PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 10/10/2017

The Orchard: A conflict resolution simulation

Lorenzo Nannetti is a senior analyst at the Italian think tank Il Caffè Geopolitico, a researcher for the Italian branch of the Atlantic Treaty Association, and an analyst for the US thinktank Wikistrat. He is also a PAXsims reader, and sent on this account of his conflict resolution simulation, “The Orchard.”


For fifty years, the countries of Cortia and Appal have been at peace. Between them lies a territory called “the Orchard”, a fertile area rich in water and resources that is vital for both countries’ populations. Neither Cortia nor Appal controls the Orchard. A treaty between them keeps the area neutral and governed through a joint system, so that both countries can enjoy its richness. Everything looked fine, until eight days ago…

This is the beginning briefing of “The Orchard” an international crisis simulation I ran at the Festival Francescano 2017, a Christian-inspirated forum for public debate in Bologna, Italy. This year’s theme being “the future”, I proposed a workshop about “building a peaceful future”, which aimed to explain common errors and pitfalls in preventing international crises and give participants some glimpses about crisis resolution and international negotiations.

The scenario, inspired by negotiation simulations at the Program on Negotiation by Harvard Law School, was created by me and adapted for participants who mostly had no professional background in international relations or related disciplines. I run it two times during the Festival, one on Saturday 23rd September, one on Sunday 24th, with different groups.

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Appalian diplomats strongly stating their refusal to accept a proposed offer. I’m the one standing up. Photo credit: Festival Francescano

Participants were divided into 3 teams: Cortian diplomats, Appalian diplomats and UN mediators. The dispute was fairly standard and straightforward: a precious contested area that one state had occupied and the other tried to reclaim, with widespread destruction threatening to harm both.

As set of instructions different for all factions stated aims, negotiating points, red lines and prejudices. That was the key.

With Cortia and Appal being fictional and players being non-professionals, the crisis was simplified and would have been easy to resolve. But players had to deal with restriction on what they could tell the other side, representing  prejudices and lack of trust, so common in real world. Mediators had more leeway, but they too had indications about what they thought was the best solution, representing their preconception about the conflict. Unfortunately, this solution wasn’t really the best one, as it missed the contenders’ interests. In order to solve the crisis, mediators would have to question their own beliefs and bring the contenders to at least understand the need to consider (even if not necessarily approve) the other point of view as well.

During the game players failed both times and both times the war went on as no satisfactory agreement was reached. But this failure brought the best insight as they had experienced first hand how easy it was to ignore opposing points of view and that even simple questions about the other side intent weren’t considered.

A good debriefing (originally thought to last 30-40 minutes, but which instead lasted almost 1 hour more due to interest) brought out some of the main basic points from crisis resolution: the concept of BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement) and the “three tensions” (creating value vs distributing value, empathy vs assertiveness, principals vs agents), with real life examples (North Korea-USA now, Egypt-Israeli negotiation over the Sinai in the late 1970s) being used to show how what they played would transfer to the real world.

During the first game, near the end, two players from Cortia (after asking me for permission) decided negotiations were going nowhere, faked throwing a grenade at the table and said “we attack while negotiations go on to get what we want”! To the astonishment of all other players, both friends and foe. This, too, provided good insight during the debriefing.

I feel crisis simulations like this one are good for training and educational purposes because they put participants (even non-professional ones) into roles they normally don’t fill and let them experience some of the issues and questions they face. This gives a deeper insight on real world dynamics and a better understanding of the decision-making process of “the opposing side” as well as their own. Sceanrios can be made simple or complex depending on which aspects should be taught and the experience of participants. For inexperienced ones, fictional countries are easier to use as they don’t require prior knowledge of real situation. For professional participants, real crises (or fictional ones that mirror real ones more closely) can be used.

Participant numbers are something to keep in mind. Originally thought for max 15 people, I had 21 the first day due to a large group asking to participate at last minute. On the other hand I had 6 participants the second day.  A large group can bring more richness, but without proper space can be hard to manage and some players may feel not involved. The smaller group was easier to handle and if enough referees are available, larger groups could be divided into more parallel games running at once – and then use the opportunity to compare results, strategies, etc. Still, both groups brought interesting discussion during debriefing.

The game was played in the open central square, and people stopped to look at the simulation curious about what we were doing. Some of them stayed for the whole game, including an Italian former Defence Minister (can’t disclose the name) who after the game asked for more info about the methodology used.

Was the workshop a success? I received good feedback, even some days later. One email I received probably summed it up: “I really wanted to thank you again because the workshop spurred a good and rich debate among our group even after the end”.

I feel that when players continue to talk positively about it even later, or continue to discuss the issue because they felt engaged and challenged, probably it’s a good sign.

Lorenzo Nannetti  

Diplomatic challenges in the South China Sea

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On September 20, some of the PAXsims crew (Tom Fisher and I) ran a full-day foreign policy game at the Canadian Foreign Service Institute, exploring economic opportunities and diplomatic challenges in the South China Sea. In many ways, however, the topic and region was a secondary consideration: the primary purpose of the event was to examine how serious games could contribute to both diplomatic training and to foreign policy analysis within Global Affairs Canada and beyond. More than two dozen officials from GAC, the Department of National Defence, and Defence Research and Development Canada took part.

None of this report, nor the game play itself, should be seen in any way as representing the official position of the government of Canada—it was left entirely to us to design and run the game. Instead, the key issue here is one of evaluating gaming methodology.

Game Design

We decided at the outset that we wanted a game that would focus on the regular business of diplomacy, rather than being dominated by major crises or military confrontations. Crisis and warfare is actually easier to model in a game, and it is also much easier to maintain player engagement when participants are focused on blowing each other up. Here, however, we would have long (six month) turns, and many foreign policy initiatives would be mundane things like trade talks, ministerial visits, coast guard patrols, and development initiatives. At the recent Connections UK professional wargaming conference, one panelist had commented that the problem with gaming foreign policy is that “foreign ministries don’t actually do anything.” He was being a little too cynical I think, but was also highlighting that diplomacy is as much or more about cultivating and maintaining long-term relationships as it is about achieving immediate, focused objectives. How could we reflect that in a workable game, one that challenged players to explore ways of gaining a diplomatic edge, advancing national interests, and (to quote the phrase much beloved of middle powers such as Canada) “punch above their weight” in international relations?

As a further complication, I very much wanted trade and investment to be an important part of game play, but in a way that highlighted Western businesses as largely autonomous, profit-seeking entities—actors that are certainly happy to win the support of governments, but are ultimately trying to maximize the return on their investments. As one of my wargaming colleagues noted, we were trying to put an thinking, self-interested E (economic) back into DIME (diplomatic/information/military/economic).

In the end, we decided to use a modified matrix game. Most game components were produced using the Matrix Game Construction Kit (MaGCK). A large map in the centre of the room depicted the South China Sea and surrounding area, including various disputed maritime boundaries, key outposts in the Spratly Islands and elsewhere, and major offshore oil resources.

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Seven countries were represented in the game, each played by a three-person team: China, the United States, Japan, Canada, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Each could take one action per turn. However, teams also started with several diplomatic, economic, and military bonuses, represented in this case by cards. A single card could be spent to secure a +1 modifier to a matrix argument (or impose a -1 modifier on someone else’s argument), or multiple cards could be spent to secure an extra action that turn. This is essentially the same system outlined in the MaGCK User Guide (although we used cards rather than tokens), and it has the advantage that it enables flexible and creative gameplay without bogging the game down in complex mechanisms. Players could receive new bonus cards at various points for foreign policy achievements.

In addition to the state actors, we also had one player representing “global (Western) trade and investment,” and another representing “Chinese trade and investment.” Both had a hand of trade and investment cards, each outlining a sector and potential project, the company concerned, and the sorts of factors that would determine its success. The global player’s cards also noted the nationality of the company. These cards were played as matrix actions, and the profitability of the investment was a function of the success of the associated matrix argument. This created an incentive to place investments carefully, and to seek supportive conditions—perhaps local tax breaks, or business reforms, or synergies with other projects, or diplomatic support. We kept a “market share” score to encourage a competitive spirit.

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There was one key difference between the global and Chinese investors, however: the latter were also part of the Chinese team. Certainly, they wanted to make the best business moves possible—but they also were expected to advance foreign policy objectives to a certain degree, including China’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy to secure trade routes, markets, and natural resources. This provided an extra instrument to Chinese foreign policy, although at times it also seemed a constraint on effective Chinese overseas investment.

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A final element of the game were the news reports at the start of each turn. This consisted on a major news item (such as commodity price changes, an oil spill in disputed waters, or a destructive typhoon), plus several minor stories. Included with this inject was a reward for effective diplomacy: for example, a bonus to the team that had most strengthened its maritime claims, or which had achieved the greatest diplomatic success last turn.  Where necessary, the group of senior game observers acted as the jury in deciding who should be rewarded and why. The game covered two and a half years, from late 2017 into early 2020—not entirely coincidentally, the years immediately prior to the recent DIRE STRAITS megagame at Connections UK.

One of our biggest worries in all this was the timing. We had seven teams, plus two other players. Nine actors are certainly more than I would usually recommend in a matrix game. To keep everything on time, and to get in a reasonable number of turns (five), we had to keep everyone on a tight schedule: 10 minute turns for China and the US, and 5 minutes for everyone else. Still, that also meant it would take an hour before a team would take its next turn. Would everyone get bored and tune out?

Game Play

As it turned out, we needn’t have worried. The players were superbly engaged—they quickly picked up on the matrix game method, were very active throughout each turn consulting with other teams, and very much embraced their roles.  It was all a lot of fun too.

As noted at the outset of this report, the actual gameplay cannot in any way be seen as representing any sort of official Canadian view of Southeast Asia—the players were all playing as individuals, not officials, and Tom and I were the ones who designed the game. However, it does give a good sense of how varied and interesting the unfolding narrative was. I was particularly impressed with the way all the teams employed the various tools of modern diplomacy to advance their interest.

China slowly extended its influence, largely through economic means. They also significantly enhanced their ability to offer humanitarian assistance in the region, setting up a regional crisis centre—a move intended to also project greater Chinese influence. Although the United States viewed Beijing as an emerging regional competitor, the subtlety of Chinese diplomacy meant that there was little they could do to counter its influence. They fostered good relations with all local countries (especially Malaysia), and at the end of the game (with the Trump Administration facing growing political problems at home) they launched a series of countermeasures against alleged unfair Chinese trading practices. Japan exerted considerable economic influence by virtue of its aid, trade, and investment in the region, as well as its not-inconsiderable military resources. However, they were well aware of the dangers of being too assertive, and generally focused on reassuring others while subtly promoting their own economic interests. Canada had much fewer diplomatic resources to bring to bear, but did well in promoting commercial opportunities and fostering innovative partnerships.

The various ASEAN countries represented the game all pursued rather different strategies, but all were successful in their way. Vietnam engaged in major reform efforts: first a major anti-corruption drive, and later a move to reduce government red tape. This made it an even more attractive destination for foreign investment. While much of that investment was Western, it was open to Chinese investment too, despite its trepidation over Chinese claims in the South China Sea. By contrast, the Philippines undertook few reforms—on the contrary, a tough anti-drug campaign raised growing human rights concerns. However, they were prepared to wheel and deal with anyone, and cultivated the growing power of China as well as traditional ally the United States. Manila and the Hanoi also agreed on a joint fisheries protection regime that was aimed at countering overfishing but which also subtly pressed back against some Chinese maritime claims. Malaysia suffered an ISIS terror attack early in the game, and thereafter took several measures to enhance its security, including deeper intelligence cooperation with the US and further naval modernization (which the US supported too).

Finally, our global and Chinese investors were very active. In the end, the former came out slightly ahead—in part due to a major sale of US armoured vehicles to the Philippines, which turned down an offer of comparable (or even slightly better) Chinese equipment.

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The real proof of concept from this pilot project will be if the participants and observers found it of value. I think it was pretty easy to demonstrate the value of this type of game as an educational and training tool. As a mechanism for policy analysis and development, however, the test is a little harder. The very general topic and long time frame probably didn’t help in that regard—it is easier to show analytical payoffs with a more focused topic, such as with the ISIS CRISIS series of matrix games. Nonetheless, I do think the event clearly demonstrated that games can be used to encourage innovative thinking, challenge conventional wisdoms, crowd-source ideas, anticipate possible responses, explore second and third order effects, and generally approach policy questions from a new and interesting perspective. Certainly, the feedback to date has been very positive.

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