Don’t Count on Disaster Diplomacy as a Path to Peace 

Displays of goodwill during public health disasters rarely lead to diplomatic breakthroughs with U.S. adversaries such as Iran and North Korea.

A U.S. airman directs Iranian soldiers carrying off a pallet containing medical supplies from a U.S. aircraft in Kerman, Iran, two days after a massive earthquake hit the city of Bam, killing 22,000 people.
A U.S. airman directs Iranian soldiers carrying off a pallet containing medical supplies from a U.S. aircraft in Kerman, Iran, two days after a massive earthquake hit the city of Bam, killing 22,000 people. SUZANNE M. JENKINS/AFP via Getty Images

As COVID-19 sweeps the world, the coronavirus disease has substantially impacted two U.S.-sanctioned countries. Iran is trying to curtail its outbreak, with dozens of deaths at minimum and the infected including the vice president and the deputy health minister, who leads the country’s taskforce against the coronavirus. Meanwhile, North Korea has sealed its borders, including with China, effectively isolating the country completely from the movement of people and goods.

This prompts the question of whether there might be a diplomatic opportunity in this catastrophic epidemic. Could the worldwide concern and attention lead to political progress with Iran and North Korea? Does this so-called disaster diplomacy open up channels for aid and communication, precipitating further rapprochement? Numerous previous examples tell us the answer is no. Indeed, different forms of disaster diplomacy and health diplomacy have not been shown to create new, lasting peace initiatives.

Over the decades, countries from Afghanistan to Liberia to El Salvador have witnessed immunization days and cease-fires for vaccination campaigns. Neither the efforts to achieve a lull in the fighting nor the actual vaccination programs themselves reduced the violence in the long term. Instead, the health work has been beneficial to eradicating diseases such as polio and Guinea worm disease, but protracted conflicts continued after the health-related cease-fires in countries from Somalia to the Philippines—and as conflicts resume, diseases often return.

Different forms of disaster diplomacy and health diplomacy have not led to new, lasting peace initiatives.

After Hurricane Katrina ripped through the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005, many U.S. adversaries offered aid. Cuba said it could provide hundreds of doctors alongside tons of medical supplies. China proffered medical experts, while Russia said that drinking water and health-related items could be sent. The U.S. government declined almost all the offers, although Mexican Army vehicles crossed the border to deliver medical supplies. Relations between the U.S. government and those countries showed no change.

Public health diplomacy is not new. Edward Jenner, the 18th-century English doctor who helped develop the smallpox vaccine, became so respected for his medical work that he mediated exchanges of prisoners between France and Britain. Using health interventions to promote a peaceful foreign policy and developing community cooperation via health-related initiatives similarly have had many benefits. But from the World Health Organization’s Health as a Bridge for Peace program to its work with local religious leaders in Pakistan for polio vaccination, none has been shown to lead to wider peace, even when the health goals are achieved.

Such initiatives will not necessarily lead to a diplomatic thaw with countries such as Iran and North Korea that are now dealing with COVID-19. North Korea has frequently accepted disaster-related aid for floods and famines in exchange for political concessions that were then withdrawn or deviated from, including in 1995, 2000, 2001, and 2012.

The same was true after a train explosion in 2004 that some sources estimate killed or injured as many as 3,000 people. In 2009, South Korea delivered medicine for North Korea’s swine flu outbreak. For almost the past decade, North Korean, American, and British scientists have been working together to better understand the volcano Mount Paektu—also known as Changbai—on the North Korea-China border. In all these cases, long-term diplomatic influences have been absent.

For Iran, major earthquakes in 1990, 2002, and 2003 brought U.S. aid, but that assistance had little lasting impact on U.S.-Iranian relations. Another earthquake in Iran in February 2005 led to the country declining U.S. aid (and the U.S. government declined aid from Iran after Hurricane Katrina later that year). Deals with Iran on nuclear weapons have waxed and waned according to the politicians in charge rather than the disasters. Despite ample opportunity, U.S. disaster diplomacy with Iran has not yielded discernible outcomes.

If saving as many lives as possible as quickly as possible is the priority, then perhaps governments must forget about other distractions such as enemy states and multilateral diplomacy. After all, separating disease management from wider political issues has led to some successes, including the eradication of smallpox and rinderpest. Similarly, the power of the legally binding International Health Regulations arguably comes from focusing on health outcomes without linking them to wider diplomacy, despite the intense political maneuvering required to promulgate and implement them.

Yet the lack of past success doesn’t mean there is no prospect for a breakthrough. Some argue that countries should actively pursue coronavirus diplomacy, using the contagion’s spread as an opportunity to force or cajole open doors into North Korea—and so perhaps into Iran and elsewhere.

There is no inevitable link between humanitarian aid during a virus emergency and short-term friendship or long-term diplomacy.

In fact, as with SARS in 2002 and 2003, China’s initial information control and lack of transparency regarding COVID-19 was a factor in the spread of the virus. Given how such politics helped to create the epidemic, perhaps actively pursuing peaceful diplomatic outcomes with Iran and North Korea based on COVID-19 has the best chance of success for the short term of stopping the virus and for the long term of ending conflicts with both countries.

But explicitly aiming for disease diplomacy presupposes that peace and reconciliation is the political goal, which has not always been the case for the United States, Iran, and North Korea. The desire for conflict can boost leaders domestically and might be kindling hopes in Washington that a disaster will destabilize an unwanted regime—which is what some Cuban Americans and U.S. presidents wanted for Cuba under Fidel Castro. For these reasons, there is no inevitable link between humanitarian aid during a virus emergency and short-term friendship or long-term diplomacy.

Diplomacy depends on leaders. If parties seek peace, then they will find a way that could involve the excuse of COVID-19. If they do not want peace, then dealing with an emergency can be used to drive the two sides further apart—or the emergency can be addressed separately without considering long-term reconciliation.

Any peace between the United States and North Korea or Iran will require much more than a show of goodwill during the coronavirus outbreak.

Ilan Kelman is a professor at University College London and the University of Agder in Norway. Twitter: @ILANKELMAN

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