Tuesday, January 3, 2006

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Psst.... anybody interested in a dissertation topic?

Every once in a while a natural disaster has a significant impact on international relations. We've seen in the past year how U.S. humanitarian assistance can improve America's public image in the affected countries. The 1999 earthquake that affected Greece and Turkey -- and the outpouring of cross-border assistance -- led to a thaw between those two enduring rivals.

Of course, not every natural disaster has such an effect. The Bam earthquake in Iran, for example, led to no diplomatic thaw -- neither did the French heat wave of 2003 nor hurricane Katrina in 2005.

This leads to an interesting question for a dissertation -- under what circumstances will a truly exogenous shock lead to a lessening of international or internal conflicts?

The December 2004 tsunami presents an interesting comparative case study. In Indonesia, Nick Meo reports for the Australian on the budding peace in Aceh:

The head of the feared Indonesian military in Aceh was doing what was almost unthinkable only a year ago: telling its people that the war - one of Asia's longest and, until last year's tsunami, most intractable - was over.

There was a bigger surprise for the departing 3500 soldiers on Thursday. Irwandi Yusuf, leader of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), who 12 months ago was one of their deadliest enemies, was there to shake hands with the hard men in fatigues before their ships slipped away from the jungle-covered hills of Aceh, probably forever.

The event was stage-managed but nobody could doubt the sincerity, part of an extraordinarily successful peace process that has confounded the pessimists and inspired a people who suffered more than any other in the tsunami.

Thinks have not worked out quite as well in Sri Lanka, as the Economist observes:
One year on from the tsunami that devastated large parts of Sri Lanka, killing more than 30,000 there, the South Asian island’s people are facing another looming disaster: the revival of a brutal civil war that has killed around 65,000 since it began 22 years ago. A fragile ceasefire, brokered by the government of Norway three years ago, is close to breaking-point after a string of recent attacks by the Tamil Tiger rebels, who are fighting for an independent homeland in the north and east of the island.

On Thursday December 29th the head of the ceasefire-monitoring team, Hagrup Haukland, gave a warning that, if the spate of violence were not halted, “war may not be far away.” In the most serious of the recent attacks, 12 Sri Lankan soldiers were killed in a landmine attack in the Jaffna peninsula on Tuesday and, four days before that, 13 sailors were killed with mines and rocket-propelled grenades in a rebel attack in the north-west of the island. On Sunday, a parliamentarian linked to the Tigers was assassinated at a Christmas mass in Batticaloa.

I have absolutely zero knowledge about either conflict, but I do find it interesting that the tsunami clearly pushed one case towards a more peaceful equilibrium while having no appreciable effect on the other case.

Looking at both cases, John Quiggin proposes a different dissertation topic:

It would be a salutory effort to look over the wars, revolutions and civil strife of the last sixty years and see how many of the participants got an outcome (taking account of war casualties and so on) better than the worst they could conceivably have obtained through negotiation and peaceful agitation. Given the massively negative-sum nature of war, I suspect the answer is “Few, if any”.

posted by Dan on 01.03.06 at 10:24 AM


Quiggin's is indeed a very different topic. But in general, the kind of men hard and focused enough to conduct a serious armed insurgency hardly ever want to give up power once they get it. This is why almost all successful modern insurgencies produce dictatorships, ranging from the merely oppressive (Algeria) to the actively homicidal (Cambodia) but in most cases durable.

Americans accustomed to thinking in terms of their own very unusual history are prone to see insurgencies in the context of self-determination and resistance to imperialism. In fact, though, the men who lead insurgencies rarely have any interest in self-determination for their people unless it confirms them in power, and the vast majority of the people on whose behalf modern insurgencies have ostensibly been fought would have been much better off had their insurgent champions held a meeting right at the beginning and decided to forget the whole thing.

posted by: Zathras on 01.03.06 at 10:24 AM [permalink]

I told the PhD students in my advanced IR theory class that analysis of the (1) the impact of natural disasters on politics in general, (2) the impact of them on peace processes more specifically, and (3) the political dynamics of international disaster relief all represented a big, gaping hole in IR scholarship. So I second your "psst."

posted by: Dan Nexon on 01.03.06 at 10:24 AM [permalink]

Quiggin's little "experiment" is pointless. Who is to say what outcome is "the worst they could conceivably have obtained through negotiation and peaceful agitation"? Someone who believes in the "massively negative-sum nature of war" is going to be more likely to say that parties could have achieved their goals through negotiation. Someone who is less sanguine about appeasement is going to be more likely to say that negotiation would not have achieved much.

I note that he only wants to analyze the last 60 years. I wonder why that is? Could there have been an event around 1945 that might serve as a powerful counterexample to his little thesis?

posted by: brett on 01.03.06 at 10:24 AM [permalink]

I don't see why this is an IR topic - it seems to me that comparative politics has a lot to bring to the table here, and that the questions about the effects of natural disasters - and indeed their causes, since the effects of a storm etc. are not exogenous to the effectiveness of public policies pre-storm - are questions for comparativists...

posted by: Easterbunny on 01.03.06 at 10:24 AM [permalink]

Brett - I'm not sure you've thought through your point. Surely the "event around 1945" would have had a better negotiated outcome for the parties that initiated it (Germany, Italy and Japan) than the war that was actually fought. That seems to support his thesis. I suspect the period of the last 60 years was chosen because the international system of the past WWII era is unique rather than some bad faith effort to cherry pick the data.

Is it really so painful for you to hear the suggestion that quick recourse to war isn't always the best choice?

posted by: VAMark on 01.03.06 at 10:24 AM [permalink]

EB - what, in your mind, constitutes the clear distinction between comparative and IR these days?

posted by: Dan Nexon on 01.03.06 at 10:24 AM [permalink]


Fair enough. I think the line is hard to draw. But it seems to me (as a comparativist grad student) that many of the interesting questions about natural disasters are their domestic effects, not just their international consequences (or the international consequences of domestic effects). In fact, 7 years ago I started grad school to work on this stuff - wish I had stuck with it...

posted by: Easterbunny on 01.03.06 at 10:24 AM [permalink]

Following on Dan N.'s and Easterbunny's thread:

As an international conflict researcher I'm intrigued by this discussion. The line between IR and comparative has certainly blurred, and I don't see why the "the international consequences of domestic effects" shouldn't constitute a perfectly reasonable IR topic. The dissertation I'm finishing this year examines international shocks (in my case, wars) and their effects on international rivalries -- clearly IR, but the domestic politics within each rival state is an important part of the story. That's because shocks open windows of opportunity for policy change, but for that change to occur you also need policy entrepreneurs offering viable alternatives to continued rivalry.

Unlike wars, natural disasters are truly exogenous and therefore present a much "cleaner" causal story -- and I agree with earlier posts that this part of IR/comparative is underexplored. In fact, I'm in the early stages of planning a study of natural disasters and international peace processes that I'd like to get going during the next year or so, and am not averse to co-authoring if there is someone out there who shares this interest.

posted by: Jon DiCicco on 01.03.06 at 10:24 AM [permalink]


I totally agree with your comment that international consequences of domestic effects would make an interesting IR topic - I was just trying to point out that the domestic effects themselves have been little studied. I have argued (in a paper I now wish I had pursued further, which can be found on my website) that identically poor responses by governments to natural disasters can provoke different effects in terms of approval ratings depending on the historically constructed expectations of the role of the state held by the population. Thus a disaster that might pose a shock to a government in one country might have no repercussions in another...

On your second point, many sociologists and other folks who study natural disasters argue that they are in fact not exogenous - that the number of people killed, homes damaged, etc. is affected by the effectiveness and the nature of public policy in the region where the disaster hit, and that the effectiveness of government response is (not surprisingly) not exogenous to many factors.

I think this is a phenomenal topic for future study and I'd love to see what you do with it. Obviously the recent earthquake in Kashmir is a potential case to study - what other cases are you considering? The domestic peace processes in Indonesia and Sri Lanka have been affected by the tsunami - but I get the sense you are more interested in international conflict?

Would have been fun to have this discussion a year ago in Tempe...

Hillel Soifer

posted by: Easterbunny on 01.03.06 at 10:24 AM [permalink]

EB/ Hillel,

Sheesh, has it been a year already?

You make a great point about the not-so-exogenous nature of natural disasters, though it seems to me that in most cases, what the sociologists and others are talking about are intervening variables. In other words, the poor public policies exacerbate the impact of, rather than actually cause, the natural event that creates the disaster. At least in the case of earthquakes, I'd suspect this would hold. On the other hand, in the case of floods (Hurricane Katrina's effects, floods in China owing to damming, etc.) you might well be onto something -- especially if better public policies would likely have prevented the flooding in the first place. (Of course now we're into the realm of counterfactuals, and those can get tricky).

As for cases, I haven't sat down to make a complete list yet, so I'm open to suggestions. And yes, international conflict is more my game, but I've been looking to expand my perspective a little, so internal conflicts are not out of the question.

Anyway, I'll be sure to check out that old paper on your website -- thanks for the tip! And when I get something on paper I'll be sure to send it over for your amusement.


posted by: Jon DiCicco on 01.03.06 at 10:24 AM [permalink]

Just misusing this discussion board to say hi to fellow karaoke divas. how quickly the months go by...
And, in your perusal of natural disasters, seen anything interesting on natural resources? Not exogenous shocks, but another interesting mix of natural and constructed. I've been looking at those, but had a hard time finding much on the IR side of the IR/comparative combo.

posted by: Emily M on 01.03.06 at 10:24 AM [permalink]


time flies when you're getting no writing done...

I was in a 6.3 earthquake that lasted 90 seconds (a really long time for a quake that strong) in Chile. 1 person died - of a heart attack even though the epicenter was very close to Santiago (metropolitan area population c. 5 million) I'd bet that a similarly strong quake in a country that didn't enforce building codes so well would have been much more of a disaster. This means that the same quake in two different environments could have different effects in terms of damage and thus different political effects. This doesn't mean that the impact of the natural event is completely endogenous, but that it isn't unrelated to effective policy... I think there is room for a neat natural experiment here if you can find a disaster that affected two countries which were different on policy effectiveness and see if the effect of the disaster is different. For example one could look for a hurricane that dropped equal rain on both sides of the US/Mexico border in the Gulf area, or even across state lines in the US.

Emily - nice to hear from you too. I wonder if the karaoke is going strong this year as well. not being an IR person I can't answer your question - maybe Jon can?

posted by: Hillel on 01.03.06 at 10:24 AM [permalink]

Hey Emily!! Nice to hear from you, though agreed, probably not in the most appropriate forum. I think the IQRMers have successfully hijacked this thread, though, so I'm characteristically unapologetic.

Not sure how to interpret your query about natural resources (and "perusal" is probably too strong a word for what I've done so far anyway)...there's the IPE stuff on the resource curse, and there's a small but relatively well-established literature on natural resources and international conflict (Steen is your man for that angle)... what aspect are you referring to?(feel free to email if easier than posting here)

BTW, Joaquin Phoenix scored that role as Johnny Cash only because he's a better actor than I am. ;-)

Hillel -- I'm now mostly inclined to agree with your argument about natural disasters, as long as we're not talking about human-made weather machines and the like (not kidding here -- one of my Lehigh students found this bizarre website: http://www.weatherwars.info/index.html ...scroll down to the section beginning with, "Weather modification has been a stated goal of the world's military and political apparatus for a very long time. It only stands to reason that vast resources have already been deployed to accomplish this holy grail of battlefield supremacy.")

I like your natural experiment idea, too. Reminds me of Thad Dunning, who (at least according to IRRumorMill) is having well-deserved good fortune on the job market. Go, Thad!

Alright, I've done enough to distract you all from more rewarding intellectual endeavors. It's been fun, though.


posted by: Jon DiCicco on 01.03.06 at 10:24 AM [permalink]

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