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