Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 30/06/2010

Simulating Environmental Diplomacy

The Global Policy Innovations Program has a new online article by Saleem H. Ali and Markus M. Mueller on Simulating Environmental Diplomacy, which examines how environmental cooperation can help bridges in otherwise conflictual relations—and suggests that simulation can be used as a way to highlight this:

Environmental policy issues are often framed in terms of resource scarcity, spurring a scramble for that last blade of grass or last drop of water in a “tragedy of the commons.” Yet human perceptions of access to resources can be shifted from a mindset of competitive conflict to one of cooperative relationships. The psychological aspects of such a transformation are often best illustrated through simulations.

For example, a distributive conflict premised on resource quantity can be reframed to highlight cooperation in maintaining resource quality. Lakes present a classic example where it is easy to show how a common resource will be degraded for all users. A similar case is harder to make in river simulations where upstream parties have far greater power and much less to lose as a result of pollution or scarcity downstream.

Lessons from these simulation techniques are under-utilized in international diplomacy. Not only can simulations be useful in changing the narrative of environmental conflicts, but environmental issues can be useful in changing the tone of political conflicts. For example, if two countries distrust each other over religious or ethnic differences, environmental cooperation may present a neutral means of building bridges.

There is a broader approach in international relations and conflict resolution theory that holds that functional cooperation in a variety sectors—and not just with regard to environmental issues—can help reduce tensions and lay the groundwork to shifting the broader relationship to a more cooperative basis. As Ali and Mueller suggest in their article above, the process can help the parties to identify common interests. It can also result in a growing web of interdependencies that raises the cost of violent confrontation. Finally, it can influence the attitudes of participants with regard to each other, creating greater empathy and improving lines of communication. One can certainly imagine many ways in which simulations might try to capture and illustrate this theme.

One word of caution, though: I do think  there is an under-appreciated risk of an excessively functionalist approach having counter-productive effects. Certainly there is evidence of this in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where functional cooperation on environmental issues and other has had positive effects in terms of identifying non-zero-sum gains and moderating views of the “other,” but has also become a way whereby well-meaning donors and others can avoid the “big” issues that divide the two sides. Indeed, rightly or wrongly, the growing opposition on the Palestinian side to collaboration with Israeli counterparts stems from a view that such cooperation has only served to wrap Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories in more acceptable garb, and hence perpetuate it.

From a simulation point of view, it would be an interesting challenge to try to represent both the positives and the possible negatives of functional cooperation in a simulation in such a way as to explore how the former can be maximized and the latter minimized.

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