January 11, 2005 | Commentary on International Organizations

'Unilateralism' Saved Lives In Asia

The world is in a "race against time" to prevent a sharp rise in the number of deaths resulting from the devastating Dec. 26 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said at a Jan. 6 summit of world leaders in Jakarta, Indonesia. Yes, Jan. 6 -- 11 days after the tsunami first hit and after an estimated 150,000 people had died.

It also was after nations and individuals worldwide had donated or pledged more than $4 billion in aid to the victims -- an amount far exceeding the $977 million Annan has urged nations to provide to countries and people affected by the tsunami.

It also was more than a week after the U.S. and other countries had people on the ground helping the victims. Within 24 hours, U.S. officials had deployed humanitarian and disaster relief experts to the region, distributed assistance through regional embassies, rounded up food, shelter, water and other supplies for delivery, and announced that military forces -- including ships, helicopters and transport aircraft -- would be deployed.

In addition, U.S. officials announced that they would coordinate their effort with nations, including Australia, India, Singapore and Japan, that likewise were quick to respond to the crisis.

Since the tsunami hit, American Embassy staff and U.S. Agency for International Development personnel have been working tirelessly with people from nations in the region and others to help victims. They've assessed needs, rounded up supplies, established distribution networks, and put in long days.

Within days of the disaster, the U.S. military aircraft were conducting aerial reconnaissance and transporting supplies and wounded victims. Soon after, American ships began arriving -- providing fresh water, carrying supplies, and transporting helicopters. As of Jan. 7, America had more than 12,500 military personnel in place, along with 20 ships, 44 aircraft and 54 helicopters -- with more on the way.

All of this was done without direction from the United Nations. You would expect applause for such initiative, but no: These magnificent efforts have been criticized by some as another example of American "unilateralism" designed to undermine the United Nations.

French President Jacques Chirac fears "that Washington is deliberately circumventing the United Nations and wants to compete with the international organization," the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported. "President Chirac wants to hinder America from using its ad hoc-organized aid operation to set a precedent that will lastingly weaken the role of the United Nations."

The nations devastated by the tsunami are no doubt comforted to learn that the U.S. and other nations did not let fresh water, food and shelter take a back seat to ensuring that such assistance went through the proper channels.

The U.N. record thus far hardly inspires confidence. Apparently U.N. priorities in the region have been arranging meetings for U.N. officials, reserving rooms in five-star hotels, ensuring that 24-hour catering is available for U.N. personnel, and other vital tasks. (This information is based on various posts on the Internet blog "The Diplomad," run by U.S. Foreign Service officers currently helping to aid tsunami victims.)

Now that that the U.N. has taken charge of the relief effort and the U.S. coalition has been dissolved, what has the U.N. been doing on the "multilateral" front? Good question.

A Jan. 7 post on The Diplomad by one U.S. Foreign Service officer sheds some light: "Along with my colleagues, I've spent the past several days dealing non-stop with various aspects of the relief effort in this tsunami-affected country. That work, unfortunately, has brought ever-increasing contact with the growing UN presence in this capital; in fact, we've found that to avoid running into the UN, we must go out to where the quake and tsunami actually hit. As we come up on two weeks since the disaster struck, the UN is still not to be seen where it counts -- except when holding well-staged press events."

The truth is, people cannot afford to wait for U.N. coordination. As Abdul Hadi bin e Rashid, first admiral of the Malaysian navy, told the Financial Times: "If we wait for the U.N. to tell us what to do, we wouldn't do anything."

Over the next few weeks and months, the news coverage will be full of praise for the U.N. relief effort in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India and other countries hard hit by the tsunami. Some of the praise will be deserved -- no doubt many people will be aided by the U.N. effort. But let's not forget that without the rapid response by a few motivated and capable nations, including the "unilateral" United States, thousands of people who might otherwise be dead are alive today.

The Secretary General was right to say disaster relief is a race against time. Fortunately, nations capable of running at the crack of the starting gun are providing the U.N. the time necessary to find its shoes.

Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham fellow in international regulatory affairs in the Center for International Trade and Economics at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Brett D. Schaefer Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire and FoxNews.com