Global Policy Forum

As Military Budget Shrinks,


By Ian Stewart

Associated Press
May 1, 2000

The three bronze soldiers stare off into the distance. It's a simple statue in the heart of the capital that honors Canada's pioneering heritage in international peacekeeping. Like the monument along Ottawa's exclusive Sussex Drive, Canadian political and military leaders are doing some looking themselves - for a new balance of roles for the country's depleted armed forces.

Several consecutive deficit-cutting budgets reduced defense spending by 23 percent in the 1990s, leaving the Canadian military a shadow of its former self. Yet it is under pressure both internationally and domestically to maintain significant participation in U.N.-sponsored peace operations.

"When many nations build fortifications, Canada builds bridges," former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres said during a recent visit. Canada's military has never fought a modern war at home or on its own, joining only with the Western allies and then NATO in various conflicts of the 20th century.

Although peacekeeping has existed for a long time, the formalized United Nations concept of neutral, multinational intervention was first proposed in the 1950s by Canada's foreign minister, Lester B. Pearson, who went on to become prime minister and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957.

A participant in more than 40 U.N. missions over four decades, Canada's military focus has always been on peacekeeping obligations, but that role requires revision due to the changed financial realities, military and strategic analysts say.

"The real question is, 'Can Canada continue to contribute to global peacekeeping at its past level?'" said David Rudd, executive director of the Toronto-based Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies. "Yes," he went on. "There are limitations to what we can do, but politically and diplomatically there is no problem for Canada as a peacekeeper."

While Canada has a history of successful peacekeeping missions in the Middle East, the Balkans and on the Indian subcontinent, its reputation suffered in the early 1990s when Canadian soldiers in Somalia were accused of torture, reckless use of force and the beating death of a teenager. After much national soul-searching, the government disbanded the Canadian Airborne Regiment that was held responsible. Still, more than 4,000 Canadian soldiers and military observers are overseas today under the blue banner of the United Nations. That is 7 percent of the 60,000 men and women in the Canadian Armed Forces.

Rudd said Canada must consider roles that de-emphasize a military presence to help fill the void created by the shrinking defense budget. "We can contribute to peacekeeping missions without ever deploying a single soldier," he said.

The government already provides Red Cross volunteers and trains police forces in developing and often troubled countries. By improving living conditions and shoring up fledgling governments through electoral or legal expertise, Canada can help reduce the chances for civil conflict and the need for military intervention, Rudd said.

Canada and the world have changed dramatically since the early days of U.N. peacekeeping, noted Douglas Fraser, executive director of the Canadian Council for International Peace and Security in Ottawa. He said the federal government must face the reality that it cannot expect to send Canadian troops abroad for multiple peacekeeping missions while annually cutting the defense budget.

The government doesn't seem to agree, however. Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy has volunteered Canadian peacekeepers for any new Middle East mission that emerges from the Israeli-Palestinian talks.

In addition, Canada's U.N. delegation recently voted in favor of a new peacekeeping operation in Congo. Since August 1998, rebel factions backed by several neighboring countries have been battling Congo President Laurent Kabila's troops and allied forces from other African states in a conflict that evokes fear of a spreading regional war.

Rudd and Fraser agreed Canada still can participate militarily in peacekeeping, but must become more selective in deciding where it should commit its limited resources and accept a more restricted role. Fraser, a retired army colonel, said Canada should stay out of any peacekeeping force for the Congo conflict. "It's a flawed mission," he said. "The concept for Congo is a farce. Five hundred unarmed military observers and hopefully 5,000 armed U.N. troops will simply be lost in the Congo."

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