The Political Repercussions of Natural Disaster

I’ve been silent to date on the unfolding tragedy in Myanmar (which by the UN’s latest estimate will claim several hundred thousand lives), not out of indifference, but for lack of anything pertinent to add to the discussion. Today comes news that a 7.8-magnitude earthquake just hit China’s Sichuan province, with initial estimates of three to five thousand dead.

The first reaction to natural disaster should be to think of the victims, with a priority on saving lives and alleviating further suffering. I admit that mine was to wonder how China and the world would respond politically, in terms of relief efforts. Does that make me a bad person? Probably.

But it also reflects the degree to which natural disasters, and the human response to them, are increasingly having diplomatic and political repercussions. Sometimes for the better, as in the case of the 2003 Bam earthquake in Iran and the 2004 tsunami in Asia, where American relief efforts helped mitigate negative perceptions and mistrust in both regions.

But sometimes for the worse. Without suggesting moral equivalencies to the Myanmar regime’s inhumanity, I’m thinking of Hurricane Katrina and the French heat wave of 2003, both of which had an enormous impact on international perception of both countries, in addition to the political impact felt domestically.

In the case of the Chinese earthquake, it’s not yet clear whether China will actually need international assistance. But in the event it does, whether or not it chooses to request it (or accept any that’s offered) will say a lot about its comfort with its global position, or conversely its need to present a false image of mastery.

In the case of Myanmar, like other regimes that are so beyond the pale that international perception has almost no impact on their conduct, the moral calculus is far more clear than the political calculus. Hampton has already expressed his misgivings with the UN’s Responsibility to Protect doctrine. I’d add that the very fact that the idea of a “humanitarian intervention” has been brought up demonstrates the degree to which the civil domain of humantiarian relief has been increasingly militarized in the popular, and political, imagination.

That’s worth considering, especially given the alarming scenarios currently in vogue about demand-driven resource scarcity and the conflicts that might result. Between food, water and energy shortages on the one hand, and weak and failed states on the other, we’re looking at a pretty broad “humanitarian intervention” horizon. So far, military doctrines for stability operations seem to be far out ahead of the political doctrines that should be guiding them.

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