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Humanitarian acts as antidotes to war

Disasters can cause even adversarial nations to enjoy heart-to-heart moments of compassion. Russia delivers emergency fuel to an Alaskan town; the US Navy rescued Iranian fishermen.

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    With the Russian tanker Renda unloading fuel offshore of Nome, Alaska, on Monday, a group of local officials celebrate around a container of gasoline. The US Coast Guard ice breaker Healy is in the background at left.
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Russia and the United States are locked in a struggle over control of the Arctic Sea but you wouldn’t have guessed that on Monday. A Russian tanker began to pump badly needed winter fuel to the Alaskan city of Nome after making an emergency trip at the US’s request. The 370-foot ship the Renda traveled 5,000 miles and through Bering Sea ice to reach the isolated city.

“Our main goal is not so much to make profit but to rescue people,” said the tanker’s owner, Fazil Aliyev, whose company is based in Vladivostok.

The mercy mission showed unusual cooperation between nations. And it is one more example of how humanitarian gestures can sometimes break down barriers between nations that aren’t always on the best of terms.

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Another example is the recent rescue of 13 stranded Iranian fishermen in the Persian Gulf by the US Navy, even as tensions have risen over Iran’s nuclear program.

The Iranian foreign ministry called the rescue a “positive” act. “We think all nations should display such behavior,” said a spokesman. The very destroyer that picked up the men is part of a fleet of US warships that Iran insists must leave the Strait of Hormuz.

Humanitarian acts have brought Iran and the US a tiny bit closer at times. Americans who are arrested in Iran, for example, are sometimes later released as a “goodwill gesture.”

On the Korean Peninsula, food aid to hungry North Koreans is used as a tool of diplomacy by South Korea to negotiate with its threatening neighbor. After a 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, India offered assistance to its rival, although some aid, such as helicopters, was rejected due to Pakistani sensitivities. Last year, China offered aid to Japan after its giant earthquake and tsunami. The surprise move may have helped warm up their tense ties.

Though aid from rivals can produce tangible results for those in need, it can serve as a symbol of hope and, perhaps, a softening of harsh rhetoric in diplomacy.

The Pentagon has latched onto rescue efforts and humanitarian aid as a way for the US to demonstrate “soft power” in the world. Perhaps the best example was the relief provided to Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. But when the American military tried to help Myanmar (Burma) after cyclone Nargis in 2008, the ruling generals largely rebuffed the offer.

In 2009, the Pentagon opened a special corridor in its building to display past humanitarian relief, both at home and abroad, from the late 1940s to present day. In Pentagon terms, such aid is included along with other nonviolent efforts as “military operations other than war,” or MOOTW.

Hanoi and Washington have drawn closer with a large delivery of medical aid to Vietnam. In 2008, the hospital ship USNS Mercy visited the wartime port of Nha Trang, the first time a US military vessel had anchored there since 1975.

Last year’s ouster of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was the end result of a US and NATO campaign that began simply as a humanitarian act. Qaddafi forces threatened to strike the rebel-held city of Benghazi. As fighting went on, President Obama condoned the idea that Mr. Qaddafi himself had to be cornered by airstrikes to allow “regime change.”

China’s Navy has begun to talk of taking on humanitarian operations. Its ships already participate in international efforts to prevent piracy off of Somalia. Beijing and Washington are also talking about working together on international relief efforts.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, perhaps the model of humanitarianism, has set up social media sites for anyone to share personal acts of humanitarian deeds. In the US, the number of emergency-management programs in higher education has tripled over the past decade in response to the rise of natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

Humanitarian acts don’t always bring goodwill. The US remains frustrated with Pakistan for many reasons over their joint fight against the Taliban, despite substantial US aid during Pakistan’s natural disasters, such as the 2010 massive floods.

But the world needs more acts of generosity between nations to ease the potential for war. Just ask the 3,500 people of Nome what they think of Russia’s help.

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