Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

A Serious Game: Learning to Love the Ban

Over a delightful coffee in September in DC, back in the days for me when “working” meant taking a 45 minute coffee break, I learned about a simulation used by the preparatory commission during the ongoing process of design of the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty.  We asked for this report from contacts at the preparatory commission a few months back and I am embarrassed to admit that it lingered in my email inbox since then.  Here though, without further adieu, is their response to our questions on what the simulation was about, how it was being used and what they learned from it.  I follow with a few observations.


Unlike other organizations which have an ongoing routine inspections regime including an in-house employed inspectorate that can be called-in for training anytime, the CTBT inspection regime does not include such mechanisms. As the CTBT On-Site Inspections regime was studied and exercised after the establishment of the Preparatory Commission for CTBT, it became clear that negotiations are going to be conducted on a daily basis and on different levels between Inspection Team (IT) and the Inspected State Party (ISP) personnel. This led to the understanding that negotiation is practically an additional tool for the inspectors to be used during an inspection.

Since the primary criterion for selecting experts as members of an inspection team is their scientific expertise it also became clear that they should be trained in the use of negotiations techniques. The CTBTO has conducted exercises and training activities through the years such as tabletop exercises conducted in the office or during a field simulation of the inspection process and especially its negotiation aspect.

A special TTE was conducted lately outside of the CTBTO in a very special setting.  In order to get a book about CTBT(O) negotiations on the table, the Processes of International Negotiation (PIN) Programme of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) organized a book-conference in June 2009 to discuss the different contributions to this book. In order to give the participants of the conference a good idea of the CTBTO problematique on the ground, the authors of this chapter presented their colleagues with their classic Table Top and ran it with them. This was a special moment in the meeting, where all participants were suddenly drawn into the subject through interaction, which also helped to create an even more cooperative atmosphere.

The Simulation

A scenario for the TTE was provided to the participants providing the background and process until the IT, has arrived at the Point Of Entry on the territory of the ISP, where 36 hours are dedicated to negotiations between the IT and ISP on the modalities for the conduct of the inspection.

The conference members were divided into two delegations, one representing the Inspection Team, the other one the Inspected State Party. Instructions were given, both to the teams as such, as well as to the individual members of the delegations. Both parties had a team leader plus a number of ‘experts’, while the authors of this chapter acted as game masters and observers. After some 45 minutes of preparations, or better of internal negotiations – in which already heated internal debates took place, notably in the Inspectors Team – external negotiations lasted for another 45 minutes, followed-up by 45 minutes debriefing and discussions. In the middle part – the actual negotiation process – the two teams of twelve people each declared their positions and demands and exchanged arguments and exhibits. This bilateral process of negotiation could be characterized as quite distributive, like haggling at the market place, using diplomatic terminology though.

It was a polarized and tense exchange of views, even emotional now and then. An Inspection Team being short of time, an Inspected State Party buying time. The heads of delegation were chosen by the game masters in view of their experience and knowledge. It was expected that they both would have enough helicopter view to produce a realistic and interesting process and so they did. Ambassador Jaap Ramaker from The Netherlands, having been the last chair of the Test-Ban Treaty Negotiations in Geneva in 1996 headed the Inspected State Party Team. Rebecca Johnson, director of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy, United Kingdom opposed him as head of delegation of the CTBTO Inspection Team. Two different temperaments with equal subject knowledge and negotiation skill. A very intriguing – and probably extremely realistic – process unfolded. A learning experience for participants and observers and game masters.

Lessons Learned

Though the teams were asked to avoid procedural discussions and to focus on the subject matter as much as possible, more than half of the negotiation time was lost because of a prolonged procedural struggle. A ‘fight’ over the explanation and interpretation of those things that were or were not allowed during the upcoming inspection period dominated the first half of the negotiation and bedeviled the second half. This was not coincidental, everybody recognized it as a strategy used by the Inspected State Party and the flow of the bargaining process clearly showed that it was extremely difficult for the Inspection Team to break through the defenses of the Inspected State Party. Clearly the rules and regulations of the CTBTO and its Manual – which is still under consideration in reality – give the high ground to the state to be controlled. It is quite easy for the Inspected State Party to use procedural issues to postpone discussions on content.

This avoidant strategy provoked escalation which did not really foster an integrative bargaining process. While the Inspected State Party had a pulling strategy from the start, the Inspection Team had – because of its time problem – no choice but to implement a pushing approach. In this situation it was more difficult for the ‘offensive’ party to stay balanced, than for the ‘defensive’ one. Positional bargaining characterized the process, though some useful integrative aspects were inserted in the second half of the interaction by a group of experts of both parties which had reached an agreement on a few important issues during their break-out session. Being experts and not being bothered too much by the political process enfolding between the two teams, it was not too difficult to bridge some rifts. Obviously the back-channel negotiations did not suffer from the loss-of-face problems the delegations in the ‘plenary’ were confronted with. However, these positive results forged by the expert group could not (yet) turn the negotiation process into a problem-solving one. Slowly but truly the issue-specific power of the Inspection Team shifted to the Inspected State Party with no substantial results at the end of the bargaining process.

The lesson being that the rules and regulations of CTBTO do not – at least not in the context of this Table Top Exercise – allow for enough space for the Inspection Team to have a successful negotiation on On-Site Inspection with the Inspected State Party.

Note that the exercise was used during the design of the treaty, training those that may be involved in inspections with the negotiation tools that they can use in the future, while highlighting what the challenges may be if the treaty is not fully defined, presumably informing the treaty process itself.

Also, I noticed that the simulation designers placed two very experienced “players” in lead positions.  The more simulation runs and design I’m exposed to, the more imperative I feel this oft overlooked strategy is to a successful simulation design.  One of the useful aspects of simulation design is inter-cohort learning – placing those with experience and confidence in leading others is extremely useful in sharing knowledge.

Lastly, I really like how a short table top exercise was integrated into another event.  Those who have used simulations for learning immediately recognize the line:

This was a special moment in the meeting, where all participants were suddenly drawn into the subject through interaction, which also helped to create an even more cooperative atmosphere.

Really, this is was makes simulations in learning so powerful and rewarding.  They engage students immediately, bringing them into the subject matter.  Glad to hear that it worked so well in creating a successful event for the commission.

Those interested can learn more about the on-site inspection of the CTBTO through the following e-learning modules:

2 responses to “A Serious Game: Learning to Love the Ban

  1. Moti Melamud 24/02/2010 at 7:20 pm

    Thank you for the post

  2. Rex Brynen 24/02/2010 at 6:30 pm

    Fascinating e-learning modules, Gary: I feel a sudden urge to look for undeclared nuclear test facilities in my neighbourhood…

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