PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

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  

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