As the country that practically invented international peacekeeping, it was only natural that Canada would volunteer for the U.N. mission in East Timor.

"We are always there, like the Boy Scouts," said Prime Minister Jean Chretien after announcing the deployment. "Canadians love it. They think it is a nice way for Canadians to be present around the world."

Making the promise was the easy part--carrying it out has been another story.

With 3,800 troops already on duty around the world in more than a dozen peacekeeping missions, military planners have been scrambling to round up another 600 for East Timor without cutting short home assignments and training. And even at that, departure dates had to be delayed several weeks because soldiers had not been vaccinated against Japanese encephalitis.

Getting the troops across the Pacific was also a problem: The Canadian navy has so little transport capacity that it was forced to use its only supply ship to service its entire Pacific fleet.

Then last week, the first of the air force's aging transport planes bound for East Timor was forced to turn back to base three times because of malfunctions with its compass and tail rudder. Another of the 34-year-old C-130 Hercules aircraft managed to make the trip, but only by flying below 10,000 feet because of a malfunctioning cabin-pressurization system.

Military experts say these embarrassing incidents are signs that Canada is now caught between the conflicting realities of declining defense budgets and increasing military conflict around the world.

"There's a definite mismatch between Canada's desire to remain a player on the world stage and the ability of the armed forces to carry it out," said David Rudd, executive director of the Canadian Institute for Strategic Studies. "They are over-stretched everywhere."

And it is not just Canada. Last week, defense ministers from all 19 NATO countries met in Toronto to begin addressing serious deficiencies in the alliance's military capabilities. Ministers bravely vowed to press for more money even as they explore new ways of getting more from existing funds by sharing equipment and collaborating in the development of new weapons.

"You can't keep taking a peace dividend if you don't have peace," declared George Robertson, the British defense minister who will soon take over as NATO's secretary general.

That message was particularly relevant here, where defense spending since the Cold War has dropped 30 percent, after adjustments for inflation. At $6.2 billion annually, Canadian defense spending, as a share of economic output, is now lower than any NATO country except Luxembourg. And a recent internal review found that the Canadian military could fulfill only half its NATO-assigned tasks in the case of an all-out war.

Prospects for any significant increase in defense spending appear slim. With the government finally showing budget surpluses after years of deficit spending, the Chretien government wants to offer voters some sort of tax cut in next year's budget. And with many Canadians having to wait months for cancer treatments and elective surgery, voters are demanding more money for the country's national health care system.

"The reality is that we will probably have to do better with the resources we have," said Defense Minister Art Eggleton in an interview.

Military analysts predict that these budget realities will soon force Canada to abandon any hope of fighting alongside the United States and other NATO allies in combat that requires modern and expensive new weapons systems.

For example, while Canadian F-18 fighter jets were able to participate in 10 percent of the strike sorties in Kosovo, the air force was so strapped for cash that it recently had to retire its entire fleet of electronic warfare planes, which are crucial in any modern conflict.

And while the navy has a small fleet of modern frigates and submarines, it has no reliable helicopters or submarine surveillance planes.

The army has state-of-the-art reconnaissance vehicles, but its Leopard tanks are so old that it cannot field credible armored battalions.

The Canadian auditor general concluded, in a report last year, that at current budget levels, the military would have only half the $7 billion necessary for weapons purchases and upgrades over the next five years just to maintain current capabilities.

Given these realities, Joseph Jockel, a professor of Canadian Studies at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., said Canada should probably focus its limited defense budget on beefing up its peacekeeping, a role more in line with the image Canadians have of themselves as kinder and gentler than their more warlike American neighbors.

"Like it or not, this is a military that is being equipped largely for peacekeeping," said Jockel, whose new book on the Canadian military is entitled, "Hard Choices, Soft Power."

CAPTION: Prime Minister Jean Chretien says, Canadians "are always there, like the Boy Scouts."