Finding the Right Mix: Disaster Diplomacy, National Security, and International Cooperation

Last updated January 01, 2009

Foreign humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) operations—ranging from carefully planned medical aid and community development projects to emergency responses in the wake of earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and other natural disasters overseas—have become an increasingly prominent part of America’s diplomatic repertoire, and one in which its military forces are playing an ever more central role. Beyond their obvious humanitarian benefits, moreover, these operations can yield significant strategic value for the United States, as well as for its allies and coalition partners. Among other benefits, they can help eliminate sources of instability that terrorists and other irregular adversaries could exploit. They can also help build or restore cooperative military ties that may prove useful in other mission areas, provide regional powers with the chance to demonstrate new-found military capabilities in a non-provocative manner, and, perhaps most importantly, establish goodwill in areas where it had been latent at best. As a result, such operations can be vital tools for winning the “battle for hearts and minds” in areas where anti-American and/or anti-Western attitudes more generally have taken or could take root.

For these and related reasons, rising interest in HA/DR operations is also shared by U.S. allies and other partner states, especially in Europe and the Asia-Pacific area. As a result, the opportunities are ripe to advance disaster relief and other civil support missions as more potent tools of U.S. foreign policy that could be wielded unilaterally or in concert with like-minded nations. The key to success in either case is to achieve a greater unity of effort and a better division of labor among the diverse mix of civilian and military, national and international, and public and private sector entities that must work together as a team to execute such operations. This requires, in turn, a keener understanding of what unique skills and capabilities the military can bring to HA/DR efforts, how to ensure that these same skills and capabilities are ready and available where and when needed, and how to maximize their overall impact and contribution in the context of an interagency, civil-military, whole-of-government strategy.

This project, funded by the Smith Richardson Foundation, examined these and related issues over a two-year period, drawing on lessons learned from the U.S. military’s involvement in a range of recent foreign disaster relief operations, large and small, and from recent steps by America’s regional combatant commands (COCOMs) to integrate HA/DR and civil support initiatives more fully into their theater security cooperation programs. A monograph-length final report was published in January 2009 with comprehensive chapters on the U.S. foreign disaster response process, key military skills and capabilities of particular importance to HA/DR operations, potential contributions that can be drawn from the private sector, new approaches to civil-military coordination for HA/DR efforts overseas, and major international partnerships and organizations that can be leveraged in support of disaster diplomacy.