Japan Quake: How to Avoid the Next Disaster

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Yomiuri Shimbnun / AFP / Getty Images

A woman views tsunami damage in Japan's Ishinomaki city on March 13, 2011

It is too soon to know just how much devastation the Japanese earthquake and tsunami have caused, in human or economic terms. The death toll may climb into five digits. Damage to Japan's nuclear power plants could result in sickness and dislocation for hundreds of thousands more. The country's economy, which has already endured two decades of stagnant growth, is now threatened by a stock-market collapse and a massive increase in national debt.

And yet things could have been far worse. Had an earthquake of comparable scale hit just about any other Asian country, the loss of life would almost surely have been dramatically higher. The Japan quake was more than 500 times stronger than the temblor that hit Haiti in January 2010, which was not followed by a catastrophic tsunami, and yet the death toll in Haiti was 10 to 20 times higher than it appears to be in Japan. The ultimate consequences of the disaster on Japan's society and economy will be staggering, but few countries in the world are better positioned to recover. The reasons why provide some important lessons about how American resources can be used to help build a more stable and resilient world. What's less clear is whether U.S. policymakers — and in particular the Republican leadership in Congress — are paying attention.

On Sunday, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan declared that the country was confronting "the worst crisis in the 65 years" since the end of World War II. Even so, the current disaster pales in comparison with the state of Japan in August 1945. Three million Japanese were dead. Allied bombings had wiped out 25% of the country's wealth and as much as half of its potential income. Nearly two-thirds of all residences in Tokyo were destroyed. Out of a population of 70 million, at least 9 million were homeless. In his landmark book, Embracing Defeat, John W. Dower noted that despite such devastation, the U.S. occupation authorities initially believed that Japan's plight was "the direct outcome of its own behavior," and that Japan's economic rehabilitation should not be Washington's responsibility. But soon enough the U.S. recognized that Japan's economic recovery was critical to staving off social unrest and the specter of communism. In the end, the U.S. gave some $2 billion in economic assistance to postwar Japan — the equivalent of $15 billion in today's dollars. Thanks in part to that aid, Japan's economy was by 1952 growing at prewar levels. By 1968, it was the second largest in the world.

The modernization of Japan and its transformation into a peaceful, democratic ally of the U.S. were among the world's most salutary developments in the second half of the 20th century. That goes a long way toward explaining why the long-term impact of the earthquake may prove less severe than if it had struck a different nation. Wealthy democratic nations don't just have more money at their disposal when a crisis hits, they are also more likely to put in place the safeguards necessary to limit damage before it occurs. Natural disasters in the developed world can still claim thousands of lives and cost hundreds of billions of dollars to recover from, but they are far less likely to cause the complete breakdown of social order that can occur in poorer countries, and which necessitates huge infusions of outside emergency aid.

So what does this mean for U.S. foreign policy? Across the planet, humanitarian crises caused by hurricanes, floods, droughts and fires are increasing. Since 1985, according to the World Bank, the number of people requiring some form of international disaster-related assistance has tripled. Another bank study published last fall projected that the annual global losses caused by natural disasters will reach $185 billion by the end of the century — and that doesn't account for the impact of climate change, which is expected to intensify such disasters. The example of Japan shows that while catastrophes can befall any nation, they cause significantly less death and disruption in wealthy ones. And so in the long run, the best defenses against humanitarian emergencies are economic development and accountable governance in poor countries.

That's one reason why promoting growth and "human security" in the developing world is vital to American interests — and why the budget passed last month by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives is so dangerous. In the name of deficit reduction, the House budget guts a range of foreign-aid programs that benefit poor countries. Among other things, it slashes funding for global health programs by 11%, refugee assistance by 45%, food relief by 41% and disaster aid by 67%. Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on March 2 that such cuts "will cost thousands of lives and certainly cost us our reputation ... in the world."

It's possible that at least some of those funds will be restored by the Senate, but public hostility toward foreign aid is growing more intense, not less. According to a Bloomberg poll, more than 70% of Americans want to "significantly cut aid to foreign countries" and 42% believe doing so will have a "very large" impact on reducing the federal deficit — this despite the fact that foreign aid accounts for just 1% of the federal budget. In effect, we are unwilling to take even minimal and affordable steps to limit the potential costs of the next global emergency. As heartbreaking as Japan's tragedy is, there's every reason to expect an even worse disaster in the future, with even greater humanitarian cost. And when it comes, we'll have no one but ourselves to blame.

Ratnesar, a TIME contributing editor-at-large, is a Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of Tear Down This Wall: A City, a President, and the Speech That Ended the Cold War. His column on global affairs appears every Monday on TIME.com.