Canada is at war. There has been no declaration of war, and Parliament has not even debated the issue. But, Canadian planes are dropping bombs on the Republic of Yugoslavia. Critics of Canada’s participation in NATO’s war on Yugoslavia in defence of Kosovo have argued that going to war, especially without the authorization of the United Nations, violates the Canadian tradition of peacekeeping. These same critics, most notably Senator Doug Roche and University of Toronto Historian Michael Bliss, also assert that Canada’s ability to act as a peacekeeper has now been shattered.

The suggestion that Canada’s international tradition is peacekeeping ignores Canada’s other tradition: fighting wars and preparing for war. Canadians fought and died in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Gulf War. Canada was also a founding member of NATO and NORAD. This meant that Canada established its own military bases in Europe, participated in joint training exercises, and even allowed US nuclear weapons on Canadian soil. Canada also participated in almost every peacekeeping operation during this time period. However, Canada’s effectiveness in peacekeeping was not because it was neutral, but because it was firmly entrenched in the Western alliance. This can best be seen in the International Commission of Control and Supervision in Vietnam. The ICCS was a tripartite force with representatives from the East bloc (Poland), the nonaligned movement (India), and the West bloc (Canada). Another example was Canada’s 30 year commitment in Cyprus, which was designed to limit the potential for a larger war between two of its NATO allies, Greece and Turkey.

The argument that Canada cannot return to action as a peacekeeper once the war is over is also wrong. This criticism was also made during the Gulf War. Even Lloyd Axworthy, in his previous incarnation as a peacenik, made this argument. However, the post-Gulf War period of the early 1990s did not see the end of Canadian peacekeeping, but instead saw it surge to its highest levels ever. By 1993, over 3,000 Canadian soldiers were involved in peacekeeping operations in such places as Cambodia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Somalia. The fact that Canada has already committed 800 troops for peacekeeping in Kosovo after the war shows that the critics of the Kosovo War are going to be just as wrong in their predictions as the Gulf War critics were in 1990-91.

J.L. Granatstein, in his eloquent polemic Who killed Canadian history?, argues convincingly that the failure to teach political/military history is the reason for the lack of knowledge of Canada’s other tradition. However, the real blame should be directed at the Canadian government which has purposely tried to downplay the real reasons for our participation in peacekeeping operations. Clearly, Canada felt that it could play a role in ending, or at least mitigating, war and its effects on civilian populations. However, these altruistic reasons were marginal when compared to the overarching national interests that were met by international peacekeeping. For instance, Canada’s physical security was best served by ensuring that small international crises did not escalate into global conflicts. In otherwords, Canada believed that its efforts at peacekeeping would prevent it from having to go to war. Preventing a wider conflict between the US, Britain, France and the USSR during the Suez crisis of 1956 was the rationale for Lester Pearson’s invention of peacekeeping. Second, Canada’s economic status as a trading nation means that it is best served by a world that it is largely peaceful. Third, Canada’s participation in international peacekeeping could be used to justify its low defence spending to the other NATO members. Fourth, participation in peacekeeping gave Canada a "seat at the table" with the world’s great powers during discussions over international peace and security. Finally, the Canadian government used peacekeeping as a high-profile way to forge a national identity independent of the "militaristic" Americans (ironically, critics of the Kosovo operation have shown that this objective has easily been met).

Ottawa encouraged the myth of Canadians as "helpful fixers," or the "world’s boy scouts" because it believed that it was an easier sell to the public than taking the time to explain the complex national interests which were at the heart of our participation. Unfortunately by not being truly honest for the last forty years, Ottawa is now faced with a public which does not understand Canada’s other tradition of fighting wars as an intregal member of the Western alliance. Nor does it understand that just as it was in Canada’s national interest to send peacekeepers to Suez, Cyprus, or Bosnia, it is now in our national interest to be sending war planes to Kosovo.

Duane Bratt is a lecturer in international relations at Mount Royal College and the University of Calgary.


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