America's long-dominant role in international relief reflects both America's innate compassion and its status as the world's sole superpower. Time and time again, from tropical-storm devastation in Bangladesh, to the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami in Indonesia, to last month's earthquake in Haiti, it is America that steps forward first to provide humanitarian relief. In particular, the US military has repeatedly brought to bear its enormous logistical capabilities, especially to lead the immediate response to both natural and man-made disasters.
And what distinguishes the United States even more from other countries is the consistently generous responses by millions of individual citizens, not waiting for their government to act, but contributing money, resources and their own time through churches, fraternal organizations and charities. We don't do this because we have to, but because we want to. For good reason, therefore, we rightly view ourselves as well-motivated, effective and openhanded.
Many foreigners disagree. Just days after Haiti's earthquake, France's minister for international cooperation, Alain Joyandet, complained about the US effort, notably our military's control of Haiti's main airport. Joyandet said that "this is about helping Haiti, not about occupying Haiti." Fortunately, France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, whipped his minister back into line, just in time before Americans started reminding Paris of France's colonial legacy in Haiti. Nonetheless, Europe, even after several weeks, is far from matching the US response.
Many people ask why, instead of the United States invariably taking on the burden of "first responder" to humanitarian disaster, the United Nations shouldn't handle the job. Indeed, in the case of Haiti, there were approximately 9,000 UN uniformed peacekeepers already posted there, as well as almost 2,000 civilian UN personnel. Unfortunately, the UN's performance over the years demonstrates it is not up to the task. In Haiti, even worse, scores of UN personnel died in the earthquake, including Hedi Annabi, the head of the overall UN mission in country.
The UN's own internal disorganization has long made fast and effective responses almost impossible. Numerous independently governed and administered UN agencies and programs are involved in humanitarian relief efforts, and each marches to its own drummer. UNICEF cares for children and families; the World Health Organization looks after health, sanitation and medicines; the World Food Program distributes food supplies; and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees provides protection and assistance when political or natural disasters cause large numbers of people to cross national borders. The UN Development Program is supposed to be the overall country coordinator of the work of the many agencies involved, but that's a nearly impossible task.
Then, of course, there's the long, well-documented history of waste, fraud, corruption and incompetence in UN programs. In Haiti just last week, for example, UN peacekeeping troops from Uruguay were unable to manage the orderly distribution of food (donated from the US, of course) even directly in front of the Port-au-Prince's now-leveled Presidential Palace. No criticisms, however, from Paris.
The UN system's dysfunctional performance over the years culminated in dismay over the handling of refugees and displaced persons when Saddam Hussein renewed his persecution of Kurds and Shi'ites after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Major UN donor countries insisted on creating a new coordinating position, an Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, whose office became one more player to be coordinated. And outside the UN, the International Red Cross and scores of "non-governmental organizations," often serve as the operating arms for UN agencies and national relief efforts. Rube Goldberg would be proud of this structure.
In a disaster's immediate aftermath, the biggest problems are logistical: getting food, medicine, shelter and sanitation equipment rapidly to the affected areas, and the most important variables are time and distance. Delegating response to international organizations like the UN, rather than local groups, is a prescription for failure. For those countries that are too poor to have adequate disaster response capabilities, regional organizations like the African Union and ASEAN should be better prepared.
But make no mistake about it: the United States is the default humanitarian world leader because no alternatives are visible well into the future. Who else? The UN? The European Union? The "BRIC" countries--Brazil, Russia, India and China? Forget it. America will take the lead, and we will also take the criticism. Our only grim satisfaction will come if there is an American decline, as some believe inevitable, and many hope for. The rest of the world will miss us when we're gone.
John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.