In an increasingly complex global environment, we need to look differently at security threats and solutions. A new study conducted by Travis Nelson from University of Vermont carefully examines the security nexus of natural disaster and armed conflict over the past half century using data from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT). He included those disasters that killed 10,000 or more people.
Previously, research has shown that large scale natural disasters can increase the risk for subsequent civil or intrastate conflict, but may also create opportunity for new cooperation and diplomacy between competitive states. Nelson looks at two questions regarding the relationship between disaster and interstate conflict. The first is to explore the “opportunistic conflict” hypothesis that unaffected rival nation’s will prey upon their competitors when they are stricken with a disaster. The second explore the “internal conflict hypothesis” to see whether disasters change a state’s strategic or otherwise shape their foreign policy toward initiating conflict.
Opportunistic Conflict : While intuitively, one might think that a competitor would seize the opportunity to leverage the other’s devastation and vulnerability by initiating conflict, this isn’t what happens. Interestingly, the study finds “no support for the opportunistic conflict hypothesis and that there is, in fact, not a single case (since 1950) in which interstate conflict was initiated by an opponent state in the aftermath of disaster” (p. 156).
Internal Conflict: The second piece of the study builds on what is already known about how disaster heightens a state’s risk for internal civil conflict. Nelson asks whether it also might heighten the risk that a disaster-stricken state would initiate conflict against a competitor, and if so why and how that happens. The study finds that states do sometimes initiate conflict while they are in the aftermath of a recovering from their own disaster. This seems to happen most often when the disaster first precipitated or heightened civil conflict and when disaster recovery was very badly managed. This means it is the most devastated and vulnerable states that wind up initiating conflict against others.
This study makes a thoughtful contribution to the literature in International Relations. It also reminds us of how complex emergency management and “all hazards” approaches are not just domestic or public health issues, but are integrated with our vital global security and foreign policy interests.
Nelson, T. (2010). When disaster strikes: on the relationship between natural disaster and interstate conflict Global Change, Peace & Security, 22 (2), 155-174 DOI: 10.1080/14781151003770788