Four years ago, Kazakhstan became the unluckiest land in the world, when Sacha Baron Cohen made his ignorant comic hero, Borat, a native son. For a Central Asian country that had had independence thrust upon it, Borat was a handicap too far. Lacking the power and imagination to fight back, the Kazakh government banned the film that had so impugned its image and withdrew into a sulk from which it is only just emerging. Pretty much everyone else had a good laugh.
At a time when countries are in global competition – for status, for influence, for investment, for tourist revenue – international goodwill matters. And Chile has provided the most spectacular example of how to convert a piece of bad luck – a rock fall, with highly negative connotations, suggesting ingrained incompetence, poor safety standards, possibly corruption – into an unadulterated positive. It is hard to overestimate the political and moral capital that has accrued to Chile as a result of a rescue operation successfully accomplished in full view of the world's television cameras.
At a stroke, Chile has banished the shadows that still lingered, almost 40 years on, from the dark days of military rule. Until this week, Chile was synonymous for many, probably a majority, with Augusto Pinochet, the tragedy of Salvador Allende; "the disappeared". Small matter that General Pinochet died two decades ago, that Chile has since pioneered some of the more effective social reforms anywhere, or that Michelle Bachelet, elected its first female President in 2006, quickly gained widespread respect. If Chile featured on most people's political map at all, it was as the land of Pinochet, with an admixture at best, of wine exports and stylish football. No longer.
For those – billions – who were glued to screens everywhere, Chile is now synonymous with the rescue, against the odds, of 33 miners, buried half a mile down for a record 69 days. The Chilean flag now has global recognition. Nor will the country's triumph be treated just as a matter of heart and national spirit, crucial though these qualities were and are. It will be treated also as evidence of ingenuity and competence.
To all this should be added organisation and steadiness – the very opposite of the Latin temperament as it is judged from colder climes. The Chilean authorities decided a rescue operation was feasible. They did not stand on their national high horse; they took advice and agreed to international cooperation. They did not clutch at straws. They did not botch the job by rushing.
They were open about the progress and the setbacks, to the point of having cameras tracking every stage. The inventiveness applied to getting supplies, information and entertainment to the miners offers a model for any similar operations in future. Even when the end was in sight and emotions were running high, exemplary discipline was maintained.
There are political, as well as practical lessons here for governments. The mining minister was at the site almost from the beginning, and he stayed there until the end. The President's wife was there for much of the time, too. And the President himself, Sebastiá* Piñera, arrived for the finale, not standing on ceremony, embracing each emerging miner in turn. This was a national trauma, exploited cannily – but it did not seem cynically – by the authorities. And the polling figures told their own story: the mining minister went from a popularity rating of 16 to 91 per cent, while President Piñera went from 46 per cent to 65 per cent. Which shows that people have quite a clear idea about what governments should do: they should show the flag, rally support, but above all get the job done, and done well.
The publicity that Chile has enjoyed for the past week is a one-off rocket-boost to its international standing that most countries can only dream of, and many would pay huge sums to PR agencies to replicate for themselves. It gives Chile the possibility of doing what British prime ministers and foreign secretaries are always talking about: punching above its weight. Not only will Chile in general and the site of the mine in particular become instant tourist destinations, but Chilean leaders and politicians will find themselves treated with new respect and warmth abroad. "Aha, you were the country that..." There will be much back-slapping, and the reminiscences will begin.
There are risks, of course, that the goodwill dissipates – if the miners seem to squander their glory as national heroes, if there is squabbling or money-grubbing, if the government is seen to exploit its mission accomplished beyond what is judged appropriate; worse still, if another disaster comes along that is less well handled. For the moment, though, Chile has received a reputational windfall. It has a chance to join countries such as Canada and Finland that genuinely do punch above their weight internationally by virtue of the benevolent impression they create on visitors, their quiet diplomacy and the competence with which they seem to run themselves.
It is a paradox of the modern world that as globalisation – or, as some prefer to call it, interdependence – accelerates and regional blocs are seen as the face of the future, nations and nation-states still count for so much. In fact, the two processes often seem to go hand in hand. As the European Union expanded, you could observe how each new member gained a fresh sense of itself and became less wary about expressing it. National flags came out in the Baltic States; national costume in Austria. National identity is a strong force, and not one to be dismissed. The trick is to harness that sense of belonging for good rather than bad.
For now, Chile is the fortunate country that has made its presence felt globally by virtue of the softest of soft power: through the warmth and solidarity it radiated during the emergency and the way it coped at once with the rescue and the intensity of the world's gaze. It is too much to hope that this will be the way of the future – in Latin America as it rises, or anywhere else – but as a form of national self-assertion, Chile's rescue that riveted the world will make for an infinitely more attractive brand than bullying or force of arms.