When a boys' soccer team in northern Thailand went missing and was thought to be trapped in a flooded cave, the Thai government went into action.
The first thing it did was deploy its military forces, including a team of Thai navy SEALs. The second thing it did was conclude that it needed help. That thinking paid off with the rescue of all 12 boys and their coach in a series of dramatic and daring rescue operations.
Diving in the murky, narrow and current-ridden waters of flooded caves is an endeavor unlike diving in open waters. So the Thais turned to a world-renowned trio of Brits who had spent decades perfecting and advancing the craft. It was they who led efforts to reach the soccer team. And it was two of them, Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, who first succeeded in finding the lost boys.
In addition to these cave divers, the Thais brought in specialists in a host of other fields from Australia, Britain, China, Laos, Myanmar and the United States. While the extraction of the boys was thought to have been done largely or exclusively by Thai Navy Seals, the rescue effort drew on global expertise in areas ranging from logistics to child nutrition. At least one American company, New York-based Xylem Inc., was brought in to assist in lowering water levels in the cave.
This wide and diverse collaboration shows that nations work best when they work together.
For decades, that had been taken as a given. From the multinational campaign to defeat fascism in World War II to smaller group efforts — such as the rescue of 33 trapped Chilean miners in 2010 — international cooperation has been a blessing.
But nationalist fervor is raging these days, in the United States, Eastern Europe and elsewhere. So, too, are protectionist sentiments that threaten to undermine the unprecedented peace and prosperity that has been a hallmark of the postwar years.
The Thai government called on all nations to help in areas where they had special expertise. It did not insist that it could do everything itself.
In the world of trade and commerce, that concept is called competitive advantage. Nations produce what they are good at and import things that other nations are better at.
To some degree, this is simply a natural resources question. Italy, for example, is a great place to produce red wine, while Scotland is good for wool coats. But nations also develop competitive advantages by developing something first or sticking with it the most doggedly.
In the somewhat narrow and technical field of cave diving, Britain has a substantial comparative advantage. The first cave dive using a modern respirator is believed to have taken place in 1934 at Wookey Hole in western England. And since then England and Wales, with their numerous caverns, have been a center of diving activity.
Good for the Thais for recognizing this. And good for the Thais for taking advantage of other nations’ skills to supplement their own in the successful effort to save lives. In today's world, there's a broader lesson in the multinational rescue effort.