Air University Review, May-June 1967

Canada’s Role in the United Nations

John W. Holmes

To understand Canada’s role in the United Nations, one must know its general approach to the part it should play in world affairs. Central to this approach is the concept of the middle power with a specific kind of function. Being too skeptical—or unimaginative—to see ourselves as having a preordained destiny vis-á-vis the human race, we Canadians have recognized that we should nevertheless find ourselves a sensible career. If this is to be a successful career in international diplomacy, it must be related to our power and influence, neither underestimating nor overestimating them.

We have to see ourselves in perspective. We are not a failed great power; we are a self-respecting middle power. We can be a close and loyal friend of our large allies, seeing ourselves not as their equal partners but as having different things to do in our common interest in world order. As a middle power our role is more constructive if it is played not in isolation but in association with many other countries —with friends and allies and fellow members of the world community. For us, international associations and above all the United Nations are of supreme importance. Without them we would be ineffectual.

We were not always like this. Before the Second World War we were almost as careful as the United States to avoid entangling alliances. We were born into a worldwide empire, and that gave us a somewhat broader view.  After we had secured our undoubted right to decide our own policies, even to go to war or not as we wanted, we showed little interest in making use of our new freedom. Independence we saw as something passive that would protect us from involvement, not something active to be used in world politics. Unlike the United States, we joined the League of Nations, but it must be admitted that a powerful motive for doing so was that separate membership established our position as an independent state. It was our assumption that we lived in “a fireproof house,” that we were peace-loving and ought not to be dragged even by the League of Nations into wars set off by naturally aggressive foreigners in other continents. There was some justification for our reluctance. Our position towards the League was not heroic, but it was dangerous for a League of Nations that did not include the United States and other large powers to pretend to enforce collective security.

Every nation had a terrible lesson to learn in 1939—45. We realized the futility of the effort to avoid international commitments. We were inevitably involved in the war, not just because we felt committed to stand at Britain’s side but because all humanity was threatened. It was better therefore to try actively to prevent wars. By the end of the war we were deeply involved in plans to create a new and more solidly based world organization and to play our part in it zealously. It was easier for us to support the United Nations than the League of Nations because it did include all the major powers and isolationism had vanished from North America. We accepted the wisdom of an international organization which, in security matters, gave a special position to the great powers. However, instead of sitting back and leaving all the tough questions to the great powers, we fought hard for a greater voice for the lesser powers—especially the middle powers, of whom we were a leading specimen.

Canada a middle power

The term “middle power” was popularized towards the end of World War II. It appealed particularly to countries like Canada who were resentful of the way in which the great powers had dominated war strategy. Canada was the third-strongest of the Western allies, but Roosevelt and Churchill made all the decisions. We were prepared when the United Nations was established to give a special place—even a veto —in the Security Council to the major military powers, but we did not accept the idea of a world organization in which, because of their military strength, they would dominate everything. We had a theory that each country should have a special function in world organization in accordance with its special capacities and special interests. Because we were a second-class military power, we accepted a second-class place in the Security Council; but because we were a major trading country, we asked for a position of greater influence in bodies dealing with international trade. Because we had no colonies and no experience of colonial administration, we did not want a place on the Trusteeship Council; but as one of the three countries that had worked together during the war to produce atomic energy, we claimed and got permanent membership in the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission and have had a seat on all subsequent U.N. bodies concerned with disarmament.

Functionalism is not a rigid theory but is a general approach to world politics which we have retained. It is partly a continuing resistance to the hegemony of the great powers, but it is also an attempt to find a workable formula for a world in which there is an increasing number of independent states of various sizes which must collaborate with each other but which cannot be organized into anything like a central world government, with an upper and a lower house. It is an attempt to find for each country its unique place in the world. A healthy state, like a healthy citizen, should feel it has a constructive role to play in international politics. We Canadians, for example, when we lack assurance that we are playing a useful and distinctive part in international bodies, tend to feel that our national destiny is something purely mischievous—like needling the United States, pursuing independence for its own sake, or acting in a generally capricious manner. It is in the interest of our large allies to encourage us to find a sensible vocation even if they think we take a wayward view of policy from time to time.

Mackenzie King, Prime Minister of Canada most of the time from the Twenties to the Fifties, argued that Canada should stay out of overseas quarrels because we had no national interests in remote places. When he passed from the scene shortly after the war, he was succeeded by a man with a different approach. Louis Saint Laurent and his new Minister for External Affairs, Lester B. Pearson, supported by a greatly expanded Department of External Affairs and a bolder Canadian spirit, set out to play a constructive role in any way that seemed likely to contribute to the peace and prosperity that were as essential to Canada as to any country. Soon Mr. King’s maxim was turned upside down through our active involvement in the United Nations. In 1947 Mr. Pearson was looked upon as the arbiter between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. In 1948 Canada was active in the settlement of the conflict between the Dutch and the Indonesians. By 1954 we were called upon to man the frontiers of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in tripartite international commissions to supervise the Geneva Agreements. The reason we were involved was precisely that we had no special interests in those areas and were expected, therefore, to be fair and impartial.

For a middle power linked closely with a super power, it is good to have a large organization like the United Nations. There we can combine with other lesser powers to put forward constructive proposals to which the great powers must pay attention. Our active part in the establishment of U.N. peacekeeping operations has given our armed forces an arduous but exciting role that is peculiarly satisfying. The Canadian soldier preventing murder in Cyprus or standing on duty between Arabs and Israelis can understand very easily that his purpose in life is useful. This is not to say that he is more useful than the soldier on NATO duty, but the job needs less explaining. There is no doubt that the credibility of our diplomacy has been strengthened by our willingness to contribute.

The Canadian approach to the U.N. has been pragmatic rather than doctrinaire. Since 1945 Canadian governments have tended to regard the U.N. as an experiment that would extend its authority and learn by practice a precedent to prevent conflict. Although we regret that it has not made more progress, do not look upon it as a job that failed. It is an association of states—we the United Nations—not Operation Thunderball. Because we were never under the illusion that we were setting up a world government to control all countries with its own police force, we are not cynical now, just worried. The job of the U.N. is conciliation and diplomacy, not enforcement. So long as the great powers are restrained the threat of mutual nuclear destruction, the U.N. can be effective in preventing fights from getting out of hand. It was not designed to cope with struggles between the great powers at first hand or, as in Vietnam, at second hand. There is no use expecting it to impose peace in such situations; it can only urge the powers to negotiate. If they are prepared to do so, then its corridors, its peacekeeping machinery, its moral pressure can be helpful.

If a middle power like Canada is to play an effective part in United Nations diplomacy, it must have some concern for its image.  A satellite state, a yes-man in diplomacy, carries no weight. For many years Canada had to make clear to the world, and perhaps to Americans more than others, that its foreign policy was not run from Whitehall. The problem now is to make clear that its policies are not made in Washington. On most fundamental issues Canada has no desire to differ from the United States because we are allies and share fur mental interests and values. This is no guarantee, however, that Washington and Ottawa will not differ on tactics to be followed achieve their common goals, as they often do in the U.N. It is by no means a bad thing the United States that Canada should operate somewhat differently, and it need not be assumed that this implies hostile intent. At the time of the Suez crisis, for example, Canada and the United States were agreed on the establishment of a United Nations force as a means of persuading the British, French, and Israelis to withdraw. If the United States had taken lead in this proposal it would have become a cold war issue, the Russians would have opposed it, and the nonaligned would have abstained. Secretary of State Dulles himself preferred that Mr. Pearson take the initiative so that there would be a better opportunity of getting broad support. This does not mean, of course, that there are no matters in which the United States should take the lead; it simply means that it is better to have tactical alternatives to fit situations. For various reasons—because Canadians are allowed to travel to China and trade with China, because Canada has an Embassy in Havana, because Canada is a member of the tripartite International Control Commission for Vietnam and has officers in Hanoi, and simply because Canada is not strong enough to excite fear—Canadians have been able on occasion to play the role not of neutrals but of intermediaries, exploring grounds for possible agreement. We think that the variation in our behavior is not only useful in itself but also necessary if we are to preserve the essential image of independence. There is no good argument for Canada differing from the United States merely to show its independence. Fortunately there are enough situations in which there is an honest difference of opinion to make clear to the other members of the United Nations that we are our own masters.

an evolving role in U.N.

This article is principally concerned with the role of the United Nations in maintaining security and preventing disputes. If I have failed to mention the U.N.’s economic and social functions, it is not because Canada is disinterested in them. Because we are one of the world’s leading trading nations and because of our large resources and considerable industry, Canada is a more significant economic power in the world than a military power. For this reason and because of our “functionalist” principles, much of our energy in U.N. affairs is put into economic bodies and projects. Like other Western nations, Canada is much concerned with economic aid to developing countries. In the early years we were one of the principal contributors to aid programs. As other and larger countries have restored their economies, our aid contribution has become relatively less imposing. However, we have continued to direct a larger proportion of our economic assistance through the United Nations and other international organizations than do most countries.

Special interest attaches to the Canadian role in international peacekeeping. Canada is one of the few countries that has had representatives in virtually every U.N. operation of this kind. Those in which we did not participate were the two earliest U.N. operations, in Indonesia and in Greece. Since then, after it came to be recognized that except in special circumstances it was wiser not to incorporate troops from any of the great powers, Canada has been asked to serve on every occasion. 

We do not normally include under this heading the U.N. police action in Korea. There the United Nations was itself conducting a military action. In peacekeeping operations, so called, the U.N. normally does not take sides but organizes neutral intervention to prevent hostilities from getting out of hand and to promote a settlement. For the record it should be mentioned, however, that Canadians did participate in the Korean operation.  At the height of this action Canada had some eight thousand servicemen in the Far East theater, one of the largest contributions next to those of the United States and the Republic of Korea.

In a special category also should be mentioned Canadian participation in the International Control Commissions for Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. These commissions resemble in many ways a U.N. operation, though they were established not by the United Nations but by the Geneva Conference in 1954. A practical disadvantage for the Indians, Poles, and Canadians who make up the commissions is that they are obliged themselves to provide many of the logistical services that would otherwise be organized by the United Nations, the costs being borne by those who participated in the Geneva Agreements. Canada has been sending officers to these commissions since 1954. Although the maximum number of service personnel at any one time in the three Indochinese countries was not much over 200, these were almost all highly trained officers, and the strain on army personnel has been greater than is apparent from the numbers.

The role of these commissions has been misunderstood and, in the Canadian view, frequently maligned. It was clearly never intended that such small bodies should enforce the Geneva Agreements. The commissions were of greatest value in their early stages, assisting in the disengagement of the forces and with populations being moved between north and south. Since then the assignment has been arduous and frustrating. The commissions are not authorized to prevent the parties by force from violating the terms of the Agreements, and they could not possibly do so. Their function is to report such violations to the “Co-Chairmen” of the continuing Geneva Conference, the Foreign Ministers of Britain and the Soviet Union. If the Agreements are violated, as they certainly have been, it is up to the great powers who signed the Agreements to exert the necessary pressure. Whenever there is an agreement of this kind, there is bound to be some kind of supervisory body or tribunal set up. It mayor may not do its job well, but it should in no way be confused with a police force. Because of the ambiguous position of the commission in Vietnam in the present circumstances, Canadians have been tempted to withdraw. They have stayed on, though, in the belief that, however frustrating and even humiliating the role of the commission may be, it should remain in place as at least a symbol of the Geneva Agreements of 1954 and because it may perform useful functions in the investigation of claims and counterclaims or possibly in the effort to reach a state of negotiation.

U.N. observer groups

One category of U.N. operations in which Canada has participated is what might be called the “observer groups.” The earliest in which Canadians took part were the United Nations Military Observer Groups India/ Pakistan (UNMOGIP) and United Nations Truce Supervision Organization in Palestine (UNTSO). These operations illustrate one of the problems of being a peacekeeper. One begins in the expectation that it is a matter of holding the line for a short time and withdrawing when a settlement is reached. Unfortunately settlements are not often reached. Sometimes the very fact that the U.N. presence guarantees security keeps the parties from the negotiating table. Canadian observers have been in Kashmir since 1949 and in Palestine since 1954. The numbers have varied, but at present there are 9 in Kashmir and 20 in Palestine. At first, Canadian officers from the militia or retired servicemen went to these jobs, and the Canadian government as such was not much involved. It proved difficult to get nonprofessionals, and as the government began to realize by the mid-Fifties that it was in the peacekeeping game for a long time, provision was made to send officers from the regular forces. Although ground forces, and therefore army personnel, are usually required, both the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Canadian Navy have played some part. In one instance Canadian participants were almost entirely from the Air Force. That was the 1963-64 operation known as UNYOM, in which RCAF observers and aircraft, along with Yugoslav ground forces, were to see that an agreed truce was maintained in Yemen. Unfortunately the participants in the fighting and their principal backers had no will to keep the truce, and the U.N. force was withdrawn.  More successful operations in which Canadians took part as observers were the United Nations Observer Group in Lebanon (UNOGIL) in 1958-59, to which 77 men were sent, and the United Nations India/Pakistan Observer Mission (UNIPOM) in 1965-66. This latter mission was set up at the time of the recent outbreak of fighting between India and Pakistan. Canada provided 12 observers, an air transport unit, and a senior air adviser, a total of 112 people.

For the same reason that Canadians are considered suitable to serve in these operations, senior Canadian officers are asked to assume special functions for the United Nations. Lieutenant General E. L. M. Burns served as Chief of Staff of UNTSO from 1954 to 1956. Being the man on the spot, he was then asked by the Secretary-General at the time of the Suez crisis to be the first Commander of the United Nations Emergency Force. He continued in this position until 1960. Major General B. F. Macdonald, who had been senior Canadian officer in Cyprus, was called in 1965 to be the Chief Officer of UNIPOM, where he served until UNIPOM was disbanded in March 1966 after tranquillity—relative at least—had been re-established.

U.N. “forces”

In all these operations, including the commissions in Indochina, the role was primarily observation, and participation was largely by officers. On a broader scale have been the U.N. bodies that could more easily be called “forces,” though the term is hardly indicative of their job to maintain order rather than combat aggression. These forces are the U.N. Emergency Force in the Middle East (UNEF); the U.N. Force in the Congo (UNOC); and the U.N. Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP).

UNEF. Canada was closely associated with UNEF because the initiative in proposing the force was taken in the Assembly by the Canadian External Affairs Minister, Mr. Pearson, now Prime Minister. Canada was terribly concerned over this crisis because it involved such sharp differences among its closest friends. For this reason and because Canada has tried to follow a policy in the U.N. of never advocating an expenditure of finances or men without being willing to contribute, it was natural that Canadians were offered for UNEF. The Egyptians were somewhat concerned at first because of the similarity of Canadian army uniforms to those of the British “aggressors.” After some initial difficulties, Canada provided an air communications squadron, administrative and communications troops, and subsequently a reconnaissance squadron, as well as the Commander, General Burns. At present the Canadian strength in UNEF is 850. The tour of duty is one year.

Congo. To the Congo force the Canadian contribution was smaller. Here, as in UNEF, Canada was called on for the special and technical services usually lacking in the forces of small countries. It is because Canada, among the middle powers, has a relatively large and sophisticated military establishment that its help usually proves indispensable. There were certain political reasons why its troops might not be acceptable in Egypt, but no other country was willing and able to supply the specialist forces. In the Congo this was to prove even more true, because the Secretary General preferred, if possible, to have non-white troops. The fact that Canada was a NATO ally of Belgium was also held against Canadians in some quarters. Nevertheless, the U.N. desperately needed what Canada alone was able to provide. There is no other country, furthermore, that can provide both English-speaking and French-speaking servicemen, and the importance of the latter was demonstrated not only in the Congo but also in Indochina. Canada was asked in the Congo to contribute the troops required to maintain internal and external communications for the force. Over three hundred specialists from the Canadian army went, including both communications and logistics experts. The RCAF produced all the personnel needed to manage air control towers handling U.N. air operations. In addition the RCAF Air Transport Command took on a large part of the airlift responsibility provided to previous operations by the U.S. Military Air Transport Service. Of the three operations designated as “forces” the Congo is the only one from which Canadians have as yet been able to withdraw. They stayed there until the operation ended in 1964.

Cyprus. Canada had three strong reasons for being concerned about the security situation in Cyprus in 1964: Cyprus was a member of the Commonwealth, and Greece and Turkey were fellow members of NATO. It had been suggested that a force drawn from NATO or the Commonwealth might go to Cyprus, and Canada would undoubtedly have been included in either. When the situation became dangerous in the spring of 1964, Canada took the initiative by offering to send troops so that a U.N. force could be set up. The Canadian External Affairs Minister was able to persuade others to join Canada, and by this action an extremely nasty situation was averted. Canada, however, grown somewhat wary from its long experience, tried to prescribe certain understandings. One of these was that there be a determined effort at mediation alongside the peacekeeping operation. The role of the peacekeeping force or group is normally not to seek a settlement but to hold the ring. Too often the fact that the ring has been held has prevented the disputants from reaching a settlement. In Cyprus a mediatory effort was set up apart from UNFICYP.UNFICYP, partly for financial reasons, has been on a short-term, usually three-month-renewable basis. Mediation has not got very far, but Canada has always agreed to prolongation of UNFICYP. At present there are about a thousand Canadian military personnel serving in Cyprus, and in support of the operation the RCAF maintains a scheduled transport service between Canada and Cyprus. It might be noted in this connection that a good deal of the cost of all these operations is paid by Canada. Unlike other participants, Canada provides troops at normal Canadian foreign service pay, so that the cost to the U.N. is less than that for any other national soldier.

a permanent U.N. force?

Canada has been as aware as any country of the difficulties caused by the need for sudden improvisation when a crisis calls for the deployment of a U.N. force. It was inevitable, therefore, that Canadians should take a considerable interest in the idea of a permanent U.N. establishment. Like other strong supporters of the United Nations, Canada would like a trained and organized U.N. force ready for action at any time. However, having been much involved in the politics and diplomacy of creating forces to suit occasions, we fully recognize that this is not possible. We have accepted, therefore, the position stated by the late Dag Hammarskjöld in his report to the General Assembly in 1960, that governments in a position and willing to do so should maintain contributions in a state of readiness to meet possible demands from the United Nations.

The Canadian military, who have suffered particularly from the necessity of improvisation, would like to see within the U.N. Secretariat a military staff to consider contingency plans and direct operations with more military understanding than is possible at present.* While the government would like to move in this direction, it recognizes the formidable difficulties caused by the opposition of the Soviet Union and many nonaligned countries. Canadian policy has been to make the best of what we can achieve rather than to push impossible plans to a confrontation that would endanger the whole idea of peacekeeping.

In the debate that has raged recently over the financing of peacekeeping, Canada, while clinging to the principle that these operations ought to be paid for in equitable proportions by all members, nevertheless sought compromise solutions. Canada, as a member of the Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations, in the 1966 Assembly put forward concrete proposals. Recognizing that a mandatory apportionment would be possible only when the Security Council, including its permanent members, agreed that this should be done, the Canadian representative suggested that the Assembly put forward certain guidelines. He recognized that the constitutional issue could not be settled by the majority’s forcing its view on the minority. The Charter conferred primary responsibility for maintaining peace on the Security Council, but it gave the Assembly the right to discuss this subject and make recommendations. Thus it recognized that, if the Council was unable to make decisions in this field, the Assembly might be able to do so. Canada put forward a resolution, cosponsored by a number of other countries, which, in addition to these recommendations, would have established a special scale for financing peacekeeping operations, under which the less-developed countries would contribute five percent of the cost and the balance would be borne by other members. T would not be mandatory but would serve a guideline. The proposal, however, narrowly failed to get the necessary two-thirds majority.


standby forces for U.N.

Canada has itself maintained and developed the principle of a national standby force. This concept in Canada goes back to the Korean War, when Canada announced that it would maintain a brigade for service in Korea, for NATO purposes, or for other U.N. operation. Fifteen years ago the Canadian military looked upon peacekeeping services as outside their normal course of duty. The requirements for Indochina, beginning in 1954, and then for UNEF in 1956 appeared at the time to be temporary, but they were a considerable drain on a small force. It came to be realized by military planners that this must become one accepted aspect of Canadian military activity. Having made this adjustment, the services have welcomed the opportunities for varied and active service in different parts of the world. In the various theaters where they have worked, frequently on assignments as much diplomatic as military, Canadian servicemen have acquired skill and adaptability. They have learned to accept the restraint and discretion required when military forces operate, sometimes entirely without arms, to keep other people from shooting. It has not been easy, and in the Congo and Cyprus they have had the experience of being beaten up or fired upon without responding with the force that would be brought to bear in a conventional military situation.

A large proportion of Canadian servicemen have had experience of this kind, and they possess a considerable store of knowledge to be passed on to others in training. Canada has been interested also in sharing its expertise with other countries. Recognizing that because of political difficulties the U.N. Secretariat itself could do little, the Canadian government in 1964 planned a peacekeeping conference in Ottawa and invited all those countries that had responded affirmatively the Secretary-General’s request for standby forces for U.N. duty to participate. Twenty-three countries sent representatives to this meeting. Although it was organized outside the United Nations, it was not intended to bypass the will of the U.N. It was not a political discussion but a consultation of military men to learn from each other how to prepare themselves better for other U.N. calls.

For some years Canada has maintained units specifically on call for U.N. service. Although this practice has been justified in that some troops are always prepared and inoculated for instant dispatch, the difficulty has been that requirements vary greatly. The demand for technical and special services has made it necessary to call on other units. The “White Paper on Defence” in 1964 concluded:

Preparations for United Nations service on the part of Canadian military personnel must be varied, with an emphasis on mobility. While the training and equipment of such forces may be of a special nature, the best results can be accomplished through the establishment of regular military formations, which need not be earmarked exclusively for United Nations service and which can be used for other roles as required.

The same White Paper stressed the need for mobility as regards deployment, method of operation, and logistic support. This was one reason why the White Paper, which gave a new direction to Canadian defence preparations, placed heavy emphasis on mobile forces that could be used for all Canada’s varied military requirements, including peacekeeping. 

Whether Canadian forces will be required again for this kind of duty is never known. It is by no means certain, of course, that the U.N. will be able to finance such operations again. However, the fact that Canada has been asked to serve in every such U.N. operation for over fifteen years suggests that further calls are likely, and it is well to be prepared. Forces are prepared for NATO even though we trust they will never go into action. If we take for granted that the world will not settle down without occasional perturbations, then in all probability, regardless of the constitutional problems, the U.N. will find some way to intervene. If further calls are made on Canada, there is no doubt that Canadian authorities will be willing and Canadian forces prepared to play their part under whatever peculiar circumstances obtain.

Toronto, Ontario

*For views of a Canadian with much peacekeeping experience and suggestions for practical improvements see Lt.-Col. R. B. Tackaberry Keeping the Peace (Toronto: Canadian Institute of International Affairs, 1966).


John W. Holmes (M.A., University of Toronto) is Director General, Canadian Institute of International Affairs, Toronto. He joined the Canadian Department of External Affairs in 1943. While in the Foreign Service he was First Secretary in London, Charge d’Affaires in Moscow, and Acting Canadian Representative to the United Nations in New York. From 1951 to 1953 he was External Affairs member of the Directing Staff, National Defence College, Kingston, and then Assistant Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs. He became President of the Institute of International Affairs in 1960. Mr. Holmes is a member of the Council of the Institute for Strategic Studies, London, the Advisory Council of the World Security Trust, London, the Steering Committee of EncuentrosSiglo XX, the Executive Committee of Canadian University Service Overseas, and the Academic Senate of Brock University. His writings on Canadian foreign policy and other international subjects have been widely published in professional magazines and books.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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