Good news came on Saturday of a breakthrough in Chile, where 33 workers were trapped after a mine collapsed two months ago. A deep shaft was opened broadly enough to enable rescuers to pull the men to safety in one of the most impressive feats of survival and national determination in recent years. A smaller shaft drilled nearly two months ago enabled rescuers to supply the trapped men with food and other necessities until they could be rescued via the wider channel.
When news broke of the breakthrough bringing rescue expectations nearer by two months, bells rang and horns and sirens blew. It was a World Cup moment. The game wasn’t over, but with the trapped miners being brought to the surface one by one, the Andean nation has scored a terrific goal, and everyone knows it.
There is a lesson for all of us in this. Chile was not too proud, but was eager to accept help where it could be found - NASA technicians flew in to assist efforts to supply the men and maintain their morale in their isolation from anxious friends and relatives on the surface. Help came from many other nations as well, from this hemisphere and elsewhere.
Chile’s political leadership recognized in the mining calamity a national test of resolve and steely determination, and supported by a tide of public support for the trapped miners pushed unprecedented national efforts to rescue them. Rescue operators drilled frantically, pursuing several different rescue routes simultaneously.
Chile has exhibited earlier examples of grit and determination, in lifting itself out of a temporary dictatorship under Gen. Augusto Pinochet, imposed in the wake of electoral victories by Marxist Salvador Allende during the old Cold War years. Some dark pages were written in Chilean history in those days, as both the right and the left can now agree. But Chile emerged from that mine shaft of political polarization and desperation into the bright uplands of a new birth of democracy.
Recently, Chile was a poster child for choice and investor control of public pensions and social security. Chile bit the bullet and a private investment system was established and placed under the control and ownership of wage earners contributing to it.
It was an early apparent success and provided a model that ran into problems during the global recession. However, the promise of the Chilean model was not utterly eclipsed. Indeed, the ebbing of the recession promises to restore and elevate again those investment plans into new prosperity and security - and may maintain and strengthen the Chilean experiment in making workers shareholders in the national economy. If not, it won’t be for want of effort or lack of political daring.
By contrast, the great powers sometimes display a bit too much hubris, mingled with reluctance to admit our limitations. This is a curious mixture of caution on domestic matters and exuberant overreach abroad.
Hence, the United States, for example, only accepted a few of the Dutch offers of help in the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster that ravaged New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast. We accepted some water-pumping experts, but not Dutch involvement in a comprehensive rethinking of coastal protections.
Still, working with us would have provided engineers from abroad with valuable experience for avoiding or dealing with any major storm-related catastrophe on their own shores. Now the Dutch are busy by themselves rethinking their own coastal arrangements in light of the savage Katrina storm (though such a storm is admittedly far less likely in the more northerly latitudes of the Netherlands).
The Dutch have a lot of experience in holding back water and perhaps a country not eager to appear all-powerful would have gladly accepted their offer of expertise and involvement. But not our estimable political leaders. They would prefer to worry about perceptions, about being seen as weak or soft. And so they usually avoid making decisions or taking action, particularly on pressing domestic matters, where the glory of distant battlefields does not beckon.
As a result, our Katrina catastrophe may have lasted longer than it had to, with appalling effects for many of our own people. We did not prove omnipotent; rather, the contrary.
Again, the Dutch (and the British) offered waterborne skimmers to help contain and remove oil spilled in the Gulf earlier this year. We belatedly accepted one of the Dutch offers about two months after it was made. Evidently, there were some problems with our Environmental Protection Agency, and two nations so experienced with deep-sea drilling were not to be trusted. Of course, we welcome Dutch involvement in our military incursions abroad, though their engineering advice might actually have proved much more valuable to the national interest than any of their military contributions.
Of course, the United States is the richest, most innovative nation on Earth, an undoubted, last-standing superpower. Generally, the world needs our help much more often than the other way around. But everyone needs help at times, even the proudest among us. We had one such moment in September 2001, when even some nations such as France that have a long love-hate relationship with our country were proud to proclaim: “We are all Americans now.”
How can we expect nations to accept and appreciate our own interventions and supposedly well-meant offers of help if we are too proud to accept the widow’s mite of aid that might help get us out of a jam when the shoe is on the other foot? Accepting even a little aid only reaffirms the dignity of the donor, who has been the beneficiary of our largess in many cases (as the occupied Dutch were, when liberated by Allied troops in World War II) and declares the reality of the interdependence of our independent and sovereign states in the 21st-century world. Life-affirming concerns inspire policies that acknowledge our common humanity rather than the many distinctions that separate us and create in some a desire to remain apart and unreachably foremost.