The Globe and Mail, in an editorial, asks the key question:
“Is there a Canadian national interest in sending troops to Mali?“
I suggest that unless and until the Trudeau government can say, “yes,” and can explain that vital interest to most Canadians that sending Canadian soldiers off to Africa on a United Nations operation is problematical. “The Canadian Armed Forces shed blood and lost lives during the decade-long mission in Afghanistan,” the Globe‘s editorial says, “Sending them into a similar campaign in Mali may further Liberal political interests. But does it serve the national interest?“
Now, I believe that I can make a sensible, mid to long term case for Canada to be “engaged,” politically, economically and militarily in Africa:
- Africa will be, after Asia, the “next big deal” for economic growth, trade and, therefore, profits;
- Canada will want to be involved as a trusted friend when Africa is ready to “blossom” and have an economic “boom” of its own; and
- Despite Chinese and French incursions there are still plenty of opportunities for Canadian engagement.
In other words, we have interests in Africa; even, perhaps, in the mid to long term, we have vital interests, at that.
I cannot make a case for getting involved in any United Nations mission in Africa. I cannot, even with rose coloured glasses, see one single United Nations mission in Africa that is working, much less succeeding and doing some good.
I’m not opposed to the UN. In fact, I’m one of those who says that if it didn’t exist we’d have to invent it. The current UN is better than the old League of Nations, and some UN agencies, like the International Telecommunications Union, for example, do good work for the whole world and are, alone, worth our entire UN contribution, but we ask too much of the UN and it is neither well enough designed or led or organized or funded to do even a small percentage of what is asked of it. Peacekeeping is one of the things that the UN cannot do well in the 21st century. Peacekeeping was fine when it was ‘invented’ (circa 1948, by Ralph Bunche, and American and Brian Urquhart, a Brit, not by Lester Pearson in 1957, no matter what your ill-educated professors may have told you) but it could not be adapted to situations in which there is:
- No peace to be kept;
- A plethora of non-state actors who are not amenable to UN sanctions.
A few days ago I wrote about the risks involved in sending soldiers to Africa. The Globe and Mail‘s editorial just adds some more fuel to that fire.
Back in 2015 Team Trudeau earned a lot of votes from, especially, young and progressive Canadians, by promising to send lots of female, French speaking peacekeepers to Africa to protect women’s rights and feed starving children. Visions of seats on the UN Security Council and even a Nobel Prize for Justin Trudeau danced in Liberal heads. Now, women’s rights do need protecting in much of Africa and there are millions of children who need to
be fed, but outfits like Da’esh/ISIL/ISIS allies Al-Shabaab, AQIM and Boko Haram make life
complicated impossible for traditional, Pearsonian peacekeepers, and the only useful solutions tend to come in 5.56 mm, 81 mm, 120 mm and even 155 mm calibre, and before food can be delivered a lot of that ammunition may need to be expended. That is not, I suspect, what most young, progressive Canadians, including Justin Trudeau, himself, thought should or was going to happen.
To start putting things right the government should emulate France in a few areas:
- Define our vital interests in Africa. Like France’s they will be selfish. I listed three of them up above, in selfish terms, but they can and should be put in altruistic terms for both Canadians and the World;
- Do not hesitate to use our military, to spend lives and treasure, to protect and promote our vital interests; and
- Claim credit, in the UN, for peacekeeping in Africa even when, like France, we do not do it under the UN’s blue beret.
Defining our vital interests and “selling” them to Canadians is an essential first step IF the government is to have and be able to hold public support for operations in Africa which, if they are going to do any good at all, will be of long duration and will cost us in both blood and treasure.
Our military is not some sort of a sacred trust; it is a tool, a finely crafted, expensive one than is meant to be used for Canada.
Finally, one does not have to fly the UN flag or wear its baby-blue beret to be real peacekeepers.
The next step is develop a long term strategic plan to achieve our aims in Africa.
My suggestion is to start with one country as a partner ~ and not a country in which France is already operating in pursuit of its national vital interests (and France does not send troops to fight and die for any other reason). Partner is the important word because we should offer a true, fair, partnership: we will help them with security and development and they will help us to trade and do business in Africa ~ as free and fair trading partners.
It may be that the first step in the partnership will have to be military. It is hard, often impossible for African countries to advance when they are embroiled in revolts, insurrections and civil wars. A right sized Canadian military mission ~ and this is where picking a partner is critical ~ can be of great help.
The “right size” issue may be crucial. I’m guessing that the numbers for Latvia (400+) and Africa (600+) are about the limit that the defence staff feels can be sustained and supported for medium to long term deployments in two distant and disparate theatres.
(If Canada wants to join the ranks of major peacekeeping nations like Ghana (3,100+ troops wearing the UN’s blue beret), Nepal (5,300+ troops) and Pakistan (7,500+ troops on peacekeeping mission) we would have to, at least, double, perhaps treble the strength of the regular army, which would require the 2% of GDP for defence spending that Erin O’Toole has promised and that Prime Minister Trudeau has studiously avoided.)
A partnership should involve: security forces (military and police and, perhaps, intelligence services) on the ground, working side-by-side with the host nation; military training assistance (Canadians teaching in Africa and African officers and soldiers learning in Canada); governmental mentoring (civil servants, lawyers and judges, etc); public service development (schools and hospitals); and commercial and trade partnerships, too. Free(er) trade between Canada and African partners should be a key element … we need to allow Africa access to our markets. That means we need to be less protectionist of e.g. out textile industry.
There is no reason why Canada should not be helping to make and keep the peace in Africa … it can be good policy and good politics and it might allow us to apply an effective mix of hard and soft power in the region. But, and it’s a Big BUT, the United Nations is not much good at peacekeeping … not in the current strategic environment. Canada needs a new peacekeeping model: one that serves our vital national interests.