Last week, Ottawa announced that it was sending two Royal Canadian Air Force transport aircraft to ferry supplies to Kurdish forces in Iraq battling the Islamic State advance. The Royal Canadian Navy has a frigate in the eastern Mediterranean watching the Russians who threaten Ukraine, and the RCAF has fighter aircraft in Romania patrolling the skies to reassure our NATO allies. While the government has sent a few handfuls of soldiers on training exercises in eastern Europe, there are no troops for a long-term deployment. Ships, yes. Aircraft, yes. But no boots on the ground.
Two weeks ago, the World Federalist Movement-Canada issued a report calling on Canada to do more peacekeeping, suggesting a deployment in the Central African Republic. The organization pointed out that the Canadian Forces currently has only 34 members on peacekeeping service. Again, no boots on the ground.
Why? There are reasons that must seem compelling to the Prime Minister and his government. When he was first elected in 2006, Stephen Harper was markedly pro-military, promising more equipment and support for the Canadian soldiers fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. But as the casualties increased, the government’s commitment to the mission waned. After 158 dead, after hundreds wounded, and uncounted numbers suffering from post-traumatic stress, the zeal is gone. Defence spending is at its lowest level since the Second World War, a mere 1 per cent of GDP. The Canadian Forces are running on fumes, its equipment aging rapidly, and new procurements are stuck in endless meetings, re-evaluations, and bureaucratic processes. Apparently, there are no votes in supporting the troops.
But ships and aircraft might be provided. In 1950, as the war in Korea began, the United States pressed Canada for a commitment. “We’ve sent destroyers,” then foreign minister Lester Pearson reportedly said. “That’s just a token,” the U.S. envoy replied. “But it’s three destroyers,” Pearson plaintively said. “Okay, it’s three tokens.” Pressured, Canada duly sent a brigade of infantry. Boots on the ground mattered in 1950.
They still matter in 2014, but this Canadian government – and likely any future government in the near-term – will not send soldiers abroad in any number. We have become casualty averse, and the sight of body bags arriving at Trenton and being convoyed to Toronto loses votes and weakens ministerial will.
But this does not mean – and cannot mean – that Canada will never deploy its military again. We have national interests, and they need to be defended if they are threatened. The state has the obligation to protect the Canadian people and territory against invaders. It must protect Canadian unity, our economy, and those with whom we are allied by treaty. We must work with our friends to protect and advance democracy and freedom, a lesson we surely learned in the terrible wars of the 20th century and the conflicts of the 21st. Will we fight to keep our national interests secure? We must – to the limits of our strength.
We have real domestic and international obligations, and we maintain the Canadian Forces to meet them. We are in NATO, and if Russia or any other power attacks NATO members, we have a legal and moral obligation to assist in repelling invasion. We are in NORAD, and we have the obligation to work with the U.S. to protect the air approaches to North America. Will we fight to honour our treaty obligations? We must, but as an independent nation we can decide the scope of our contribution.
We are in the United Nations, and we should – when we are able and when the conditions are right – participate in peacekeeping operations. But we need to be selective. Peacekeeping in Africa is probably best accomplished by African states, not Canadian troops dependent on good roads and airfields for movement and support. We can contribute more than 34 peacekeepers, for sure, but no Canadian government is likely to send a large contingent into the coercive, violent peace enforcement missions that the UN is dealing with today, as in the Central African Republic. Casualty-averse Canadian governments simply will not do this, nor should they.
Certainly Prime Minister Harper will not deploy a battalion or brigade anywhere abroad before a 2015 general election, however tough his rhetoric sometimes sounds.
Thus, no boots on the ground today, and likely few in the future. It’s better to send a navy vessel or a half-squadron of CF-18s to troubled areas where there are few real risks of casualties. But the army will stay at home, training for the uncertain future.
Historian J.L. Granatstein is a fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.