Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Wargaming the Flu (and reflections on the insights of repetition)

Each issue of Joint Force Quarterly, Margaret McCown (Center for Applied Strategic Learning, National Defense Univeristy) contributes a short article on simulation. Her contribution to the January 2010 edition addresses “Wargaming the Flu,” and contains a description of a series of strategic exercises that NDU has organized. It is particularly interesting not only in the lessons it draws on emergency public health issues, but also in the rationale for, and impact of, changes introduced into subsequent iterations of the simulation

As the winter wears on and swine flu (H1N1) spreads, the importance of transnational public health issues seems more apparent. Swine flu has not proved as deadly as first feared, but the large-scale health and public communications effort mounted to address it illustrates the complex exigencies of the response, where an array of partners, both domestic and international, with numerous and overlapping areas of responsibility and expertise shape policy options and their efficacy. Analyzing and formulating policy responses to complex, strategic level issues that are dynamic and are affected by similarly rapidly changing local, state, national, and international efforts and concerns present political scientists and policy planners with great challenges.

Other recent articles from the Center for Applied Strategic Learning in Joint Force Quarterly have addressed how to select topics for exercises and using qualitatively specified games for teaching versus analytical purposes. This article explores the substantive and methodological findings that National Defense University (NDU) gleaned from a series of pandemic influenza exercises conducted for senior government participants over a 2 ½-year period. In particular, it focuses on how participant observations and feedback shaped the design of subsequent exercises, creating an iterative process in which lessons learned from earlier games informed structure that, in turn, elicited further and more refined insights in subsequent ones.

This series of pandemic flu exercises is an excellent example of how qualitatively specified games can help us refine our understanding of the key independent factors that structure a problem. Some factors or constraints, particularly public communication, were found consistently important and present across all exercises. Even this factor was refined, however, as the emphasis switched from justifying resource allocations to explaining the benefits of nonpharmaceutical measures. All told, exercises moved away from what could be characterized as an emergency response understanding of the problem toward a more public health understanding. Multiple iterations of the exercise, a set of participants who were both diverse and representative of the decisionmaking community, and exercises that were sufficiently explicit about the constraints or factors that we posited as composing the strategic challenge were the three factors key to using qualitatively specified exercises to refine and validate how we conceptualized the problem.

Having run a broadly similar version of the Brynania simulation each year since 1998, I’m struck by the extent to which it has been reshaped in important ways by changes in the broader international system over the past decade—despite the fact that the simulation itself is set in the hypothetical continent of Cyberia. Among others:

  • The role of China has changed dramatically, in the simulation as in the real world. In 1998 I didn’t even bother representing it. Within a few years I had to add the Chinese ambassador to the UN Security Council, reflecting its greater assertiveness in the body. Today the Chinese team also fields CIVPOL and other peacekeeping contributions, reflecting its real-life rise to become the 15th largest contributor to UN missions.
  • Just as in the real world, 9/11, the “global war on terrorism,” and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq  affected conflict resolution dynamics in Cyberia too. Players became more cautious about spectacular mass-casualty terrorism, and anxious to paint each other as terrorist threats. US, UK, and other Western military assets available for employment in a distant, marginal area like Brynania declined sharply, resulting in even greater dependence on (sometimes less capable) contributions from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The language of “failed states” has increasingly eclipsed the former concepts of humanitarian intervention, peacebuilding, and human security.
  • Establishment of the International Criminal Court in 2002, with an international mandate to prosecute war crimes.
  • The establishment of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme—designed to prevent the trade in conflict diamonds—promised to substantial change the dynamics of the simulated conflict in diamond-rich northern Brynania. In practice, just as the KCS has proven to have loopholes, so too many of my players have proven adept at avoiding its restrictions.
  • The media environment around the conflict has evolved in ways that reflect the rise of global news coverage, social media, and new informational and communications technologies.
  • Policy-making dynamics and outputs in the (simulated) European Union have changed over time as a function of EU enlargement and efforts to force elements of a common European foreign and defence policy.

In simulation debriefs I’m able to review a decade of repeated efforts to resolve the Brynanian civil war, illustrating how negotiating and consolidating civil war termination is an activity embedded in a shifting international context. I’m also able to process-trace how individual decisions in each simulation have had substantial effects of outcomes—sort of an international peacebuilding version of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day (but with less light romantic comedy and rather more IEDs).

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