08/27/2013 02:28 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2013

Syria and a UN With Teeth?

Must not the news of the use of poison gas against innocent civilians in Syria the past week finally convince us that the world urgently needs a more effective international peace-keeping, indeed a peace-enforcing, military force? If this latest massacre, coming after those during the previous decades in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur, does not convince us, it is hard to imagine what more in the way of crimes or atrocities against innocent people will need to be committed before we are finally moved to do something about bringing all this mayhem to an end. Time and time again we have seen instances where blue-helmeted UN "peace keepers" have been unable to do little more than retreat when the shooting starts or stand by and "observe" while the ground turns red with pools of blood. Even now, we see UN inspectors having to beg the Assad regime in Syria for permission to investigate what happened in the suburbs of Damascus the past week.

Clearly something has to be done now. But it is not that there haven't been calls before. In his June 2009 encyclical letter "Charity in Truth," Pope Benedict called for "a reform of the United Nations Organization, and likewise of economic institutions and international finance, so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth" (Caritas in Veritate, 67). In this call for a world-wide authority that has the power to enforce its decisions, the pope was only repeating what he had said at the time of his visit to the UN headquarters in New York the year before. On that occasion, speaking explicitly of the major financial downturn, he said that the world is "in crisis because it is still subordinated to the decisions of a few, whereas the world's problems call for interventions in a form of collective action" (BBC News, 4/19/2008). In other words, if "Charity" is to be anything more than a sop or a bandage for injustice, it needs to be seen as a form of tough love.

Of course, one can usually count on the usual howls of protest against such calls for what seems to be clearly common sense. Predictably we will hear warnings against "one world government" or any calls for a new "world order" as being attacks against national sovereignty -- almost as if we lived on separate planets. And while there are some who might admit that we need an effective peace-keeping force, the idea that there needs to be international financial oversight strikes some as being far too invasive -- again, as if the globalization of industry, business, and finance were not already facts that are unlikely to be undone.

But let's face it, as the former pope said, the UN urgently needs to be reformed. In too many ways, the UN has ended up being no more effective than was its failed predecessor, the League of Nations. In fact, where the League turned out to be little more than a debating society whose members could do little more than wring their hands when dissenting members like Germany or Japan walked out in protest against any decision that didn't suit them, the UN Security Council has been set up in such a way that a veto by any of the big five -- the victors of World War II -- can prevent any decision being reached at all!

Clearly then, if any effective way of settling disputes or preventing bloody conflict in the future is to come about, the whole structure of the UN needs to be changed. Eliminating the power of the veto in the Security Council would clearly be a necessary first step. However, eliminating the Security Council altogether, or reducing its status to some kind of executive function, and making a super-majority vote of the General Assembly decisive, with the number of votes allotted to each nation according to its population, would make the most sense. In fact, I think the future of the world depends on it. Otherwise, the often-repeated words of Benjamin Franklin will acquire an even more ominous meaning. "Either we" -- in this case, the nations of the world -- "hang together, or assuredly we will hang separately", each one succumbing to our well-deserved fate.