Why did Canada Begin Peacekeeping?

Peacekeeping has received a huge amount of media attention yet rarely do commentators discuss what motivated Ottawa’s support for the Suez mission and peacekeeping more generally.

In 1956 Britain, France and Israel invaded Egypt. During the Suez Crisis External Minister Lester Pearson proposed a peacekeeping force, but his main concern was disagreement between the US and UK over the intervention, not Egyptian sovereignty or the plight of that country’s people. The minister explained that Canada’s “interest is prejudiced when there is division within the Commonwealth or between London, Washington or Paris.” Maintaining the seven year-old NATO alliance was Pearson’s priority when he intervened in Egypt in the fall of 1956.

Popularly viewed as a benevolent form of intervention, peacekeeping missions have generally been motivated by larger geopolitical interests. During the Cold War, the US did not dispatch troops on peacekeeping missions, which made Canadian contributions particularly important. Contrary to popular understanding, Canadian internationalism has rarely been at odds with American belligerence. Large Canadian peacekeeping missions have always received US support. Military analyst J.L. Granatstein writes: “Our peacekeeping efforts almost always supported western interests. Certainly this was true in the Middle East, the Congo, Cyprus, Vietnam and Bosnia too.” Canada and the Early Cold War, a book financed by Foreign Affairs, explains that “the more extreme version of this myth, which makes Lester Pearson into Herbert Evatt raging against Great Power dominance and transforms Canada’s peacekeeping into neutralism or even pacifism, receives no support in the DCER [documents on Canadian external relations].” 

Most often, peacekeeping was Canada’s contribution to the Cold War. According to military historian Sean Maloney, “Every one of the U.N. peacekeeping and peace observation operations which Canada participated in from 1948 to 1968 were directly related to the Cold War game of position. When we look at the pattern of Canadian U.N. deployments during the first 20 years of the Cold War, a definite pattern emerges. Canada deployed forces overseas for nuclear crisis stabilization (UNEF I in the Suez 1956 affair), to prop up a U.N. effort to prevent Soviet intervention in the Third World (ONUC in the Congo) or to prevent a crisis involving NATO allies from escalating to the point where it could be exploited by the Soviets (UNFICYP in Cyprus) to gain an advantageous position against NATO. If the Americans used the CIA to wage a twilight war against Communist expansion in the Third World, Canada used U.N. peacekeeping deployments as surrogates to achieve Canadian aims in that fight.”

Coinciding with Ottawa’s move away from peacekeeping was the growing clout of the Third World at the U.N. The Canadian Way of War explains that “By 1967 the sun was setting on the utility of the U.N. as a tool to contain communist influence … decolonization was nearly over. This increased the number of Third World non-aligned states in the U.N., altering the character of the organization and its willingness to be used by the West.”