When Should Canada Intervene?



Canada is no military superpower and never will be, but a question that arises from time to time in our country is under what circumstances should Canada become involved militarily in any of the world’s trouble spots. This question isn’t limited to Canada, of course, but what goes into answering it will and must vary in some ways from other nations. It differs from the United States in particular, for a variety of reasons. What we need and presently don’t have—or not really—is a principled basis on which to decide when Canada should become involved militarily in foreign conflicts. I’m going to outline five such principles, all of which, in my opinion, ought to be met before the government sends in the military. These standards should apply to many other nations as well, but not in any way that’s strictly universalizable.

First, whatever circumstances are in play in a foreign country at a given time, the situation must rise to a certain level of moral intolerability. We should not send military personnel into situations that are troubling yet still within what, for lack of a better phrase, we might call normal parameters of conflict or injustice. The circumstances must be such that the conscience of our nation, or a good majority of its people, is violated if we don’t intervene and with force. I’m opposing pacifism here. There are situations where we’re called upon to act, and in ways that go beyond more ordinary means—dialogue, negotiation, economic sanctions—which are often described as peaceful but that can be ineffectual and sometimes difficult to distinguish from hypocrisy or cowardice. Some things can be tolerated or otherwise dealt with by non-military means, and some can’t. Pacifism is no formula for peace, and don’t imagine that simple inaction, combined perhaps with lovely speeches at the U.N., allow you to keep your hands clean. If a large-scale injustice is happening, and you—whether you’re an individual or government—know about it and are in a position to do something about it, you’re already implicated. Best to be neither hawk nor dove but a person and a people of conscience who are prepared to use force when other options are genuinely exhausted and when standing on the sidelines and watching it happen violates our conscience. A categorical refusal to fight is not, in my estimation, a virtue, be it for a person or a nation. Nor is waiting for America to do it a solution. No single nation ought to be the conscience or the policeman of the world simply because it has the military muscle.

Second, the conflict is unlikely to be resolved within the nation or region in question within an acceptable time frame. The problem that’s occurring isn’t about to be settled by the parties involved, or not in a way that we can accept, be it at the negotiation table or on the battlefield. The parties, especially any victims, don’t have the means or sometimes the will to resolve the problem, and their need for foreign assistance has reached a level of urgency. Any conflict that can be resolved within a given nation or region is best resolved there, by the parties who are affected and where cultural misunderstanding is less likely to happen.

Third, we act in concert with a coalition. If Canada were a superpower or even a more limited one, this might be different, but given our moderate military capability it would be foolish to go it alone in any of the world’s major trouble spots. It might not be immoral, but it would be imprudent. An international coalition brings a legitimacy that unilateral action tends to lack. Such a coalition might act under the auspices of the U.N., but not necessarily. The U.N. is a highly imperfect institution, and regarding its authorization as a necessary condition of military intervention grants it a legitimacy that it doesn’t deserve.

Fourth, we—or the coalition of which we’re a part—must have the capability. Unless it’s a war of self-defence, a government must not declare or enter a war that they can’t win. Military experts must declare the mission within their means of completing within a reasonable degree of probability. This isn’t complete certainty. War is uncertain by nature, and prediction is always difficult, but the risk must be calculated and moderate.

Finally, the nation or region in which we’re intervening must be governable by some credible and decently representative group after the period of military conflict ends. There are nations that, at a particular time anyway, are difficult to govern for one reason or another, and likely impossible by a foreign power. The tensions involved may run so deep that any desire for peace on the part of the parties involved is simply too weak, at the moment anyway. This can always change, of course, and often does. War-weariness can set in and act as a moderating force which brings the parties to the negotiating table, but until this is the case, or until a coalition or other credible governing body emerges from the conflict, intervention can be pointless. What’s called “winning the peace” requires that the will to peace exceed the will to war within the nation in question and not just outside parties.

The world needs Canada to have a significant presence on the world stage, and larger than it currently has. This isn’t patriotism talking, or worse, nationalism. A nationalist I’m not, but the Canadian government both currently and going back some decades typically can be counted upon to inject some moderation and sanity into international conflicts that can threaten to get out of hand, and when they do get out of hand or become mired in ideology and extremism, Canada is usually there to pull us back from the abyss. We’re not always listened to, of course, being a nation with a limited population and limited military capability, but we usually make up for it in reasonableness. Historically, Canadian participation in an international military action goes some way toward bestowing legitimacy, but for this to continue to be the case we must have a principled basis for military intervention, whether it’s the one I’ve outlined or some other.

These decisions, at the worst of times, are ad-hoc or excessively partisan. It’s routine in Canadian politics, of course, for the government to take a view on an issue like this while the other parties oppose it just for the sake of it, or to try to score political points with voters by feigning an outrage that they usually don’t feel. This is how the game is played: opposition parties oppose, often for the sake of it or out of simple animosity for the governing party. All political parties do this, and not only in Canada. Probably every democratic society does this in some form, but it’s no way to make decisions of this kind. The decision whether to intervene is always mired in politics and the parties’ calculations of self-interest, but when it’s legitimate, it’s founded on principles that can be generalized and defended.

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