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.