Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

International Tug of War: Simulating Polarity and Alignment

A PAXsims contribution from Jeremy Wells (Texas State University).

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Teaching Polarity in a Nonpolar World

My generation–that is, the generation that only barely remembers the end of the Cold War–struggles to fully grasp the nature of bipolar competition. Anyone who was not more than a child before 1990 only knows the world as dominated by a single great power, the United States, leading us to the inevitable “End of History,” as Francis Fukuyama called it, where democracy and capitalism are not only the norm but the only viable game in town.

This makes it that much more difficult to explain multipolarity. A world of several great powers is an further intellectual stretch for the post-Cold War generations. How do you emphasize the critical importance of understanding multipolarity given the potential rise of China, Russia, India, Brazil, Iran, the European Union, or other potential powers when they know nothing but the dominance of the U.S.? How do you draw connections between pie-in-the-sky predictions of the future and the multipolar world of early 20th Century Europe, which students today regard as ancient history

Simulating Polarity

International relations professor Stephen Saideman has mentioned a few times on his blog a cool microsimulation he uses of multipolar politics: a six-sided tug-of-war. Essentially the old summer camp game, where two teams each heaved in opposite direction on a giant rope, is expanded by knotting at the center three ropes, allowing six individuals to all pull against each other. Naturally, given that there are now more than two sides, the opportunity for alignment is available. Throw in the promise of six bonus points to be awarded to, and split by, the victors, and you can sit back and watch the players strategize how to maximize points.


Today I did this in my Introduction to International Studies and International Security and Conflict classes. Both classes have been reading about and discussing the system-level approaches, particularly the Waltzian focus on the distribution of capabilities. In traditional tug-of-war, which represents a bipolar structure, the way to win is to have more strength on your side, or what Waltz calls internal balancing. In a multipolar setting, however, the only way to achieve more strength on your end would be to build more muscle, which is not time-effective. Instead, the best means of winning is to externally balance, which means to align yourself with others. The end result is that even a complex system of multiple great powers reduces down to a two-sided battle.

But which side should the individual join?

Alignment and Polarity

The upper-level Conflict class also read Stephen Walt’s 1985 article “Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power,” in which he compares the dominant strategies of balancing against threats versus bandwagoning with them. In essence, Walt argues states should and do balance against threats, and both classes tended to do just that: one or two rather built guys in the tug-of-war would agree to split the six points evenly and join together, while the others would align to counter the threat.

What is most interesting however, was one suggestion from our post-game analysis in the Introduction class, which was the possibility of everyone dropping the rope and taking one bonus point each. This, a few blurted out, was the neoliberal approach. But then another student caught on to the realist counterargument: what would stop one of them from not dropping the rope, easily tugging the knot her way, and successfully claiming all six points, or in other words, becoming a hegemon? Returning to the neoliberal approach, the class discussed the advantages and disadvantages of hegemony: controlling all six points is nice in the immediate term, but what would happen if the other five demanded a share?

The next lesson returns us to Waltz’s arguments about how the bipolar, or traditional, tug-of-war is in the long-run a more stable and predictable system than the multisided game.


There are few teaching experiences more rewarding than seeing students having fun learning, and that definitely happened in these two classes today. For a generation where polarity holds little if any significance, these students seemed to have a much more real appreciation for the importance of the concept for international relations theory.

Jeremy Wells 

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