Tsunami Diplomacy: Will the 26 December, 2004 Tsunami Bring Peace to the Affected Countries?

by Ilan Kelman
Cambridge University Centre for Risk in the Built Environment

Sociological Research Online, Volume 10, Issue 1,

Received: 1 Mar 2005     Accepted: 31 Mar 2005    Published: 31 Mar 2005


Disaster diplomacy examines whether or not disasters induce international cooperation amongst enemy countries. The 26 December, 2004 tsunami around the Indian Ocean impacted more than a dozen countries, many with internal or external conflicts, thereby providing an opportunity to explore how the same event affects different countries in different disaster diplomacy contexts. Two groups of case studies are presented: those from which few disaster diplomacy outcomes are likely and those which warrant monitoring and investigation. Indonesian tsunami diplomacy is used as a case study for further discussion, in terms of both American-Indonesian relations and the conflict in Aceh. Further work is suggested in the tsunami's aftermath in order to understand better the disaster diplomacy outcomes which are feasible and why they rarely yield positive, lasting results.

Keywords: Disaster Diplomacy, Tsunami Diplomacy, Indonesia, India, Disaster Risk Reduction, Politics


1.1 The 26 December, 2004 tsunami around the Indian Ocean impacted more than a dozen countries. Some of these countries suffer internal violent conflicts including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Somalia. Others are involved in more protracted political conflicts within the international community such as the isolation of Myanmar/Burma and the cool relations between India and the U.S.A.

1.2 Although individual conflicts, disease outbreaks, droughts, and famines have killed far more people than the tsunami throughout human history, this event was one of the most lethal sudden-onset disasters and resulted in one of the largest ever global humanitarian responses. Due to the presence of thousands of visitors from foreign countries in the inundated areas, many affluent countries were directly affected, including major players in regional and international politics, notably the U.S.A., the European Union, and Australia. Politicians in Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, and the U.K. suffered intense criticism over their initially lackadaisical response to the disaster because hundreds of those countries' citizens were missing or affected.

1.3 Given the geographic extent of the disaster, the global politics impacted by it, and the political turmoil affecting many countries which experienced destruction, these events could provide useful examples for further exploration of 'disaster diplomacy'. This paper suggests possible areas to monitor and investigate regarding 'tsunami diplomacy': potential disaster diplomacy outcomes from the 26 December, 2004 tsunami. After an overview of past disaster diplomacy work, tsunami diplomacy areas are highlighted and summarised with Indonesia used as a case study for further discussion. The paper concludes with suggestions regarding tsunami diplomacy's possible impacts on disaster diplomacy research and application.

Disaster Diplomacy

2.1 To define and explore disaster diplomacy, Kelman and Koukis (2000) asked the question 'Do natural disasters induce international cooperation amongst countries that have traditionally been "enemies"?'. Could disaster situations - local, international, or in between - positively affect bilateral relations amongst states which would not normally be prone to such cooperation? Examples researched in Kelman and Koukis (2000) were James Ker-Lindsay's work on Greece and Turkey in 1999, Michael Glantz' discussion of monitoring hurricanes which could hit both Cuba and the USA, and Ailsa Holloway's description of drought and political change across southern Africa in the early 1990's.

2.2 The initial conclusion was that a disaster could significantly spur on a bilateral diplomatic process which had another basis, but only a disaster was unlikely to generate new diplomacy. Disaster and risk can catalyse, but do not create, cooperation. Discussion about disaster diplomacy has since widened, with a growing set of case studies and theoretical analyses (see http://www.disasterdiplomacy.org). The core question has now been modified to 'Can disasters induce international cooperation amongst enemy countries?'. Spin-offs include 'environmental diplomacy' looking at whether or not environmental management issues and treaties could lead to lasting, positive diplomatic outcomes beyond environmental management (Kelman 2003).

2.3 More recent disaster diplomacy case studies include rapprochement between India and Pakistan following the January, 2001 earthquake in India and humanitarian aid to North Korea following various disasters since 1995. Historical examples include floods in rivers forming the Iron Curtain during the Cold War and the 1966-1967 Bihar famine in India. Much work on disaster diplomacy has been published and discussed in the media, particularly following a disaster event such as the 26 December, 2003 earthquake in Iran which led to American humanitarian aid (e.g. Kelman 2004).

Tsunami Diplomacy

3.1 Although other tsunami case studies with potential disaster diplomacy outcomes undoubtedly exist throughout history, the 26 December, 2004 waves are the first known to be formally explored in a disaster diplomacy context. Preliminary political reaction suggested several areas which had disaster diplomacy potential. Case studies are presented here in two groups.

3.2 The first group of tsunami diplomacy case studies is presented as a list of possibilities considered initially but it soon became apparent that few disaster diplomacy outcomes were likely, although further investigation might still be warranted:

A brief overview of the latter example illustrates some the issues surrounding tsunami diplomacy.

3.3 Little change in traditionally frosty Indo-American relations (Kronstadt, 2004; Sagar, 2004) was evident following the tsunami which devastated parts of southeastern coastal India. India initially indicated that they did not want any foreign aid for the tsunami, interpreted as being a particular snub to the Americans. Meanwhile, any American push for closer ties with India could be considered-potentially legitimately - as Washington's attempt at further influencing, or muscling in on, regional politics. The possibility of a visit by the American president George W. Bush to India in 2005 was discussed following the tsunami. That would certainly be a significant change in Indo-American relations, yet the purpose and results would be most likely economic rather than tsunami-related.

3.4 Interestingly, little commentary related to how Pakistan might respond in assisting India while India's initial reluctance regarding foreign aid was not seen as being directed at Pakistan. It appears that Indo-Pakistani disaster diplomacy might well have run its course following the 2001 earthquake and the subsequent political and diplomatic roller-coaster of hostilities and friendliness. Relations between the two countries might now be seen as having purely political influences and outcomes rather than sudden disasters playing a prominent role. For example, although the 11 September, 2001 terrorist attacks in the northeastern USA are seen as bringing India and the USA somewhat closer together (Kronstadt, 2004), subsequent foreign policy actions and political decisions from both countries have annoyed the other, mostly overwhelming any positive impacts (Sagar, 2004).

3.5 The second group of tsunami diplomacy case studies is suggested as being important enough that they should be followed over the coming months and years to determine if disaster diplomacy outcomes would be evident:

The latter is selected for further discussion in order to indicate the opportunities and pitfalls which could be investigated for all of the above possibilities.

Indonesian Tsunami Diplomacy

4.1 In the tsunami's aftermath, comments from Washington and Jakarta suggested that the American military operation to bring humanitarian relief to affected parts of Indonesia would be good for Indonesian-American relations. The USA and Indonesia, however, have traditionally had relatively close relations, including military, economic, and political connections. At times, difficulties have emerged, such as in October, 2000 when a new American ambassador to Jakarta decided to tackle corruption.

4.2 Overall, Indonesian-American ties in recent years are adequately summed up by the American government's statement (USDS, 2002) that 'The United States views Indonesia as the cornerstone of regional security in Southeast Asia and a key trade partner. U.S. interests in the region depend on Indonesia's stability and economic growth.' This statement is made despite the same department's comment that in 2002 'The [Indonesian] government's human rights record remained poor, and it continued to commit serious abuses...These abuses were most apparent in Aceh Province' (USDS, 2003).

4.3 USAID (2002) noted that they planned $124 million of development assistance and economic support to Indonesia during the 2002 fiscal year and would be requesting $131 million for similar work during the 2003 fiscal year. The USA was Indonesia's second largest trading partner in 2003, taking 12.1% of Indonesia's exports (ODCI, 2005). Little scope exists for suggesting that this level of cooperation had improved or will improve significantly due to only the tsunami.

4.4 Another suggestion was that the people of Indonesia would be friendlier towards the USA and Americans as a result of the American aid to Aceh. Colin Powell, who was then the American Secretary of State, noted that post-tsunami relief from the American military would be 'an opportunity to see American generosity, American values in action' (e.g. Chinoy et al., 2005; Reynolds, 2005). Powell's view is surprisingly na´ve considering how many other countries have seen 'American generosity, American values in action' in the form of recent post-disaster aid, yet have not been particularly friendly to the USA at either the governmental or public level as a consequence. Both Iran and North Korea are useful case studies for displaying the failure of disaster diplomacy due to American aid, hence substantive other factors would be needed in Indonesia for that country's public opinion to be more favourable to the USA.

4.5 The relief and reconstruction operation in Aceh therefore has little potential for overcoming the deep level of anti-American antipathy which exists in some sectors of Indonesia. For the vast majority of Indonesians who would never resort to violence and who are much more concerned with day-to-day living than with international geopolitics, the aid appears to have been gratefully received, but not as an anti-terrorism measure. The survivors have naturally also been concentrating on rebuilding their lives and livelihoods while remembering the dead rather than being concerned about national and international security issues.

4.6 Another possible expression of Indonesian tsunami diplomacy to watch is changes in the Aceh rebellion. Sulistiyanto (2001), Aspinall and Berger (2001), and He and Reid (2004) provide detailed background to the conflict in Aceh, examining both historical and recent political processes and actions. In summary, Aceh developed and thrived as an independent sultanate until the Dutch took over by force in the early 20th century. Pro-independence insurgencies continued throughout the 20th century against the Dutch and then, after independence was declared in 1945 and formally achieved in 1949, against Indonesia.

4.7 GAM (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or Free Aceh Movement) was founded in 1976 and is the modern leader of Aceh's fight for independence. In 2002, negotiations led to a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement between GAM and Jakarta, but it lasted only a few months before collapsing in early 2003. Aceh was under a state of civil emergency, downgraded from martial law, and had been visited by Indonesia's new president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono a month earlier when the tsunami struck, killing more than 100,000 people from Aceh's population of just over four million.

4.8 On 23 January, 2005, an announcement was made that the Indonesian government and GAM were soon to resume peace talks in Helsinki. When the preliminary talks ended on 23 February, 2005, the two sides and the mediators stressed the gains which had been made and the potential to reach a lasting settlement. These encouraging signs appear to have resulted as a consequence of the tsunami and might indicate disaster diplomacy. Two principal cautions are required before accepting that disaster diplomacy has been successful.

4.9 First, are the negotiations and peace offers legitimate or do they result more from public relations ploys or the perception that, after the tsunami, the two parties must be seen to be trying for a lasting peace? Only lasting outcomes, or the lack thereof, would be able to answer this question. In the India-Pakistan disaster diplomacy case study, high hopes and apparently genuine negotiations faltered during an Indian-Pakistani leadership summit six months after the earthquake. Insults were exchanged, a final declaration was not signed, and the two countries nearly went to war in the months afterwards. Hostilities have now diminished and significant steps towards Indian-Pakistani reconciliation have been made, but there is little talk of the earthquake diplomacy having contributed to this process. Aceh could follow a similar pattern in the coming months.

4.10 Second, GAM-Jakarta talks are not new. The short-lived Cessation of Hostilities Agreement did not lead to lasting peace, but it did set a precedent for negotiations. Furthermore, for this case to be full-fledged disaster diplomacy, it would need to be shown that the 2005 Helsinki talks were an entirely new post-tsunami initiative, rather than emerging from pre-tsunami secret talks or backroom shuttle diplomacy which have not yet been publicised.

4.11 An additional concern is that the publicity given to the Helsinki talks could undermine them. The world, and many Indonesians and Acehnese, state that they want peace with a likely implicit stance that disaster diplomacy results are expected and demanded. If the politicians, diplomats, issues, or negotiating atmosphere would not be conducive to rapid resolution, the pressure and publicity of the disaster diplomacy paradigm could produce failure. In discussing Greek-Turkish disaster diplomacy following the 1999 earthquakes, James Ker-Lindsay identified this 'public spotlight factor' as inhibiting rapprochement (Kelman and Koukis, 2000). Forcing the view that a peace deal ought to be reached because of the tsunami could ultimately be counterproductive.

4.12 One possible approach would be for the world and media to step back and let the two sides talk and negotiate on their own terms and at their own pace - with the much-needed mediator. Immense reconstruction is still needed and ongoing in Aceh. The first priority, perhaps, should be putting Acehnese livelihoods and communities back together as much as possible given that mortality is 50% or higher in some settlements. Then, long-term political solutions to help sustain those livelihoods and communities could be sought.

4.13 Due to the extensive international interest in resolving the Aceh issue, it would be unlikely that the GAM-Jakarta negotiations could be conducted without scrutiny. Furthermore, it might be unfair to request that, since many people have intense interest, some based on personal losses, in the process.

4.14 Alternatively, it might be viable and appropriate to work on reconstruction and peace simultaneously. The tsunami has altered Aceh, particularly in the coastal regions. Comprehensive reconstruction, development, sustainability, and governance plans could be developed side-by-side to ensure that they will function well with each other and that the opportunity to rebuild a better Aceh would not be lost. Linking these issues and incorporating other processes including environmental management, human rights, and disaster risk reduction is seen as the appropriate way forward in principle while recognising the challenges of linking those areas in practice (e.g. ISDR, 2004; ISDR, 2005; Lewis, 1999; Mileti et al., 2004; Wisner et al., 2004).

Conclusions and Further Work

5.1 The preliminary analysis of the different dimensions of Indonesian tsunami diplomacy from the 26 December, 2004 event leaves many questions unanswered, yet provides a starting framework towards formulating the questions and indicating which aspects to research further. As well, the situation is ongoing and operational and will be so for several more months, if not years, until a final lasting peace accord is reached - which would hopefully be the ultimate outcome. Throughout this process, researchers could make a contribution through analysing the disaster diplomacy actions and, in particular, indicating that disaster diplomacy would not provide the complete answer and might even be detrimental in some respects.

5.2 These same points apply to the other possible tsunami diplomacy cases outlined at the beginning of this paper. The 26 December, 2004 event is one of the first disasters with such a wide array of potential disaster diplomacy outcomes, mainly due to the number of countries directly impacted at a severe scale. A unique opportunity exists to explore how the same event affects different countries in different disaster diplomacy contexts at different time scales.

5.3 Two areas are suggested for concentrating investigations:

5.4 Further work could explore the hypothesis that disaster diplomacy inevitably provides an opportunity which is rarely grasped because non-disaster reasons dominate diplomatic interactions. Disasters have the potential for improving, worsening, or having minimal effect on diplomacy, depending on how the situation is played and what the players choose. Perhaps disaster diplomacy usually has the potential to yield positive outcomes, but the active decision is often to ensure that it does not work. The 26 December, 2004 provides ample possibilities for investigating this hypothesis.


ASPINALL, E. and Berger, M. T. (2001) 'The break-up of Indonesia? Nationalisms after decolonisation and the limits of the nation-state in post-cold war Southeast Asia', Third World Quarterly - Journal of Emerging Areas, Vol. 22, No. 6, pp. 1003 - 1024.

CHINOY, N., Bindra, S. and Raman, A. (2005). 'Powell: U.S. values in action'. CNN News Online report, <http://www.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/asiapcf/01/04/asia.quake>

HE, B. and Reid, A. (2004) 'Special issue editors' introduction: four approaches to the Aceh question Source', Asian Ethnicity, Vol. 5, No. 3, pp. 293 - 300.

ISDR. (2004) Living with Risk: A Global View of Disaster Reduction Initiatives. Geneva: United Nations Secretariat for the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.

ISDR. (2005) Know Risk. UK/Switzerland: Tudor Rose and the United Nations Secretariat for the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.

KELMAN, I. (2003) 'Beyond Disaster, Beyond Diplomacy', in M. Pelling (editor), Natural Disasters and Development in a Globalizing World, pp. 110 - 123, London: Routledge.

KELMAN, I. (2004) 'One Earthquake Won't Seal a U.S.-Iran Bond', Newsday, 11 January, New York.

KELMAN, I. and Koukis, T. (editors.) (2000) 'Disaster Diplomacy', special section in Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Vol. XIV, No. 1, pp. 214 - 294.

KRONSTADT, K.A. (2004) CRS Issue Brief for Congress: India-U.S. Relations. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, The Library of Congress.

LEWIS, J. (1999) Development in Disaster-prone Places: Studies of Vulnerability. London: Intermediate Technology Publications, London.

MERCER, D. (2004) 'Dividing Up the Spoils: Australia, East Timor and the Timor Sea', Space and Polity, Vol. 8, No. 3, pp. 289 - 308.

MILETI, D. and 136 contributing authors. (1999) Disasters by Design: A Reassessment of Natural Hazards in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press.

ODCI. (2005). The World Fact Book, entry for "Indonesia" at <http://www.odci.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/id.html>. Washington, D.C.: ODCI/CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), USA Government.

REYNOLDS, P. (2005) 'An opportunity but no guarantee', BBC News Online report, 5 January, <http://newswww.bbc.net.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/4148977.stm>

SAGAR, R. (2004) 'What's in a Name? India and America in the Twenty-First Century', Survival, Vol. 46, No. 3, pp. 115-135.

SULISTIYANTO, P. (2001) 'Whither Aceh?', Third World Quarterly - Journal of Emerging Areas, Vol. 22, No. 3, pp. 437 - 452.

USAID. (2002) Indonesia: The Development Challenge. USAID (United States Agency for International Development), USA Government, <http://www.usaid.gov/locations/asia_near_east/countries/one_pagers/indon01a.htm>

USDS. (2002) U.S. Support for Democracy and Human Rights in Indonesia and East Timor, International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State, 25 March <http://usinfo.org/usia/usinfo.state.gov/regional/ea/timor>

USDS. (2003) Indonesia: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2002, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Bureau of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of State, 31 March.

WISNER, B., Blaikie, P., Cannon, T., and Davis, I. (2004) At Risk: Natural Hazards, People's Vulnerability and Disasters, 2nd ed. London: Routledge.