Why Canada makes a difference

A few years ago, two well-respected Canadian academics founded the ”declinist” school of Canadian foreign policy, which holds that Canadian engagement in world politics has declined during the 1990s. They argued that domestic political conditions had pushed Canada into an isolationist foreign policy.

Successive governments since 1956 were to blame, fiscally starving Canada’s diplomatic and armed services almost to the point where “Canada has become irrelevant.” Decay started in the so-called ”golden age” of Canadian foreign policy under Lester B. Pearson. Back then, Canada was perceived internationally as an emerging middle power. Indeed, the world wanted more Canada, and Canada did not shy away from this responsibility: It sent troops to multilateral peacekeeping missions in the Middle East, Cyprus and others, and, in 1956, brought the Nobel Peace Price home to Canada. Since Suez, according to the declinist school, Canadian irrelevance has grown.

Academic and journalist Andrew Cohen, for example, states: “We did things abroad. We went to war, we kept the peace, and we died doing both. We fed, taught, and treated people in hard places, we brokered and proselytized in international councils. We bought goods from the corners of the earth and sold them there, too, and we became rich. We have a past. We come from somewhere.”

This decline continued in the post-Cold War international environment. Canada, it is argued, is no longer “as strong a soldier, as generous a donor, and as effective a diplomat, and it has diminished us as people.”

To be sure, there is no doubt that Canada was faced with a fiscal crisis in the early 1990s, and that DFAIT and DND, the two key departments with a foreign policy portfolio, had to swallow budgetary cuts, which in turn, limited their ability to represent Canadian interests abroad. The Canadian Forces (CF), for example, was forced to close several bases across the country, as well as ones in Germany. Likewise, DFAIT closed various embassies and consulates around the world. This unilateral withdrawal from world politics caused a serious rebuff among Canada’s closest NATO allies and Canadian representatives abroad felt the disappointment of their NATO colleagues.

Although this fiscal crisis took place in the early 1990s, Canadian commitments and actions in Europe do not support the declinist argument. Indeed, Canadian internationalism needs to be put into the larger picture of developments in Europe.

First, in a new pan-European security environment, soft power – not hard power resources – is palpable to advance Canadian interests. Second, there appears to be a logical inconsistency in the argument: If, indeed, it is true that Canada was in decline in the Atlantic alliance in the 1990s, how then can the declinist school explain Canada’s current special role in NATO’s current Afghan mission? In short, if you were a laggard in the 1990s, you cannot be a leader in 2006-08.

Rather, Canada was a capable, dedicated, and committed partner in the Atlantic alliance by ensuring European security in the Balkans. In relative terms, Canada punched above its weight in Europe and, as one of the smaller NATO members, it shouldered a disproportionate transatlantic burden in the Balkan operations. Only this can explain the most recent applause that Canada received from the alliance when NATO’s chief spokesperson, James Appathurai, said in response to the Manley report: “Let there be no ambiguity. Canada is playing a key role in this mission. We would like to see that role continue. We think Canada has accomplished a lot in Kandahar.”

Balkans commitment
Militarily speaking, one might argue that Canada’s 1994 Defence White Paper was right: Canada made the right decision to retain combat capable expeditionary forces, which provided the government with options in a highly volatile security environment. It also allowed Canada’s armed forces to be ready when the call came to deploy to the Balkans to contain a humanitarian crisis. No doubt, while Canadian forces were in rough shape, they were, nonetheless, roughly similar in nature, although certainly not scale, to those of the U.S. They were also quite unlike those of most other NATO allies, which were postured to defend their own European homelands and highly immobile, inflexible, and incapable of deploying forces abroad.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, a transformation of the role and importance of military power in international affairs took place. While using the armed forces extensively as a tool of statecraft during the Cold War, Western governments have done so less in a post-Cold War security environment. This was partly because the size of NATO’s armed forces was scaled back significantly. While Canada happened to be the first country in 1994 to close its bases in Germany, other NATO allies followed suit shortly thereafter and scaled back their forwardly deployed forces. In that sense, Canadian actions were consistent with NATO’s new defence policy.

Meanwhile, NATO’s former adversaries had become its friends. This transformation gave NATO a new political role in the transatlantic alliance: diplomacy and international engagement as opposed to large-scale conventional forces were the new keywords in town. This was a long-term interest of Canada. In 1949, Canada had pushed its allies for article 2, the so-called Canadian article, which emphasizes NATO’s role as a political organization in addition to its military postures.

Secondly, the significance and meaning of the national interest changed with the end of the Cold War. While advancing a country’s national interest was the primary foreign policy goal during the Cold War, other security dimensions such as environmental, human security, and others gained increasing significance and required different kinds of resources and capabilities.

In short, while nation states relied on their hard power tools of statecraft to gain influence during the Cold War, these have become less effective post-1989, and soft power tools, such as diplomacy, negotiation, and others have become the new accepted principles of Canadian foreign policy.

There was also a renewed commitment to adhere to the normative principles of international law as opposed to a sole reliance on the use of force. This shift affected the nature and role of NATO forces: in the Cold War they were trained and equipped for continental defence operations; post-modern militaries are required to adapt to new environments much more rapidly and carry out a multitude of tasks – peacekeeping, humanitarian intervention, war fighting and diplomacy.

This all describes the context in which Canadian external relations and decisions took place and, more importantly, how they affected the roles, tasks, and responsibilities of Canada’s armed forces.

Call to arms
Militarily speaking, Canada answered when asked by NATO and its allies to send troops to an evolving humanitarian crisis in the Balkans in the early 1990s. Canadian burden sharing started with the Gulf War in 1990. Although Canada did not directly participate militarily in the liberation of Kuwait, it sent two-thirds of its navy to enforce the naval blockade in the Persian Gulf. In addition, it sent a selection of its special forces and a field hospital. In total, more than 6,600 Canadian soldiers rotated through this operation before, during or after the hostilities.

Canada remained forwardly deployed and was one of the first countries to contribute to the first peacekeeping mission in the Balkans, initially though the European Community Monitoring Mission (ECMM) in Bosnia, and later through the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR). In the case of the ECMM, UN peacekeepers were invited into the country only after Canada and the United States committed troops. The mandate of the Canadian contingent in UNPROFOR was to monitor UN Protected Areas in Croatia, demilitarize these zones, and monitor cease-fire agreements. While doing so, Canadians encountered some of the most difficult operational situations: Canadian soldiers were there in Screbrenica in 1993, were taken hostage in Sarajavo in 1994, helped liberate Sarajevo airport, and were confronted with direct combat in the Medak Pocket. In total, Canada sent 2,151 soldiers (or 44% of the total force) and ranked 5th overall.

When the UN left the Balkans, Canada did not duck and remained forwardly deployed in Europe, this time through NATO. The Dayton Peace Accords that established the Implementation Force (IFOR) with a total of 60,000 troops replaced an unsuccessful UNPROFOR. Canada sent 1,047 troops and was the 4th largest force contributor to Operation Air Bridge, which supported the city of Sarajevo with humanitarian supplies.

When IFOR was replaced by the Stabilization Force (SFOR) in December 1996, Canada continued to deploy 1,327 soldiers. It was the 8th largest out of 18 contributing NATO countries. This was a significant Canadian contribution overall, and all of Canada’s army units rotated through this operation.

In 1999, when ethnic Albanians and a Serb minority engaged in ethnic cleansing in the province of Kosovo, Canada again answered NATO’s call. Canada was the 7th largest force contributor (out of 18 nations), and deployed 1,450 troops. It shouldered a disproportionate burden of operation “Allied Force.” In fact, with the ground and air campaign combined, Canada was the 3rd largest contributing nation.

It is because of this history in the 1990s that Canada was able to offer troops to NATO’s operation in Afghanistan when the call came in the aftermath of 9/11. And, yet again, Canada did not shy away from shouldering some of that responsibility.

Benjamin Zyla, Ph.D. is the R.B. Byers post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for International Relations at Queen’s University. This research is based on his dissertation entitled “A Bridge not Too Far: Canada and European Security, 1989-2001.” A longer version of this paper will be published in Transatlantic Relations and International Conflict Management: Challenges and Response, edited by Franz Kernic and David Long.

Author: Benjamin Zyla from the March/April 2008 issue published

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