Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 08/03/2009

(more) wisdom at the Horse of Peas

Tim Wilkie, as usual, has some insightful comments on the practical contributions and limitations of simulations and gaming at his blog, A Horse of Peas. Specifically, he’s commenting on a WSJ op ed by Eliot Cohen on pundits and policy-making that was first flagged over at Opposed Systems Design, and to which he’s added some thoughts. (You’ve got to love the net for making this sort of virtual conversation possible.)

Tim comments:

If a game “clarifies problems or solutions that the insiders have only vaguely or incompletely considered” or provides the opportunity for outside commentators to develop the empathy with decision-makers that Cohen describes, that could be a valuable contribution.

I couldn’t agree more. As I’ve mentioned on the blog before, I was involved in a  simulation of Palestinian refugee negotiations last summer with Chatham House (UK) which involved a range of participants: academic subject matter experts, current and former diplomats, mid-level negotiation advisors, and former senior negotiatiors and officials. The combination proved especially useful: officials and negotiators found themselves presented with technical challenges they hadn’t considered before, while the academic specialists (who tend to focus on best practices) confronted how theoretically ideal outcomes might be constrained by the give-and-take of negotiations. We were also able to put refugees and refugee advocates into the mix too, providing insights and feedback that was lacking from the actual refugee negotiations of 2000-01 at Camp David and Taba, and which were also missing from the most recent Annapolis round of negotiations in 2007-08.

There are some serious challenges with this kind of mix. Senior officials, even former ones, have little time to spare, especially for multi-day simulations. There are potential status issues when you mix retired senior folks and recent PhD graduates. The necessary abstractions from reality (for reasons of “playability”) can both bias the results and devalue it in the eyes of participants. Political sensitivities can make it difficult to get officials and ex-officials from warring sides in the same room. Finally, some folks will simply see the simulation as a rather silly game. We had one participant leave for political reasons, one carefully check that our Hamas players weren’t actual Hamas cadres before boarding their flight to the UK, and a third who decried it all as a “summer camp” and left.

Was it useful? Will it have an effect? It is hard to say—I’m a completely biased observer, since I ran the simulation. However, the UK Foreign Office clearly thought it was valuable enough to ask Chatham House to hold a follow-up workshop on the challenges of implementing a refugee deal a few months later, and feedback from participants has been good.

Review: Tessman, International Relations In Action

Review of: Brock F. Tessman, International Relations in Action: A World Politics Simulation (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007). 138pp. USD$16.95 pb.

iriaInternational Relations in Action offers all of the rules, background materials, and scenarios required to conduct an international relations simulation in the classroom. The simulation setting is the fictitious world of Politica and its eight major powers:  Paxony, Refugia, Emerjent, Tundristan, Industrael, Islandia, Petropol, and Minerite. These countries vary in terms of history, goals and grievances, political systems (various democracies, a military junta, a declining authoritarian great power, and a theocracy), economy (from industrialized, newly industrializing, and primary resource extraction) and the particular resources that they control. Within each country, students are assigned different roles (chief decision-maker, diplomat, economic advisor, intelligence officer, and opposition leader), each with sometimes slightly different interests.

The twelve scenarios provided in the book include military security issues and alliance politics, ethnic tensions, trade and other economic issues, multilateral institution-building, and even the environmental challenge of global warming. Each can be played as a one-off simulation, or one after the other as a linked series, or all of the scenarios run at once over an extended period. As the author notes, the latter would result in a much richer classroom experience, forcing actors to prioritize interests and enabling issue-linkage and trade-offs, rather than allowing all national resources to be devoted to a single international problem at a time.

The book contains some additional guidance on how long simulations might take (typically, up to one class/week per scenario, and a full term for all twelve), and how role assignments might be made in classes of varying sizes (from 8 to 48 students). Within each scenario chapter there are suggestions to students as to additional academic readings for the general topic being explored. The simulation is aimed at introductory college-level courses in international relations, although it might have some utility in senior high school classes too.

The provision of all materials required to run the simulation in a single, compact , and reasonably-priced booklet has much to commend it. The background materials, scenarios, and rules are all very well explained. The simulation mechanics are simple and clear. Some additional materials are also available on the author’s website, although these could be further developed.

A core of the simulation is the allocation of resources or “factors.” Each turn, teams are asked to decide on how they will allocate these between military strength (“guns”), economic growth (“butter”), or specific actions. Resources used for “guns” may be used for both offensive and defensive military actions. Resources used for “butter” have an impact on economic growth and the availability of resources in subsequent turns. Resources allocated for actions may either be provided to other players in the form of foreign aid, or allocated for specific activities. There is some inherent flexibility in this latter use of resources that enables both players to think outside of the strict constraints of the rules, and allows instructors to easily modify scenarios. Moreover, many scenarios have specific targets that require the allocation of factors to action, for example by expending resources to build a dam, reduce pollution, or prevent a  global epidemic.

There is also a rudimentary trade system built into the simulation, with each state allocated different amounts of three essential trade goods (oil, fish, and minerals). States that fail to secure adequate supplies of each resource suffer a trade penalty to their economes in the subsequent turn.

Bureaucratic politics and the domestic sources of politics are reflected through the assignment of different roles within each country, as well as the requirement that decisions taken by democracies require the support of a majority of team members.

The scoring system used for each scenario guarantees that different countries, and even different actors within a country, confront different pay-off structures. Thus, the simulation enables both conflict and cooperation based on a variety of mixed-sum arrays of interest.

The global political and economic system outlined in International Relations in Action is obviously a highly abstracted one. Without having played through any of the simulations—and hence based solely on a reading of the rules—it would seem that there might be problems with the frequency of international armed conflict in the simulation, despite mechanics that allow defensive alliances, create opportunity costs to buying guns-over-butter, and provide the defender with a 2-to-1 comparative advantage. State-to-state war is very rare in contemporary international relations, with most conflicts being of the intra-state variety. In the simulation, however, there appears to be little to constrain leaders from threatening military intervention over such “low politics” issues as the establishment of an international criminal court, currency crises, or trade relations.

Another area of abstraction that could be problematic is the system of resource allocation . This presumes an almost Stalinist system of centralized economic control, with actors able to massively shift their sectoral allocations from turn to turn. The trade system similarly implies a much great involvement of state officials in trade decisions. In Politica, it is state officials that decide how many fish will be sold and oil purchased and from whom, rather than this being a process of largely capitalist exchange by firms influenced by tariffs and the international trade regime. Economic embargo is much more easily wielded as a weapon of diplomatic influence in Politica than it is in the real world.

Overall, therefore, one weakness of the simulation is that in attributes far too much leverage and latitude for action to states, and fails to fully reflect the limited incrementalism that is often the substance of global politics. If an instructor is not careful, a simulation risks look more like RISK, and less like international relations. There is also the opportunity cost of simulating to be considered: every hour spent in classroom simulation is an hour lost to lecturing. This is not a reason to not use simulations, but it is to suggest that the learning objectives need to be carefully weighed.

Given this, very much depends on how an instructor uses this simulation. As previously suggested in PaxSims, “unrealistic” simulations can serve a very useful purpose too if instructors are careful to brief or debrief participants as to how, where, and why the simulation diverges from actual politics. Were there to be a second edition of this book, it might usefully contain an additional page or two for each simulation describing the manner in which actual international practice deviates from the simulated variety, and why that is so.

If integrated into curriculum in a way that assures that students learn the right lessons, and not the wrong ones, International Relations in Action could be a quite useful pedagogical tool. It is an adaptable system, with instructors easily able to adapt scenarios or generate new ones. It might also be a useful resource for instructors considering how they might develop their own simulations using similar kinds of mechanics.

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