Almost 65 years after then-Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize for initiating the first U.N. peacekeeping mission, his country – which long prided itself on its role in subsequent missions -- has only a few dozen remaining peacekeepers deployed around the world.
That is down from a record 3,300 Canadian troops deployed in peacekeeping missions in the early 1990s, part of a wider trend that Canadian military experts attribute to the changing nature of conflict in a post-Cold War world.
U.N. peacekeeping is “falling out of fashion,” says Major Tim Dunne, a retired public affairs officer in the Canadian Armed Forces who deployed in numerous peacekeeping missions beginning in the 1970s and is currently a research fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
Until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Dunne tells VOA, most global conflicts were driven by competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, creating the need for an impartial army to stand between them.
But, he says, most modern conflicts – whether in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda during the 1990s or in Syria and Iraq today -- are too messy and chaotic for the old model of peacekeeping to work.
“The factors that allow for effective peacekeeping aren’t there anymore,” Dunne says. “You don’t have the same factions that allow for an easy creation of a cease-fire. You descend into other kinds of conflict.”
It is not only Canada that is having second thoughts about the value of U.N. peacekeeping, which currently supports just 13 missions, seven of them in Africa.
“Another case you may consider is the Sahel,” says Emily Estelle of the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute. She points to the lack of public support in Western nations for the costly and sometimes dangerous missions.
“France leads the counterterrorism mission in Mali but is working to reduce its involvement and end the mission, in part because of domestic pressure and an upcoming election,” Estelle says in a telephone interview. That, she says, is “in line with what we’ve seen in Canada and the U.S.”
Estelle points to the struggles of the African Union’s mission to Somalia as another example.
“All in all, waning support for peacekeeping in the West is rippling into sub-Saharan Africa,” she says. “Neither Malian nor Somali forces are capable of filling the gap left by peacekeepers and other foreign forces if and when they withdraw.”
Charlie Herbert, a former senior NATO adviser to the Afghan Ministry of the Interior and a former director at the Defense Academy of the United Kingdom, points to the success of military might in overthrowing rogue regimes like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya, and the struggles to stabilize those nations afterward.
“It’s hard to imagine any Western nation committing to discretionary ‘wars of choice’ over the next decade or two, and with a rising China and a resurgent Russia both challenging the rules-based international order, it is perhaps inevitable that NATO nations are once more looking at a more traditional model of deterrence and competition,” he says.
“Operations in the so called ‘gray zone’ and hybrid warfare have become the lexicon of the 2020s in the way that COIN [counterinsurgency] and CT [counterterrorism] dominated thinking in the earlier years of this century.”
Herbert was referring to unconventional warfare and conflicts that fall short of war.
In the case of Canada, the nation’s long-standing commitment to U.N. peacekeeping operations has largely been replaced by involvement in NATO missions such as its participation in the coalition that defeated the Islamic State extremist group in Iraq and Syria, and the NATO mission now winding down in Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration has promised to commit more troops and police to international peacekeeping, but the proposed numbers remain only in the hundreds.
Britain, too, is showing some interest in a revival of U.N. peacekeeping, according to Herbert, who sees that as a reaction to the decision to pull NATO forces out of Afghanistan.
“The withdrawal from Afghanistan marks the end of an era, and for now the end of enduring stabilization operations in distant places,” Herbert says. “It provides an opportunity for all Western nations to reconsider the use of their military as an instrument of their foreign policy.
“In the UK, for example, it has been the catalyst to reinvest in high-end U.N. peacekeeping operations, after a hiatus throughout the Iraq and Afghan wars. The UK commitment to MINUSMA – the U.N. stabilization mission in Mali – is an interesting and positive example of a NATO member reinvesting in peacekeeping operations.”
Whether other Western nations will follow London’s lead remains to be seen.