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Nearness Doesn't Always Bring Wisdom

April 30, 1993

As atrocity has followed atrocity in Bosnia and as the United States has seemed by painful steps to be moving toward military engagement there, more than a few Americans have wondered whether they were missing something that the Europeans were seeing. If Europe saw no peril, perhaps there was no peril to be seen.

Behind that kind of hesitation lies not just the common-sense recognition that those nearest to any situation are likely to know most about it but also what remains of the American sense of being, culturally, Europe's younger brother: big, loud, earnest and certainly not stupid but, well, painfully obtuse in certain areas where long experience is the only teacher. During the long eclipse of Richard M. Nixon, his loyal followers had almost no stronger card to play than that Nixon was admired in Europe. In the Old World there remained, perhaps, a maturity that could recognize Watergate as minor and his opening to China as major.

As the Cold War has ended, an element of nostalgia--of yearning, almost--has grown up around this deference. In their hearts, many Americans would wish for nothing more devoutly than that there should be in Europe the will and the intelligence to lead, to take some of the load of world leadership off the shoulders of a somewhat ill-cast American Atlas. We could use a wise man from across the water.

Unfortunately, in an area of concern unconnected with Bosnia and remote from politics itself, Europe is demonstrating, collectively, an indifference to its own safety that is so astonishing as to lay to rest indefinitely any such hope. As Robert Seely reported in The Times on Tuesday, nearly all of the European aid that was to have gone to clean up after the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl has failed to materialize.

To be sure, the failures that Seely enumerated are U.S., U.N. and Group of Seven failures as well as European failures. But if those international (and, of course, heavily European) entities had never taken action, Europe would still be at severe risk for further exposure to the kind of nuclear accident that has killed 8,000, created 35,000 invalids, raised childhood cancer rates in Belarus by 80% and damaged the thyroid glands of 1.5 million children.

Thanks to an utterly ingenious Norwegian device, Ukrainian cows are now able to eat radioactive grass without giving radioactive milk; but how many future such accidents can Europe sustain? And what guarantee is there that the next one, given the caprice of the winds, will not wreak its damage well to the west?

According to Seely's report, of the $648-million commitment from Western governments, organized by the United Nations in 1991, exactly $1 million has actually been raised.

There is not just the possibility, there is the great likelihood that an accident like Chernobyl will recur, quite possibly at Chernobyl itself. When you think of the quality of European leadership, think of this.

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