By Steve Saideman
A week from today, on October 29th at noon, we are holding a book launch of the next edition of Canada Among Nations, Elusive Pursuits: Lessons from Canada’s Interventions Abroad. The event will be in room 270, 2nd floor, Residence Commons, at Carleton University.
What is the book about? Every year, NPSIA assesses Canada’s place in the world via a Canada Among Nations volume. For the past few years, it has been in partnership with CIGI. The theme of this issue is on learning the lessons from past interventions. Why? Because we have been profoundly frustrated by the mixed results and by the government’s refusal to learn lessons.
Afghanistan was supposed to be different, as the government did put together a serious lessons learning exercise. At the end, it was buried–not only have I not been able to access it via Access to Information (my appeal is now more than two years old), but it was also not disseminated to the people making and implementing Canadian foreign and defence policy.
Thus, we decided to take on the task of examining past efforts by Canada to make a difference in the face of starvation, humanitarian disasters, ethnic violence, and terrorism. With the election of Justin Trudeau and a Liberal majority, participation in peacekeeping is likely to come back into vogue. To be clear, the Canadian Forces never stopped deploying, but rather the focus went from UN missions to NATO efforts. Canada has always not just been among nations, as the series title suggests, but in them, seeking to improve the lives of those facing violence, degradation and poverty.
The volume addresses the legacies of the Somalia mission, legal challenges of the Libya mission, Canada’s efforts to shape events in the Arab world, the domestic politics of the Afghanistan mission and operations down range, police training in Haiti, and intervention in the form of foreign aid. Thematic chapters focus on gender in the Canadian Armed Forces, Responsibility to Protect in practice, Harper’s interventions, and the challenges of intervening in the future with an older society facing the problems of a younger world.
Our book lacks a conclusion because we want people to draw their own conclusions. What did I conclude from this effort? That humility needs to be a key theme in Canadian foreign/defence policy:
- Canada cannot and will not operate by itself anywhere, and can only send a fragment of what is needed to complete any operation. But Canada almost always shows up when allies call up on it.
- Good intentions need to be carefully examined for their practical impact. Feeding people is a great aim, but it could alter existing power relations as food aid becomes a commodity in the war economy.
- Agencies can vary widely even when they aspire towards the same goal. Improving the position of women in one’s agency meant very different processes, goals and doctrines in foreign affairs and in the Canadian Armed Forces.
- Staying out of a conflict has consequences, too.
- Canada is just about as impatient as any other democracy. Police training, for instance, does not happen overnight.
- How we frame our policies can shape how effective they are.
- Being responsible is really hard and very complicated.
Much of this can be distilled into one basic lesson: we need to be humble. Canada can make a difference in many difficult places in the world, but intervention is hard, it is complicated, and it requires more patience than we usually have. Choosing not to intervene also has consequences.
What did I learn in the course of shepherding this volume along with Fen Hampson?
- Canadian scholarship on international affairs has a great future, as about half of the contributors represent the next generation, and they do awesome work.
- Producing a volume with half of the chapters written by women is actually quite easy as there are many smart women doing terrific work on Canadian foreign and defence policy. Indeed, it would have required real effort to come up with an all male set of contributors.
- Canada is a far more interesting and dynamic actor in international affairs than I had thought when I first moved here. It has its metaphorical hands in heaps of metaphorical pies around the world.