There were high expectations that President Erdogan’s recent electoral victory would have a positive effect on Türkiye’s past commitment to obstruct Sweden’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership bid. However, the expected change has not materialized as of yet. This was demonstrated by the limitations exhibited in the case of Stockholm, which had tried to initiate “disaster diplomacy” with Türkiye. The two countries have been at odds due to Stockholm’s stance on Kurdish groups in the Scandinavian country, which caused Türkiye to object to Sweden’s accession into NATO.
Meanwhile, there has been a shift in ties between Türkiye and another NATO member and erstwhile rival, Greece. Türkiye and Greece have decided to resume confidence-building talks that were halted in 2022. Prior to the February 6th earthquake in Türkiye, various headlines were questioning a potential open conflict between Greece and Türkiye. However, the occurrence of a large-scale natural disaster appears to have led to a call for better relations. As global warming gears up, disaster diplomacy is slated to become a prominent tool of statecraft. Disaster Diplomacy does not come without consequences. Multiple detractors have highlighted its politicization of natural disasters and how it violates the principle of neutrality.
Nevertheless, there seem to be opportunities that are afforded by disaster diplomacy that would otherwise be challenging to pursue or justify. For instance, there was significant tension between Greece and Türkiye regarding competing territorial claims, culminating in Athens’s lobbying Washington against selling military armaments to Ankara. The dispute escalated to the Turkish leader, Erdogan, stating that the Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis “no longer exists” to him. Meanwhile, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias compared Türkiye to North Korea after Erdogan proclaimed that Turkish missiles could reach Athens.
The earthquake was able to provide an opportunity for a diplomatic dialogue without the burden of previous history that would have otherwise made overtures politically difficult. Greek Foreign Minister Dendias emerged as the first European leader to visit Türkiye after the earthquakes and Greece participated in the search and rescue efforts in the country as well. The simultaneous tragedy of a train in Greece saw the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, extend his sympathies to his Greek counterpart, Dendias.
Deputy foreign ministers of Greece and Türkiye met in Ankara to discuss ways to improve bilateral cooperation through the “Positive Agenda” initiative, encompassing areas such as energy, trade and societal relations. Both countries also agreed to each other’s bids on different global forums, including Türkiye’s intention to apply for the general secretariat of the International Maritime Organization and Greece’s bid to become a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council for 2025-2026.
In addition, disaster diplomacy can offer the benefit of symbolism, which can assist in intensifying linkages. During times of crisis, the collective efforts of countries to confront shared challenges symbolize unity and cooperation. The act of setting aside differences in the face of adversity demonstrates a strong sense of global solidarity and the acknowledgment of our common humanity. In August 1999, an earthquake hit Türkiye, where Greece came to their aid. Türkiye then reciprocated this response when Athens was hit by another earthquake in September of that same year. The Turkish European Union candidacy had been propounded as a “direct result of the Greek policy shift” in the aftermath of earthquakes in 1999. The then Minister of Foreign Affairs of Greece, and later the Prime Minister, George Papandreou, stated that an “extremely deep humanitarian solidarity” had emerged. The earthquakes had humanized both sides and provided the space to find solutions to common problems. Subsequently, both countries signed 33 bilateral agreements and adopted 24 confidence building measures.
In due course, the Indo-Pacific region has emerged as an area of convergence for disaster diplomacy, with cases of success such as the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan Province of China, which led to improved diplomatic relations between China and Japan. Disaster diplomacy was also practiced in the aftermath of the Kashmir Earthquake in 2005, the North Korea/West Droughts known also as the Arduous March or the March of Suffering, and the Sri Lankan Tsunami in 2004. All these examples can serve as precedent in the region, which is home to countries prone to natural disasters. Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) member states have also prioritized disaster diplomacy.
Notably, interactions that are part of disaster diplomacy can pave the way for “informal networks” that could result in more robust engagement. For instance, in the 1990s, after the earthquakes, there was a surge in the establishment of numerous groups aiming to foster unity and communication between the Turkish and Greek people. Previously, individuals who sought to promote understanding between the two countries had to be cautious and maintain a low profile. However, the situation had changed dramatically, and active participation in such groups was no longer regarded with suspicion. In fact, these groups began to emerge rapidly throughout both nations. Türkiye also improved relations with Armenia in the aftermath of the disaster as it had seen strained relations after the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. A border crossing was opened after 30 years to provide aid and Armenian foreign minister Ararat Mirzoyan likewise collaborated with his Turkish counterpart.
In the same vein, Syria has been participating in disaster diplomacy. Damascus was already part of “step-for-step diplomacy” as it sought an Arab counterweight to Iran. The earthquake provided Bashar Al-Assad with the opportunity to enhance ties with various countries that had shunned the civil war-torn nation, such as Tunisia and Saudi Arabia with Riyadh rethinking its relations with Damascus. In the case of Syria, ministers from the UAE, Jordan, and Oman have also been involved in conveying diplomatic gestures.
Despite holding benefits, disaster diplomacy is unlikely to overcome historical cleavages, emotive issues, hubris based impediments, power dynamics, political maneuvering, and economic prioritizations. However, disaster diplomacy does provide an unprecedented opportunity for leaders that are skilled enough to leverage disaster diplomacy. Effectively leveraging disaster diplomacy necessitates leaders to possess advanced skills in diplomacy, negotiation, and empathy. Moreover, they must have a deep understanding of the historical context and sensitivities surrounding the situation. The complexities involved demand leaders to navigate these challenges with finesse, displaying diplomatic acumen, and demonstrating a genuine concern for the well-being of all parties involved. Disaster diplomacy is extremely dynamic and can be practiced at the multilateral level as well as the para-diplomacy, proto-diplomacy, and micro-diplomacy levels. Para-diplomacy refers to the diplomatic activities conducted by subnational entities with some autonomy in international relations. Proto-diplomacy involves preliminary or informal diplomatic interactions before establishing formal relations between states. Micro-diplomacy, also known as citizen diplomacy, involves non-state actors engaging in grassroots initiatives to promote dialogue and understanding.
Researchers continue to study the close relationship between natural disasters and anthropogenic events. Instead of creating new diplomatic initiatives, disaster-related activities have been a catalyst for pre-existing diplomatic undertakings. As such, non-governmental organizations, cultural and trade linkages, and confidential diplomatic negotiations can deliver terms favorable to enhance disaster diplomacy. There are still impediments to disaster diplomacy, particularly as countries grapple with multiple threats which could limit the resources available to sustainably pursue any kind of diplomatic maneuvers.
As climate change intensifies and the frequency of disasters grows, the vulnerability of citizens is on the rise. In this context, disaster diplomacy may offer countries an opportunity to strategically shift their focus without facing significant domestic consequences for their leaders, provided there is enough political motivation. In times of crisis, leaders often see the chance to showcase their leadership abilities, foster national solidarity, and enhance their reputation both at home and on the global stage. Through active diplomacy and cooperation with other nations, leaders can position themselves as proactive agents who can effectively tackle pressing issues and find sustainable solutions. This has the potential to strengthen their political legitimacy and gain support, minimizing the risk of criticism from domestic opponents or interest groups.
The importance of Turkey-Greece relations becomes evident in the context of disaster diplomacy, as it can serve as a means for both countries to navigate through challenging situations and find common ground in addressing the consequences of climate change-related disasters. Countries that are pragmatic enough to understand the long-term benefits of disaster diplomacy could reap immeasurable benefits with access to more resources and allies while lessening the tensions with their rivals.
Arushi Singh holds a master’s degree in Geopolitics and International Relations. Her areas of interest include the geopolitics of West Asia, the geopolitical implications of great power competition in Africa, Russia’s foreign policy orientations, and emerging technologies. She is currently a researcher at the Consortium of Indo-Pacific Researchers.