By Dan Macfarlane
The federal government’s recent initiatives in foreign policy and glorification of Canada’s military past (particularly in light of the bicentennial of the War of 1812) have given rise to plenty of complaints, including suggestions that the country needs to return to its peacekeeping roots. While I agree with many of the criticisms, I am not so sure that the Conservatives are really taking the country in vastly new international and security policy directions.
Unfortunately, Canada does have definite elements of a militaristic and imperialist past. It therefore does a disservice, even if the aims are admirable, to contend that we need to return to our peacekeeping and altruistic glory days. To illustrate, I’m not even going to get into the many conflicts involving Canada prior to 1945, but will engage just Canada’s peacekeeping legacy. This comes out of the so-called “golden age” of Canadian external affairs, the decade or so following the last years of the Second World War. A cottage industry of shibboleths has arisen about this period, and some historians have argued that there is a peacekeeping myth (with Sean Maloney as one of the most prominent).
In the conventional narrative, the immediate post-1945 years were a unique historical period where Canada could have guns and butter, punch above its weight internationally, and help free the world from tyranny. Canada helped create the United Nations, forge new economic systems via institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and hold the democratic and free-world front against communism. And it was capped by Lester Pearson’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize for creating the first peacekeeping force to resolve the 1956 Suez Crisis.
Aside of the tendency to credit the genesis of the peacekeeping force entirely to Pearson (it wasn’t his idea), the main goal of the peacekeeping operation proposed during the Suez Crisis was to prevent the Soviets from exploiting the situation in order to split and weaken the NATO alliance. In other words, modern peacekeeping and the Nobel Prize came out of what was above all a pragmatic attempt to solidify the western military alliance, not an altruistic attempt to share the Canadian way with the rest of the world.
It was self-interest that shaped Canada’s foreign policy in the transition from the Second World War to the Cold War. The aim in creating economic organizations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund was to entrench a capitalist world order, which benefitted only certain geographic and economic interests. And when the UN soon proved to have no teeth, Canada was at the forefront of the move to create a military alliance – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – that did. NATO, not the UN, was undoubtedly the most important international body in the eyes of Canadian policy-makers throughout the Cold War.
The reality is that Canada was complicit in creating the nuclear arsenal and buttressing the expanding American power – empire, if you prefer. I suspect most who lament the militarization going on under the Harper Conservatives would find abhorrent the percentage of GDP that was spent on the military in the mid-1950s. Indeed, at the time of Pearson’s peace prize, about half of the Canadian federal government’s budget went to the armed forces and security.
Peace-keeping subsequently grew in stature in Canada for several reasons. First, the success of the initial peacekeeping mission (i.e. Pearson winning the Nobel Prize) made it a natural thing to celebrate. Second, peacekeeping required far less resources, men, and materiel, and greatly reduced the chances of Canadian casualties, than did conventional warfare. So it cost less and played well at home. Finally, it was a convenient and effective means of playing up Canadian exceptionalism and psychologically distinguishing Canada from the U.S. – a welfare rather than a warfare state.
Granted, one can make the self-fulfilling prophecy argument: that peacekeeping, though it grew out of power politics and self-interest, eventually burned itself into the Canadian psyche and identity, and Canadians did come to see themselves as peacekeepers. As an aside, I think pragmatic rather than altruistic roots could apply apply to the idea of Canada as an inherently tolerant and multicultural society. But that is another topic for another day.
But even if that was true several decades ago, we currently aren’t even close to being one of the world’s leaders in contributing to peacekeeping, and haven’t been for a long time. Moreover, the type of peacekeeping Canada has historically practiced is only useful in limited scenarios with sufficient conditions and parameters; we end up with experiences like Somalia and Rwanda. The knee-jerk reaction often seems to be to send peacekeepers, even when they aren’t viable or wanted.
Canada, though less oppressive and warlike than many other countries, is not the shining beacon to the rest of the world that some suppose it to be. We continue to export asbestos and dirty oil. And let’s not forget that the UN is investigating how this country has historically treated the indigenous peoples within our own borders.
Don’t get me wrong – I think Canada has done many things right, relative to other countries, and I am proud to be a Canadian. Nor am I advocating for armed intervention over peace initiatives. I have purposefully and selectively adopted a certain perspective here, and I am guilty to a degree of excessively judging from the present. I actually have a more favourable view of Canadian foreign policy in the early Cold War than I am presenting as I believe that historical context and contingencies can blunt the more excessive condemnations of Canada’s international policies in the early Cold War.
Nonetheless, I think there is a danger to over-romanticizing the past and cherry-picking what we want, especially when the historical precedents don’t necessarily exist. This doesn’t mean that contemporary calls for a different type of foreign policy or approach to the military need to be silenced. But appeals to history need to be accurate; otherwise, it is akin to building a house on a foundation of sand. We need to soberly assess where we have been as a country if we want to take lessons from the past to build for the future.
-Robert Bothwell. Alliance and Illusion: Canada and the World, 1945-1984. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007.
-Norman Hillmer and Jack Granatstein. For Better or for Worse: Canada and the United States into the Twenty-First Century. Toronto: Thomson/Nelson, 2007.
-Margaret MacMillan. The Uses and Abuses of History. Toronto: Viking Canada, 2008.
-Sean Maloney. Canada and UN Peacekeeping. Toronto: Vanwell, 2003.
-Yves Spengler. The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy. Toronto: Fernwood Press, 2009.