Is an effective United Nations still the only hope?

EPA/Rolex Dela Pena

Bombing Syria seems to have become obligatory for any aspiring great power. After all, what’s the point in spending all that money on sophisticated warplanes if you can’t actually use them on someone? Even better if the whole exercise is essentially risk-free because the enemy is incapable of offering any resistance.

But do even the most enthusiastic advocates of airpower really think it is going to prove effective and help to resolve this or any other conflict for that matter, though? Boots on the ground – preferably wearing the blue helmets of the United Nations’ peacekeeping forces – looks like an essential part of restoring some semblance of peace and sanity in this benighted region.

And yet we all know that the UN is hopeless, ineffective and lacking in the capacity to act decisively, right? Maybe. But perhaps the questions to ask are: first, could it actually be a lot more effective than it currently is? Second, is there any alternative?

Two of the UN’s major problems revolve around money and manpower. With more of both, there is no doubt that UN peacekeeping forces could do more in more places – places where no other member of the so-called international community wants to set foot.

Where will all this money come from? One possibility is an internationally imposed version of the celebrated or notorious “Tobin tax”, which is designed to raise money from the often unproductive flows of hot money sloshing around the world’s financial markets. It might also make the global economy more stable, too.

Another possibility, albeit and admittedly unlikely one, is for individual countries to outsource responsibility for their international security to the UN. National security would then be about realistic and likely local threats, rather than gearing up for old-fashioned interstate wars that will almost certainly never happen. Even if they did, what could a country like Australia do to influence the outcome?

So rather than spending more money we don’t have on a new generation of unproven planes to bomb people we don’t know for reasons we don’t understand, why not give part of the money we save on defence to the UN? The UN would then have its own independent, credible, peacekeeping – and even peace-enforcing where necessary – capacity.

All a bit unlikely? Sure, but what’s the alternative? The US is criticised whatever it does. Being hegemonic isn’t what it used to be. It’s entirely understandable that the US would want to get out of a region where its actions have been monumentally misconceived and counterproductive and where it is widely loathed and distrusted. When your friends are the likes of Saudi Arabia, you know things aren’t going too well.

Not only could an independent, international UN force actually intervene with some hope of success, but it could also potentially solve a number of the Middle East’s other problems too. One of the biggest causes of instability around the world is millions of young men with no hope, job prospects or self-esteem. What many of them want more than anything is the chance to earn a living and actually participate in a viable local economy.

The UN could help fix that too. With its own massively expanded budget the UN could offer well-paid careers in international peacekeeping that would offer a real alternative to the disengagement and misery that is so prevalent at present. Crucially, it would not be necessary to move elsewhere to find work. The influx of money from decent, internationally competitive wages could also kick start economic redevelopment in countries where money is in short supply.

And if we’re being ambitious, why stop there? There is no shortage of reconstruction work that needs to be done in the Middle East and elsewhere. Why not employ the legions of unemployed skilled professionals who currently only seem to drive the taxis in countries like ours to make a productive contribution in their own? Many would jump at the chance.

Yes, this would be similar to the sort of Marshall Plan that underpinned the economic renaissance – and the pacification – of post-war Europe. Crucially, however, it would not rely solely on the generosity and the geopolitical imperatives of a single country, no matter how well-intentioned it might be. International problems demand international solutions and the UN is uniquely positioned to provide them.

Before dismissing this prospect as a fantasy, it is worth considering the current alternatives. If the new found realism in Australian foreign policy means siding with Bashar al-Assad while simultaneously bombing the country over which he claims authority, even the most unlikely ideas begin to seem attractive. They could even be plausible. They could hardly be worse.