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The Illusion of Disaster Diplomacy Photo courtesy; U.S. Department of Defense from Flickr

The Illusion of Disaster Diplomacy

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On Friday, October 30, an earthquake in the Aegean Sea rattled Turkey and Greece and led to tsunamis, aftershocks, and death and destruction that are still being assessed. Because Turkey and Greece rest near four tectonic plates, earthquakes are no new occurrence for this region. Turkey is still recovering from a major earthquake in January.

Turkey and Greece have historically clashed, on issues ranging from competition for natural resources to Aegean Sea sovereignty. Despite perceptions of each other dating from the Ottoman Empire, both countries have pledged to help each other with clean-up and rescue efforts. Naturally, such gestures look great on the global stage—two countries casting their opposing points of views aside for the larger cause of humanity.

But this is not the first time the world has seen such an act of disaster diplomacy between the two nations. A powerful earthquake struck near the city of Izmit, Turkey in August of 1999, killing thousands. The following month, another earthquake struck Athens, Greece. Though not causing as many casualties, the damage was nevertheless significant. For a short time, the two catastrophic events resulted in friendlier ties for the sake of rebuilding and saving lives. However, as time progressed, these warming ties cooled off, and old frictions began to dominate as memory of the catastrophe faded. Turkey and Greece’s fraught relationship demonstrates that disaster diplomacy is not an effective tool for creating long term positive relations.

The extent of a disaster is often dependent on a country’s preparedness and capacity to clean up after the catastrophe. Earthquakes in 2010 in both Chile and Haiti illustrate this. Both significant events, Chile’s preparedness resulted in fewer fatalities from a much stronger event, while Haiti’s smaller earthquake resulted in much wider devastation. It is easy to focus on post-disaster efforts such as search and rescue and rebuilding given the urgency of the situation. However, disaster diplomacy also involves pre-disaster measures such as earthquake proofing, volcano eruption prediction, and climate change preparedness. Complications arise when two opposing countries must collaborate for the sake of humanity, rather than for mutual interest.

The Dichotomy of Self-Sufficiency and Vulnerability

In times of crisis, the decision to decline outside assistance reveals how much politics can be involved. After Hurricane Katrina, the United States rejected aid assistance from Cuba. More recently, both Iran and North Korea rejected United States coronavirus aid. Following a 2018 earthquake, Taiwan rejected aid from China. Partially explaining this, refusal signals that the recipient country is self-sufficient and that the given crisis is not of a magnitude that jeopardizes the country’s survival. Refusal can also be seen as a means to resist the soft power of an adversarial country.

Confidence in government can also be severely eroded by failures in the aftermath of a disaster. Disasters reveal inequality which could possibly create civil unrest. Post-disaster, citizens of the beleaguered state will ultimately ask, “Why did this have to happen?” The question signals that the government is to blame for the affected country’s state of affairs post-disaster. In addition to the clean-up that has to happen, a government is then faced with the task of convincing its citizens that it can still do its job. The destruction, loss, and subsequent collapse of the Lebanese government this past August serves as a representative example of how a disaster can erase support for a government.

There is also no guarantee that all victims of a disaster will receive aid, particularly amongst populations deemed to be a threat. Indonesia and Sri Lanka were amidst peace talks when the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami struck. Indonesia fared well in its recovery. However, certain parts of Sri Lanka received little aid, most notably those areas that are home to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant organization considered by many to be a terrorist threat. While Indonesia came out of the disaster with newfound peace, the aid-distribution inequality created a Sri Lanka on the verge of civil war.

There are signs that the twenty-first century will be an era with more man-made and natural disasters. Unfortunately, the offer of assistance in the immediacy of a disaster does little to supplant two rival countries’ checkered past. Turkey and Greece’s relationship serves as a prime example of this. As the rate of disasters is likely to increase, countries would be wise to develop effective humanitarian assistance networks for disaster response, but reduce the expectation that rendering aid will generate long-term soft power.