Expecting the Unexpected: Disaster Risks and Conflict

Muhammet A. Bas, Elena V. McLean

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This study examines the relationship between disaster risks and interstate conflict. We argue that in disaster-prone areas actors’ rational expectations about the likelihood and magnitude of potential future disasters can make conflict more likely. The relationship emerges when future disasters are viewed as shocks that are expected to shift the relative power balance among states. If large enough, such expected shifts can generate commitment problems and cause conflict even before any disasters take place. Our approach represents a shift of focus from previous research, which investigates the effect of actual disasters and ignores rational expectations regarding future events. We use a simple game-theoretic model to highlight the commitment problem caused by disaster risks. We then discuss and apply an empirical strategy enabling us to disentangle effects of disaster proneness from effects of actual disaster events. Our results indicate that greater disaster risks are indeed associated with a higher likelihood of interstate conflict.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)421-433
Number of pages13
JournalPolitical Research Quarterly
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2021


  • commitment problems
  • disaster risks
  • interstate conflict
  • natural disasters

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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