Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

The National Intelligence Council imagines gaming chaos

The US National Intelligence Council, in conjunction with the European Union’s Institute for Security Studies, has just issued Global Governance 2025: At a Critical Juncture, a report on possible global futures. As with the NIC’s 2008 Global Trends 2025 study, the report isn’t meant to be a series of firm predictions, but rather an alternative futures scenario exercise that provokes discussion and debate.

And what does that have to do with PaxSims? Well, these NIC reports often have little fictional human interest vignettes designed to illustrate broader possibilities. The most negative scenario in the report is entitled “Conflict Trumps Cooperation:”

The international system becomes threatening owing to domestic disruptions, particularly in emerging powers such as China. China stumbles and the global economy lapses. Nationalistic pressures build as middle-class aspirations for the “good life” are stymied. Tensions build between the United States and China, but also among some of the BRICs as competition grows for secure resources and clients. Such suspicions and tensions make reforming global institutions impossible; budding regional efforts, particularly in Asia, also are undermined.

..and the vignette for this is built around reflections inspired by a future “Peace Hero” computer game:

In summer 2021, I—admittedly a bored diplomat—find myself sequestered for several weeks in Perth (Australia). A new outbreak of bird flu, despite the rapid quarantines put in place, has spread and closed down most major airports. I am trying to get back to Europe for my annual leave, but most connections have been cut. To while away the time, I am thinking back on world events.

The current international scene holds an uncanny resemblance to a computer game called “Peace Hero” I used to play with my son years ago. Unlike most games, this one was constructed so you earned points for finding ways to cooperate with fellow contestants, all of whom assumed roles of major countries or international organizations. The world was confronted, for example, with a pandemic— not unlike the present—and the challenge was to find which countries could provide emergency vaccines. The game actually prompted you to construct a UN Security Council resolution that would quickly be voted into action. The game was probably never a best seller, but it had intrigued me, particularly how the players perverted its intended objective.

It was as if human nature was doomed: the competitive spirit took over even though the rewards were greatest for cooperation. In one energy scenario, the contestants ended up competing over access to oil. This was despite the fact that they could opt for technological breakthroughs on alternatives and reap many more rewards. My son—who was a bit of a rebellious teenager at the time—was particularly competitive. He went out of his way not to cooperate with me.

Once the competitive juices flowed, confrontation was sure to follow. Even I had to admit that my blood would boil at times. Why couldn’t my son just accept the rules laid down in the game? They were for everyone’s good. A couple times, when he was playing the role of the BRIC, I thought I had him over a barrel. China’s economy took a hit while the West’s had finally recovered. Lo and behold, though, my son became more hostile. He said China was of no mind to be deferent given past wrongs.

I suppose he had a good case looking back on it. Nationalism has made a big comeback in

the past decade. What was all that stuff we used to talk about—multilateralism, doctors without borders, the new Internet society that would bring us all together? A lot had been swept aside in the ten years since the Great Recession. The West resented the new powers as their economies continued to grow while even the US has struggled. We saw in Afghanistan where China actually reaped major economic benefits from the Allies’ efforts to stabilize the country. Much of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth was exploited by the Chinese, not Western firms. Such economic feats became a contentious political issue in America and led to growing US- China frictions. I am reminded a little of how the British and French felt as German power rose in the years before the First World War. Perception is a lot in these situations. It was not as if China was at all equal to the US, but Americans grew increasingly resentful of an ungrateful China not mindful of all the “public goods” which the US had provided in the world, including to help China rise.

For their part, the new powers were dismissive of what they saw as an antiquated international system no longer possessing any legitimacy—a system that did not protect them from the increasing environmental and resource problems. Food prices have soared, way beyond the 2008 “spikes.” Governments—including the new rising powers—have struggled to keep supplies adequate and prices reasonable for their publics. A string of extreme weather events has added to their woes. Asian cities are particularly vulnerable to the huge tidal surges which have accompanied some of the recent cyclones. No Kyoto follow- on climate change agreement was reached in 2012. The charges and countercharges proliferated with groups hardening around the US on one side and China-India-Brazil and most of the developing world on the other. The small island states whose very existence is really threatened were left out and ignored. This alone was probably enough to sour the international atmosphere. It is no exaggeration to say we are almost at the point of daggers drawn; it would only take a minor incident to trigger a major conflict. I wonder how the game will go . . .

Perhaps we should throw out a PaxSims challenge…. what current electronic (or other) game is likely to capture the world of 2025? An anarchistic World of Warcraft struggle for scarce natural resources? A heavily institutionalized Dance Dance Revolution (which already resembles, after all, EU bureaucratic regulation)? A world of central defensive planning in the face of global chaos, Plants versus Zombies style? Civilizational conflict, in the spirit of Samuel Huntington and StarCraft II, with China the new Zerg? We welcome suggestions!

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