Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 15/12/2017

An entirely different perspective


(photo Hester Rotgerink)

The following item was contributed by Dr. A.H. (Anja) van der Hulst, Senior Scientist Serious Gaming at TNO.


It’s 2.5 minutes to midnight. The Doomsday Clock is counting down. We are in Dr. Strangelove’s war-room, attempting to save the world from impending disaster. The setting is Aarhus, European Capital of Culture 2017, in a play “What if Women Ruled the World?” by Yael Bartana.

End of November, I had the honour to be part of the team of experts advising the all-female superpower government in this play.  Our government is elected on the basis of a policy of unilateral disarmament and non-proliferation. The population of our state had seen the wisdom of trying to end the endless arms race and instead had voted to spend their tax money on jobs and healthcare rather than on defence.

The play was an experimental format, basically a totally inverted re-enactment of Dr. Strangelove with an all-female government and, each night 5 female experts advising.  In my expert team; the first female general from Denmark, an anarchist from Iceland, a former member of the EU parliament who worked on the Iran nuclear deal, and a brilliant defence academic covering, amongst other things, the nuclear priesthood. Quite a few members of the crew and cast were from Israel, our Secretary of State was Palestinian.

It wasn’t the best of times for unilateral disarmament. It was a time of high tensions between the countries, our adversary a strong man leader of a super power.

Between rehearsals, sound checks and make-up, we debated intensely what would actually be our options in light of an enemy threat – given a policy of disarmament.

Then,  on stage, in front of the audience, we learnt that the adversary had broken a non-proliferation agreement and started to increase their nuclear stockpiles. What should we advise our government, should they continue to disarm and how to withhold our adversary from going all-out nuclear…

Everyone agreed we would never use nuclear weapons but there was disagreement about whether to continue with disarmament and rely on diplomacy or to suspend disarmament.

During the night, one of our allies came under serious threat of being targeted by our opponent’s nuclear missiles. Our policy of unilateral disarmament heavily reduced our options to retaliate, hence, we had given up on elements that could form a credible deterrence. We concluded that we would need to bring in international support to apply pressure and isolate our opponent and to use back channels to find out why our adversary was going on the offensive. But that would not be enough to stop him.

Obviously, one of the lines of strategizing could be to create a situation where an adversary doesn’t have to feel threatened anymore and might refrain from further activities to undermine our state and our allies and equally spend part of his defence budget on jobs, education and healthcare. Evidently, there was strong doubt whether our adversary would be receptive to a dovish narrative. So, one of the things we came up with was empowering the women in the adversary state to stand up.. In the spirit of  ‘most conflicts are more dangerous for women than for soldiers’ they would need to stand up against their own governments hawkish tendencies, rally to stop the arms race and to demand for investment in education and health care instead. Thus, cause quite some domestic turbulence and pressure. We estimated that our adversary might be much more scared of his own women rioting than of us.

Whether we actually managed to stop the doomsday clock, I doubt it. While our president was on the phone with the adversary, suddenly the lights went off and ….  Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’ started to play …….

Spending two days debating with teams of exceptionally bright experts, being forced to start from a fairly uncomfortable perspective of unilateral disarmament and to actually play the scenario out in the night on stage was quite some experience, not to say a transformative one.

In war gaming, we try to come up with smart, creative strategies, but in my experience, we never really change the basic premises. Evidently, I received a fair amount of comments stating this ‘women ruling’ would be ‘crap’, as would be the idea of unilateral disarmament. Yet, it fundamentally changed my way of thinking and it still does. Shouldn’t we be far more innovative in our conflict games by challenging our basic assumptions as well as biases. Rather than just riding the waves of the growing international tensions, shouldn’t we try to create strategies that actually allow the release of some of those tensions?


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