career of defence minister Harjit Sajjan makes the government's vision a much tougher sell than it otherwise would have been. And the armed forces themselves are still reeling from the surprise ousting of its second-in-command in January, when Vice-Admiral Mark Norman was booted from his post amid allegations that he was leaking cabinet secrets to a Quebec shipwright in order to better lobby the government to sign off on a shipbuilding contract he liked.

Given everything that's going on, it's no surprise that when asked about Trudeau's TBA peacekeeping mission by the Toronto Star, one official in the Department of Defence shrugged that "it's not on the radar."

From all appearances, the Trudeau Liberals have painted themselves into a corner with this promise. But they're not the first Canadian government to waffle on an African peacekeeping mission. A Star investigation last fall reveals that Harper's government faced a similar dilemma in 2010 when it was in the running for its Security Council seat. The UN was urging Canada to send peacekeepers to the Congo, but the Harper government's assessment of the situation leaned towards keeping out, citing a number of conditions that are still at play; namely, that the conflict seemed intractable, there were concerns about human rights abuses among all sides, there was no clear endgame, and Canada was still haunted by the legacies of its disastrous involvement in Somalia and Rwanda in the 1990s. Given that the country still had a heavy military presence in Afghanistan at the time, Harper turned down repeated UN requests for aid. Go figure that we didn't the Security Council seat.

While the Afghan mission has wound down considerably since 2010, many of these logistical problems remain—in addition to the political and military malaise at home and abroad. The biggest difference now is that Trudeau's government has made a big show of promising to do something. Trudeau campaigned on doing something, Sajjan talked a big game at a peacekeeping summit last year about doing something, and now Canada is hosting another summit this fall where it will have to finally explain to the UN either what it actually plans to do, or why it continues to sit on its hands.

Not that publicly eating crow on election promises has proved to be much of a problem for the Liberals in the past. They nonchalantly killed their electoral reform platform earlier this year; what's another one thrown on the pile?

There are obviously lots of very good reasons against committing Canadian soldiers to a peacekeeping mission at this moment in time. But it would admittedly be nice if the Liberals could actually mean what they say for once—or, at least, actually say what they mean.

Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.
Donald Trump
peacekeeping missions
Liberal Government