From Sparta to Nicaragua, Disasters Alter Political History

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If they hadn't been pulverized by an earthquake, the Spartans of ancient Greece might have defeated the Athenians, changing the course of Western culture.

But for a volcano, the Panama Canal would be in Nicaragua. And if the modern Greeks and Turks had not helped each other after their own earthquakes five years ago, they might well still be mortal enemies instead of friendly neighbors.

As Asian nations reel from the tsunamis that struck two weeks ago, history suggests that the tragedy could engender political fallout - both good and bad - that will re-shape the region as surely as the giant waves redrew its coastlines.

"Some natural disasters are triggers for change; others are catalysts for change already under way," says Jelle Zeilinga de Boer, coauthor of a new book, "Earthquakes in Human History: The Far- Reaching Effects of Seismic Disruptions." But, he adds, "they lead to a sequence of other events that can last for centuries."

It is still far too early to predict the nature and scope of political change wrought by the tsunami. But the first tentative signs can already be seen: Asian governments have pledged to cooperate on a tsunami early-warning system. Indian and US naval forces are working together on the relief effort without the months of negotiations such cooperation would once have taken.

And while they are cautious, diplomats suggest that the recent catastrophe and subsequent relief work could jolt two regional conflicts - separatist wars in Indonesia's Aceh province, and in the northeast of Sri Lanka - onto new paths.

"This is a watershed" for Aceh, says Sidney Jones, Southeast Asia project director for the International Crisis Group. "The tsunami will change the dynamic of the conflict in a number of important ways."

Across the Indian Ocean in Sri Lanka, where the Tamil Tigers have been fighting for independence from the central government for 20 years and where the tsunami killed over 30,000 people, "this was definitely one of those events that change history," says Hans Brattskar, the Norwegian ambassador whose government brokered a cease-fire two years ago.

"We are in darkness now, but people are looking for rays of hope," he adds.

Disaster diplomacy

Greece and Turkey found such hope in 1999, when a massive earthquake in Turkey killed 15,000 people and the Greek authorities rushed to help. A few months later, Turkish rescue teams were first on the scene of an earthquake in Greece.

"Suddenly, the perception of the 'other' as evil changed," recalls Soli Ozel, who teaches politics at Bilgi University in Istanbul. "The earthquakes provided indispensable public support for the policy of rapprochement."

That policy, however, was already under way, he points out, and quiet diplomacy had begun to bear fruit. "The earthquakes came when the ground for rapprochement was already there, but they were a major catalyst" for improved relations that most recently included Greek support for Turkey's entry into the European Union, Dr. Ozel says. "You couldn't build public diplomacy on 30 years of vilification."

"Disaster diplomacy" was forestalled, however, in the wake of another earthquake - the one that leveled the Iranian city of Bam in December 2003.

Washington sent aid to Tehran despite its status as a member of the "axis of evil," and for a few days it appeared as though Elizabeth Dole might lead a high- visibility American delegation to Bam that could have smoothed the path to more substantive diplomatic contacts.

The Iranian government, however, turned down the visit with President Mohammed Khatami, cautioning that "humanitarian issues should not be intertwined with deep and chronic political problems."

Ilan Kelman, an expert at Cambridge University in England who studies the political implications of natural disasters, says that the Turkish and Iranian cases both suggest that "disaster diplomacy cannot work on its own. …