Typhoon Haiyan: Humanitarian Disasters and American Generosity

When natural disasters and humanitarian catastrophes occur, such as the recent Typhoon Haiyan that walloped the Philippines, the world still looks to the United States for help, and most of the time that is exactly what it gets. Hooray for the U.S.!

At a time when Americans are consumed with health care and sequester pressures, with Iran’s nuclear challenge and Syria’s painful civil war, and with a presidency that seems to be teetering on the edge of failure, it is still true that the United States is leading the international effort to send desperately needed supplies to the Philippines. A cynic might puncture that balloon of pride in America by pointing out that for much of the first half of the 20th century, the Philippines were a colonial ward of the U.S., and therefore we have more of a moral obligation to help than any other nation.  True, but it is not just the Philippines that has been the beneficiary of American largesse. Other nations, too, have received American help, even those critical of U.S. policy.

Anne Applebaum reminds us in a recent Washington Post column that the U.S. immediately dispatched the aircraft carrier George Washington and four other naval warships to support massive emergency relief operations in the Philippines with an initial price tag of $20 million. The British, also helpful, sent one warship and $16 million in emergency supplies. The Vatican pledged $4 million. And China, the neighbor with the bustling economy and ambition?  One hundred thousand dollars, a pathetically small contribution.  Maybe China is being stingy, because it has also been making a claim on Philippine territory rich in natural resources.

According to Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery, commander of the George Washington Strike Group, the U.S. warships will first “assess the damage” and then “provide logistical and emergency support, including medical care and water supplies.” There is a desperate need for water.  One of the U.S. ships has already transported 1,900 gallons of water and food supplies to Tacloban, the city hardest hit by the monster typhoon. In a non-stop ferrying operation, similar to the Berlin airlift of 1948, 23 helicopters carry supplies ashore and then pick up badly wounded survivors for treatment aboard the aircraft carrier.

And this is just the beginning.  Weeks and months of American assistance are certain to follow, with a price tag yet to be determined. The United States helps. If there is a strategic dividend, so much the better.  In this case, the Philippine government invited the U.S. to reopen some of the naval bases it ordered shut 20 years ago. I suspect the U.S. would have helped the Philippines anyway. It’s in the character of the nation.  In 2004, a tsunami hit Indonesia, and two former American presidents, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, quickly coordinated the global relief effort, including the large American contribution. In Syria, the U.S. has pledged $1.16 billion in humanitarian assistance. That’s nearly 30% of all foreign assistance.  Rather impressive for a nation with its own economic problems. China, on the other hand, has provided $3 million in aid, less than that of Luxembourg. In 2005, when an earthquake hit Kashmir, the United States rushed huge shipments of medical and food supplies to Pakistan, even though relations between the two countries were tense and strained.

As Applebaum put it, “U.S. strength may be waning, U.S. status may be fading, and U.S. attraction for talented foreigners may soon taper off.” But, the fact is that ever since the end of World War II, the U.S. has demonstrated time and again that it is a generous nation, happy and sometimes even eager to help people and nations in distress. Sometimes there has been a strategic payoff; often, not.

The point is American generosity has been a fairly constant feature of the global landscape for a long time, and the U.S. ought to be proud that it can help and that it does help.