Hudson on the Hill

Is Canada’s Foreign Policy in Flux?
HUDSON ON THE HILL  |  Mar 22, 2017

Is Canada backing away from a potential peacekeeping mission in western Africa? Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, on the record as saying the region has not had “the right amount of attention” in recent years, seems to be leaving the prospect open. So, too, is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – all this amidst the backdrop of political confusion evident in Washington. 

At the close of a NATO defence ministers meeting in Brussels in February, Minister Sajjan responded to journalists via teleconference on whether the government, with current commitments in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, might be “over-reaching” its capabilities by deploying several hundred Canadian Armed Forces personnel to a region ripped by civil war and other strife.

“One of the things we will do is make sure that we don’t over-commit our troops,” he replied, adding that the Defence Policy Review – with input from dozens of experts since consultations were set in motion 10 months ago – will give “significant focus” to future deployments. “We’ll have a lot more to talk about when we announce our defence policy […] but I can assure you we will not be over-committed.”

It was an arguably defensible step back from how he had characterized the prospect last August when he said in another teleconference, after a five-country African tour, that cabinet would shortly “be announcing our general contribution about what we’re going to be doing in Africa.” As he further explained, it is “very important for Canadians – and the rest of the world – to know the challenges and the absolute atrocities that are being committed in Africa” because “they can’t be ignored.”

Having committed $450 million to peace operations, including a deployment of up to 600 troops as part of a mooted African mission, the government has been repeatedly and necessarily coy about which country we’ll be sending troops to. However, it’s common knowledge that the leading contenders include the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and Mali. The latter has figured prominently in discussions, particularly given the high number of visits last year by ministers and officials from DND, Global Affairs Canada and the RCMP.

On the same day as Sajjan’s February teleconference, and only a few days ahead of the annual session of the United Nations Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations in New York, the internationally-respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) stepped up the campaign for more intervention in Africa. 

In African Directions: Towards an Equitable Partnership in Peace Operations, SIPRI said that while 75% of all personnel in multilateral peace operations are now deployed in Africa, operations are “not sufficiently equitable and balanced.” It urged improved collaboration “between African states and external actors” such as the UN Security Council and other international organizations and donor countries.

“We need to get out of the unhealthy dynamic in which the ambiguity of the concept of African ownership can be used for political purposes by African and external actors alike,” explained Xenia Avezov, an American who researches peace operations and conflict management for SIPRI.

This meant that external actors should not hide behind “African ownership” to avoid contributing to peace operations there and that African states should not use the concept to avoid their own responsibilities.

Avezov’s boss, Jaïr van der Lijn, a Dutch national and acknowledged expert on UN peacekeeping with a focus on Africa and the Balkans who joined SIPRI in 2013, describes the challenges in Africa play as “essentially global in character.”

The SIPRI report says that globalization and the interconnectivity of current security challenges requires a shared response to peace operations, albeit with more African influence in how decisions are made. “At the same time, external actors have an obligation and interest to play their part financially and militarily.”

It notes that while African states are increasingly providing personnel, the bills are generally footed by others. “This needs to be considered alongside the discrepancy in military spending when compared with, for example, their European counterparts” – most notably France which is heavily invested in its former colonies in the region. 

“African countries do not generally have the same level of military capabilities and capacities as many external actors, and the imbalance between the African nations is significant as well. The lack of adequate military equipment is often mentioned as one of the reasons why African contingents in peace operations suffer relatively high numbers of fatalities.”

Accordingly, SIPRI says the global-regional partnership, as suggested by the UN High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations in June 2015, and taken up by the UN Security Council, has to be deepened further to improve the success of peace operations in Africa.

“We have to move away from referring only to African ownership and towards a truly balanced and equitable global-regional partnership to make peace operations in Africa fit for the future,” van der Lijn says. “We need joint responsibility for and ownership of decision making, and financial and personnel contributions […] to make the existing conflict management structures sustainable.”

All well and good, maybe, but it’s worth heeding Marc-André Blanchard, Canada’s Ambassador to the UN, who cautioned last August that there is “no quick fix for anything in peace and security in some areas of the world.”

And that includes Eastern Europe, where NATO is trying to cope with Russian expansionism, a challenge exacerbated by the fact that most of the alliance’s 28 members continue to fall short of their 2006 goal to be spending at least 2% of their national gross domestic product on defence by 2014.

The latest “State of the Alliance” report by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, released March 13, confirms that 2% remains an aspirational goal for most members. In fact, according to mid-2016 numbers, only the United States, Greece, the United Kingdom, Estonia and Poland have met or exceeded that goal.

Canada saw a small increase, to 1.02% from 0.98 in 2015, bumping up the ranks to 20th place from 23rd and tying it with Hungary and Slovenia. But it was still the smallest percentage of GDP (about $20 billion in actual outlay) that Canada has spent on defence since 2012, putting it ahead of only Belgium, the Czech Republic, Iceland, Luxembourg and Spain. Achieving 2% would mean an increase to some $40 billion in the annual defence portfolio.

“All our efforts must be underpinned by adequate resources and fair burden-sharing,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels. “It is realistic that all allies should reach this goal. All allies have agreed to do it at the highest level. It can be done.”

That echoes a call by U.S. President Donald Trump who, having dismissed NATO during his election campaign as obsolete, said in February that his administration would “strongly support” NATO.

“We only ask that all of the NATO members make their full and proper financial contribution to the NATO alliance,” Trump said. “Many of them have not been even close.” He did not define “full and proper” but his remarks were generally taken to mean the goal agreed to a decade ago. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears to have all but dismissed the idea during his recent visit to Germany, saying that “there are many ways of evaluating one’s contribution,” a message his ministers have repeatedly delivered, citing CAF deployments to Latvia, Ukraine and Iraq in lieu of large spending increases.

Trudeau has indicated that future peacekeeping missions would involve non-military personnel and assets, but has remained vague about finances. “The new administration in the United States has some very particular views about how we need to engage in the world,” he said during one of his recent “town hall” meetings. “We want to make sure that we are working well with our allies and we are reflecting on the best way Canada can continue to help.”

But Stoltenberg, a former prime minister of Norway, is steadfast in pushing Canada and others toward that 2% target. He noted during his news conference that Spain also has contributed troops to NATO operations, including the Canadian-led battle group in Latvia. “Having said that, of course Spain, as many other allies, invests too little in defence,” he added. 

“That’s exactly why we decided in 2014 to stop the cuts, gradually increase, and move towards spending two percent of GDP on defence.”

The former prime minister of Norway acknowledged that politicians face hard choices when budgeting taxpayers’ money, having preferred to focus on such envelopes as infrastructure, education and health when Cold War tensions eased. “But my message is that if we are decreasing defence spending in times with reduced tensions, we have to be able to increase defence spending when tensions are going up – and now tensions have gone up.” 

Hudson on the Hill
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