On March 11, America’s perennial ally Japan suffered the double calamity of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and a powerful ensuing tsunami. Resultant electrical failures at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant caused reactor cooling systems to fail, resulting in overheating, reactor explosions and the release of radiation into the atmosphere.
So far, about 7,500 are confirmed dead; thousands more are missing. Japan estimates tens of billions of dollars in total property and economic damage. Markets reacted as the Nikkei tumbled, sending ripples through the world financial system. The triple disaster constitutes one of the five worst natural catastrophes in Japanese history and the worst in 100 years.
Within hours of the disaster, the United States had launched Operation Tomodachi (Friend) and dispatched military aircraft and personnel to assist the Japanese government in providing humanitarian aid. Within four days, the offering to the Japanese topped 17,000 U.S. military personnel: a Navy carrier strike group, 14 total ships plus their aircraft; dozens of Marine Corps C-130 aircraft and helicopters; Air Force surveillance assets, including a U-2 reconnaissance airplane and Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle; 33 Department of Energy experts; nine Nuclear Regulatory Commission experts; and 150 search and rescue personnel and 12 search dogs from the Agency for International Development.
U.S. forces remain on station in Japan today, continuing to provide humanitarian assistance to save lives and alleviate human suffering.
So, where are China, India and Russia?
The answer is they are largely absent – these 20th century great powers and 21st century ascendants are found on this stage in small numbers, making token gestures – modest amounts of money and humanitarian supplies, small rescue teams and energy pledged to compensate for the shortfall triggered by the nuclear power plant failure. Mostly, they are strategically unengaged, captive to historical antipathy, unwilling to make compassion a foundation of their short-term policy on the crisis. They are not true friends of the Japanese, and they are barely willing to pretend.
For all the criticism of America’s military adventurism, unilateralism and myriad other condemnations of U.S. foreign policy, America quickly recognized a significant need by a historical ally and acted in a manner characterized by three Fs essential to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief: first, fast and fundamental in its response.
America was the initial relief provider on the scene, acting without dithering or political gamesmanship, without concern for international politics. America was there fast, providing essential services and goods fundamental to preventing death and mitigating the human tragedy – search and rescue, food and water, transportation to safe refuge, nuclear expertise and medical care.
Providing relief to people in need is not a competition, and the calculus of realpolitik and ideology is shelved until the crisis is averted. America acts because an ally state is in need; people are suffering. But when countries are in extremis and have needs that must be fulfilled by the international community, the phone rings in Washington before it rings anywhere else. There is always someone there to answer it, and the answer is always "yes."