In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Disaster Diplomacy

  • Introduction
  • Defining Disasters
  • Foreign Policy and Disasters
  • International Cooperation
  • Regional Cooperation

International Relations Disaster Diplomacy
Jason Enia
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 June 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0135


Disasters never happen in isolation. They occur within specific political contexts and amidst other ongoing political processes and events. Depending on location, size, and scope, disasters can interact with these existing contexts in ways that are potentially altering. In 1999, for example, two large earthquakes struck Turkey and Greece within a few weeks of one another. In the immediate aftermath of these quakes, the two countries offered each other assistance. Within the year after the quakes, the two countries were engaged in a process to reconcile their differences, ending their long-standing rivalry. This begs the question: Did the exchange of aid and other assistance following their respective disasters play some role in their broader reconciliation? Since the Turkey-Greece experience in 1999, this question has been asked repeatedly, every time a disaster has occurred within the context of some ongoing conflict. There are several general questions: Do disasters affect peace and conflict? Do disasters affect state-to-state, international conflict? Do disasters affect conflict at the subnational level? Can cooperation on disaster policymaking (at all phases of the emergency management process) create opportunities for improved diplomacy between countries that are rivals? Can disaster-related policymaking affect a country’s foreign policy? Can disaster-related policymaking affect global and/or regional cooperation? Each of these is an empirical question, and it may be the case that disasters have no effects on these other issues. As important as the empirics are the theoretical questions that get to the causal processes and mechanisms by which these outcomes occur. For example, if disasters are seen to positively affect ongoing conflicts at the interstate or intrastate levels, what is the political mechanism through which those interactions occur? Is the disaster merely a conduit for more intensified cooperation on issues unrelated to the conflict, which then generates a kind of spillover with respect to more peaceful diplomacy? If so, is there something specific about recovery and relief from a natural disaster, as opposed to other types of cooperation, which makes it a more likely context in which these spillovers might be produced? Finally, to the extent that the natural disaster might play some role in engendering diplomacy, how lasting are its effects? Alternatively, could it be the case that disasters lead to an increase in conflict rather than an increase in peace? What are the circumstances and political contexts in which this outcome is more likely to occur?

General Overviews

The idea that disasters might have political effects is not new. However, the study of the effects of disasters on conflict is a relatively new endeavor. The works cited here provide the best overviews and introductions to the field. Streich and Mislan 2014 provides a comprehensive literature review on the subject of disaster diplomacy and makes an excellent starting point for research on the topic. Comfort 2000 and Kelman 2012 offer case studies and theoretical frameworks that help to conceptualize the relationship between disasters and ongoing conflict and/or diplomatic processes. Finally, Weizhun and Tianshu 2005–2006 brings a non-Western perspective to the concept, exploring disaster diplomacy from a Chinese perspective. Ilan Kelman’s website, Disaster Diplomacy, offers a comprehensive list of sources.

  • Comfort, Louise K. “Disaster: Agent of Diplomacy or Change in International Affairs?” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 14.1 (2000): 277–294.

    DOI: 10.1080/09557570008400342

    This special section of the Cambridge Review of International Affairs offers one of the first academic treatments of disaster diplomacy. Comfort’s article anchors the section and examines the three case studies (from the preceding articles) using a complex adaptive systems (CAS) framework.

  • Kelman, Ilan. Disaster Diplomacy: How Disasters Affect Peace and Conflict. London: Routledge, 2012.

    This is the first book-length treatment of the field of disaster diplomacy. After a brief history of the concept, Kelman introduces several research questions and related hypotheses. The remainder of the book explores the state of knowledge on these questions through case studies and an analysis of analytical frameworks.

  • Kelman, Ilan. Disaster Diplomacy.

    For a number of years, Kelman’s website has served as a repository of citations and summaries on works associated with disaster diplomacy. The website includes sections on case studies, publications, and projects and ideas.

  • Streich, Philip A., and David Bell Mislan. “What Follows the Storm? Research on the Effect of Disasters on Conflict and Cooperation.” Global Change, Peace & Security 26.1 (2014): 55–70.

    DOI: 10.1080/14781158.2013.837040

    This article provides a critical review of the disaster diplomacy literature, dividing it into three generations. The authors make the argument that the concept disaster diplomacy needs to be refined and that future work in this field needs to do a better job incorporating existing theories of conflict.

  • Weizhun, Mao, and Que Tianshu. “Disaster Diplomacy: A New Diplomatic Approach?—The Apocalypse of the Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami.” World Economics and Politics 6 (2005–2006): 55–60.

    This article provides a Chinese perspective on the disaster diplomacy concept. The authors use China’s international activities after the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami to make the argument that “disaster diplomacy can help China realize its role of being a ‘responsible powerful country’” (p. 55).

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