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Disaster Diplomacy After 20 Years

Does dealing with disasters create peace, harmony, and cooperation—or conflict?

A disaster strikes and an enemy leaps to the rescue, with everyone overjoyed that a new dawn of peace rises over the shattered landscape. Or so the theory of disaster diplomacy hopes for. In reality, it does not seem to work.

Ilan Kelman
Should disasters bring us together to help each other?
Source: Ilan Kelman

To understand how and why this conclusion manifests, connections have long been studied among (i) peace, cooperation, conflict, and war, and (ii) pre-disaster activities such as prevention and risk reduction, plus post-disaster actions such as humanitarian aid, response, and recovery. The specific phrase “disaster diplomacy” did not appear much in research before 2000, being used instead by mainly practitioners and media.

In science, the past 20 years of disaster diplomacy research were started by Theo Koukis. Following earthquakes in Greece and Turkey in 1999, he proposed a collection of articles for the journal Cambridge Review of International Affairs to examine the apparent earthquake diplomacy between the two countries. Charlotte Lindberg Clausen (now Charlotte Warakaulle) edited the journal at the time and proposed expanding the scope to disaster diplomacy.

At this point, I joined the team, collaborating with Theo and Charlotte to publish the original four disaster diplomacy articles in the latter part of 2000. James Ker-Lindsay took up the mantle of the Greece-Turkey earthquake situation showing that the 1999 earthquakes influenced, but did not cause, the ongoing rapprochement.

Mickey Glantz detailed a long history of Cuba-USA scientific cooperation on weather and climate, concluding that the research thrived on collaboration, but did not develop into political changes. Ailsa Holloway looked at the 1991-1993 Southern Africa drought during a time of major political change concluding that the region’s political cooperation averted a disaster, not that the disaster created the region’s political cooperation.

Louise Comfort compared these three examples to seek patterns, of which the most prominent one was that disaster-related activities do not cause diplomacy. Subsequent work over the years confirmed that dealing with disasters sometimes catalyzes peace or conflict, but has not yet been shown to create new and lasting initiatives.

The research covers a huge variety of situations. The response to the 2004 tsunamis around the Indian Ocean accelerated an ongoing peace process in Aceh, Indonesia while exacerbating Sri Lanka’s violent conflict. In the US, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 followed the 9/11 2001 terrorist attacks, each producing an outpouring of grief, support, and solidarity from the world. None led to improved cooperation with the US or a less belligerent American foreign policy.

Neither the 2001 Gujarat nor the 2005 Kashmir earthquake improved India-Pakistan diplomacy. The two governments tried and failed with the former, while the latter stimulated already existing peace initiatives.

Other disaster diplomacy analyses, of current and historical events, covered Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Philippines, North Korea, and China-Taiwan. All showed similar patterns of disaster-related activities sometimes catalyzing ongoing diplomacy over weeks and months, but never creating new initiatives that lasted years.

Beyond specific locations, wider global topics include disease outbreaks, since they are disasters and since supporting health is a strategy for preventing them. Investigations of health diplomacy and medical diplomacy run from eradicating smallpox to collective efforts for tackling the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. No disease diplomacy case study has yet demonstrated any difference from disaster diplomacy.

Human-caused climate change has proven interesting. Extensive rhetoric describes “water wars” and “climate conflict,” even attributing the 2010-2012 Arab Spring and the ongoing Syrian war to climate change. Detailed investigations showcase the multitude of factors prompting those political changes and the tenuousness of making direct links between human-caused climate change over decades and specific, local decisions to fight a government.

Overall, environmental changes at any scale are one influence among many on peace and conflict decisions. The amount of influence varies, as does the exact type of influence. Sometimes amity supersedes hostility; sometimes it is the opposite; and sometimes both happen simultaneously with different people in different ways.

In the end, disaster diplomacy shows how people and organizations with power and resources make choices about diplomacy. They typically use any excuse to pursue their pre-determined peace and conflict pathways, which might or might not connect to disaster-related activities.

If they have reasons for developing cooperation and friendship, then they might support these reasons through any disaster-related element from climate change vulnerabilities to meteor/comet monitoring to seismic building codes. Otherwise, where war is wanted, then not even disaster-related suffering or prevention of suffering forces a long-term deviation from that desire.

At least, not yet. Research continues to seek an unambiguous case of disaster diplomacy, from the past or present, for reformulating the past 20 years of conclusions.


Kelman, I. 2012. Disaster Diplomacy: How Disasters Affect Peace and Conflict. Routledge, Abingdon, U.K.

Kelman, I. 2016. "Catastrophe and Conflict: Disaster Diplomacy and Its Foreign Policy Implications". Brill Research Perspectives in Diplomacy and Foreign Policy, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 1-76.

Kelman, I. 2019. "Do Health Interventions Support Peace through 'Disaster Diplomacy?'" Peace Review, vol. 31, no. 2, pp. 158-167.

Peters, L.E.P. and I. Kelman. 2020. "Critiquing and Joining Intersections of Disaster, Conflict, and Peace Research". International Journal of Disaster Risk Science, forthcoming.

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