That was the debate question at a recent “wars with words” session at the Canadian War Museum.[i] The debaters were Major-General (ret’d) Lewis MacKenzie and myself. What follows is a slightly abbreviated version of my opening statement. 

It’s clear that historically, Canada has been prominently and sacrificially engaged in both peacekeeping and warfighting. And it probably isn’t controversial to say that in Afghanistan today the men and women of the Canadian forces are again called on to serve in both roles – but saying that certainly implies an evolved and expansive definition of peacekeeping. 

I take that term to include multilateral operations from consent based “peacekeeping” to “peace enforcement” in more hostile environments. The UN DPKO’s Principles and Guidelines Document describes the former as “a technique designed to preserve the peace, however fragile, where fighting has been halted,” and the latter as “the application, with the authorization of the Security Council, of a range of coercive measures, including the use of military force” to restore peace and security.[ii]  

And, it is important to add, whatever the terminology or the mission, military contributions to peacekeeping are dangerous and always and ultimately dependent on the courage and willing service of skilled and dedicated men and women of national military forces. 

A defining feature of peacekeeping, both as monitoring and enforcement,[iii] is that it is necessarily accompanied by a range of political, economic, and social measures,[iv] notably as institution-building efforts.[v] That is why, when Canada is deciding whether to participate in a particular Chapter VII mission, Foreign Affairs considers whether “the peacekeeping operation will take place alongside a process aimed at a political settlement to the conflict.”[vi] & [vii] 

The military element of peacekeeping is multilaterally authorized intervention designed to support the political settlement of conflict – it is not an alternative to political process. And that is a primary way in which it differs from “warfighting.” Rather than being designed to facilitate or support the political resolution of conflict, warfighting is designed to over-ride politics by dint of force and to impose, rather than negotiate, an outcome.  

For example, when the international community forced Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991 it clearly set aside political process and negotiation and Security Council diplomacy in favor of war – and, in the process, it must be said, it upheld a key principle of international law and produced the primary desired outcome, one which has proven sustainable. 

So that’s roughly how I understand the distinction between “peacekeeping and warfighting” – the former is an aid to political process, the latter over-rides it.  

The salient question now is not which Canada has done more of, or which it is best at. Instead, the following argues that in the future Canada should focus particularly on peacekeeping as a model in its military contributions to international peace and security. Two basic considerations are invoked: a) the vital interests of Canada; and b) the very real limits to the utility of military efforts to impose sustainable peace and security outcomes.  

The Canadian interest 

I think it is widely agreed that the security and well-being of Canada are inextricably bound up with global stability and prosperity. We rely on an international order that respects Canadian sovereignty and territorial integrity; we want and need an order that functions according to broadly accepted rules or international laws. So Canada necessarily has a history of responding to security concerns beyond our borders, not only when our interests are directly threatened, but also when there are serious strains on the stability of the international system on which our security and prosperity ultimately depend. 

Importantly, the Canadian interest is also shaped by a core value that commits us to coming to the aid of the world’s most vulnerable – partly because chronic human suffering undermines confidence in and respect for a rules based order and thus undermines our vital security interests, but also because we simply recognize ourselves as constituents of a common humanity.  

Limits to force 

The difficult question is when and how does the collective resort to force make an effective contribution to advancing those objectives? 

The skilled use or threat of force can, on its own, achieve certain kinds of objectives efficiently and decisively – e.g. to depose a regime (Afghanistan 2001, Iraq 2003), to facilitate humanitarian assistance (Baidoa/Somalia 1992), and to reverse aggression (Iraq/Kuwait 1991).  

But the successes also display the limits.

·         The destruction of the regime in Iraq could not be followed up with the timely creation of a new political order and effective protection of a vulnerable population.

·         The expulsion of the Taliban regime was followed by the early establishment of a new government, but military forces now are not managing to protect vulnerable people or entrench that new order throughout the country.

·         The delivery of humanitarian assistance in Somalia saved many lives but also dispersed insecurity to hitherto relatively safe parts of that country.

·         The 1991 Gulf War led to the disastrous Shia revolt in southern Iraq (on mistaken assumptions of a weakened Saddam and of American support), followed by brutal repression (many thousands killed, habitat destroyed, IDPs). 

Moreover, and this is the key point, there are conditions in which the limitations of force cannot be overcome simply by deploying more of it. To be effective in advancing political and institution-building objectives in intra-state settings, effective military force depends on the simultaneous attention to political process, along with governance, development, and other peacebuilding efforts. Indeed, if those accompanying measures are not actively pursued, the escalation of force is much more likely to lead to the escalation of violence without advancing the strategic or over-riding objectives. 

There is a relevant parallel in domestic law enforcement – the operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, the DRC, and other places are after all substantially about restoring domestic order and law enforcement.  

Even in our own stable societies, it is true that the domestic threat and use of force are a factor in generating confidence that the rule of law will prevail. But it is also critically important that law enforcement takes place in the context of strong public belief in the rightness of the law, broad confidence in the justice system overall, and acceptance of the legitimacy of the government. In such conditions, enforcement is largely directed toward the exceptions, the spoilers.  

Take away confidence in the justice system and public institutions generally and voluntary consent erodes and society quickly becomes ungovernable. And when that happens, simply adding more police will not convert that society into a compliant and stable order – not if the people distrust both the law and the enforcers. When genuine grievance and utter distrust of the authorities are combined with ready access to guns, the inevitable result is the escalation of violence, well beyond isolated spoilers, and the disintegration of public order. 


The relevance of all this for the peacekeeping-vs-warfighting discussion I think is found in the basic reality that the pursuit of stability and respect for the rule of law requires enforcement to be linked to the nurture of public trust – which in turn requires efforts to build political consensus, to build up the legitimacy of public institutions, and to meet the expectation that enforcement is driven by basic fairness. 

I take that multi-dimensional approach to be the essence of peacekeeping – that is, the use of military forces in combination with political and economic measures to gradually build a stable and sustainable society and to deliver on the expectation that the spoilers will be dealt with.  

In the many situations in which high levels of chaos and violence prevail, these political and economic measures are obviously extremely difficult to advance, but it is also not realistic to assume that military force alone will be able to force compliance. In such circumstances perhaps the best short-term hope is that key national institutions can be protected and the most egregious of emerging humanitarian needs can be met while political efforts are intensified to forge a new and inclusive political consensus. Any effort to substitute political engagement with intensified militarily action to defeat those outside the consensus is likely to be doomed to failure and entrenched warfare.   

Indeed, that is the conclusion of a Rand study (Seth Jones)[viii] – “How Terrorist Groups End.” Of 268 groups that ended over a period of almost 40 years (1968-2006):

·         40% “were penetrated and eliminated by local police and intelligence agencies”;

·         43% “reached a peaceful political accommodation with their government” (in negotiations they moved to progressively narrower demands);

·         10% won;

·         Only in 7% of the cases was military action the primary or decisive force in the ending of terrorist groups. 

A University of Barcelona study[ix] looked at 80 civil and interstate armed conflicts, and of those that ended during that period (just over half):

·         15% ended through victory of one side or the other; and

·         The rest through negotiations. 

By the way, the proportionality calculus for the appropriate use of force is also bound to be different for peacekeeping and warfighting. If the mission objective is to destroy a regime, with the understanding that rebuilding belongs to a post-war agenda, there will be a different measure of acceptable collateral damage than if the immediate mission objective is to protect people and to defend public institutions and build public confidence in them.  


If I can be allowed one concluding observation on Afghanistan, it is to note that international forces have obviously found it most challenging to maintain local security in those parts of the country that are most sharply outside the political consensus that was achieved in Bonn in late 2001 and early 2002. The insurgency is most active and advanced in those areas of the country, to put it another way, where confidence in public institutions and the government in Kabul is obviously the lowest. 

The prominent military response to the insurgency has followed the warfighting model – that is, the assumption that the broad communal distrust in the south is not a matter for negotiation but can be over-ridden through counter-insurgency warfare. 

Greater reliance on a peacekeeping/peace support framework would recognize that the insurgency is rooted in grievance, not only in extremism, and that building security requires more attention to negotiating political accommodation.  Indeed, that is being increasingly recognized.  


So, are we a nation of peacekeepers or warfighters? I’ve tried to make the point that both self-interest and effectiveness (and, one might add, the situations we are most likely to face in the future) counsel us to build on the peacekeeping model. That does mean maintaining a significant and complex military capacity; but it also and especially means the need to build up a much more dynamic political and diplomatic engagement capacity and to devote major resources to help build-up and refine the UN’s operational capacity. [email protected]


[ii] United Nations Peacekeeping Operations: Principles and Guidelines. United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations and Department of Field Support. 2008.

“Peacekeeping is a technique designed to preserve the peace, however fragile, where fighting has been halted, and to assist in implementing agreements achieved by the peacemakers. Over the years, peacekeeping has evolved from a primarily military model of observing cease-fires and the separation of forces after inter-state wars, to incorporate a complex model of many elements – military, police and civilian – working together to help lay the foundations for sustainable peace.

“Peace enforcement involves the application, with the authorization of the Security Council, of a range of coercive measures, including the use of military force. Such actions are authorized to restore international peace and security in situations where the Security Council has determined the existence of a threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression. The Security Council may utilize, where appropriate, regional organizations and agencies for enforcement action under its authority.”

“United Nations peacekeeping operations may also use force at the tactical level, with the authorization of the Security Council, to defend themselves and their mandate, particularly in situations where the State is unable to provide security and maintain public order.”

[iii] Cedric de Coning, Julian Detzel, Petter Hojem, “UN Peacekeeping Operations Capstone Doctrine, Report of the Tfp Oslo Doctrine Seminar, 14 and 15 Ma7 2008, Oslo, Norway.

“The new doctrine makes a distinction between peace enforcement, which implies the use of force at the strategic level, i.e. where consent is lacking, and robust peacekeeping, where there is consent at the strategic level, but where force may have to be used at the tactical level to manage spoilers. The distinction between peace enforcement and robust peacekeeping is thus not about how much force is being used, but rather about the context within which force is being used. Examples for the tactical use of force could be military actions against breakaway factions, criminal elements or spoilers that are trying to hinder the execution of the mandate, or pose a risk to civilians, aid workers and UN personnel.”

“Some argued that a UN force, which is only mandated and capable of using force at the tactical level is doomed to fail if one of the main parties withdraws its consent, and may end up stuck in the middle of a new war without the capacity to even properly defend itself. Others argued that the withdrawal of strategic consent requires a political solution. Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate that significant military capability does not necessarily guarantee the maintenance of consent. The doctrine recognizes that the UN is not well-positioned to project force at the strategic level, and it notes that regional organizations or coalitions of the willing have been called upon to stabilize such cases, or to augment UN consent based missions when strategic force becomes necessary. In doing so, the doctrine may implicitly recognize the Secretariat’s preference for this division of labor given the operational limitations of UN peacekeeping operations and the importance of the UN having a legitimate and viable consent-based peace and security instrument at its disposable into the future.”

[iv] Aleisha Arnusch, “From Peacekeeping to PRTs,” 2007. Pearson Peacekeeing Centre.

[v] Security Council SC/9583, 23 January 2009. Thematic Debate.

[vi] DFAIT, “Canada and peace operations” site, modified 130608,

[vii] François Grignon and Daniela Kroslak "The Problem with Peacekeeping", in Current History, International Crisis Group, April 2008.

“The military component of a peacekeeping mission is only as effective as the mission’s political masters make it. When asked last year if the 26,000-person force approved for UNAMID by the UN Security Council were sufficient, Salim Ahmed Salim, the AU’s Special Envoy for Darfur, rightly responded that what matters is “not how large a force it is but what they have come to defend,” since “without an agreement on peace, even a force of 50,000 can’t change the situation here radically.” A UN Security Council peacekeeping mandate with civilian protection provisions can only be implemented in the context of a political agreement. And the implementation of a mandate depends on the will to interpret it politically and to enforce it with the means provided.”

“In complex emergencies such as those facing the DRC, Sudan, and Somalia, the hostage population can only be sustainably protected if an effective political strategy accompanies the deployment of peacekeeping operations.”

[viii] Seth G. Jones and Martin C. Libickihow, How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qaida, RAND Corporation, 2008.

[ix] Vicenc Fisa, 2008 Peace Process Yearbook, School for a Culture of Peace, University of Barcelona,

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