Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

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?


5 responses to “An entirely different perspective

  1. Stephen Downes-Martin 03/01/2018 at 9:35 pm

    No, non-democracies will not try to avoid a challenge at all costs. They ruthlessly confront and smash those challenges at massive cost. Examples include this week’s news from Iran, past Iranian handling of challenges, Tiananmen square, Czechoslovakia, Syria, and so on. Whether they are ultimately successful is up for debate, as is the question whether liberal democracy is the end-state of human society.

  2. Anja van der Hulst 22/12/2017 at 6:36 am

    To Stephens first comment – Non-democracies will try to avoid a challenge to a status quo at all cost. The status quo that is exclusionary and unequal for Arab women has led them to act out in revolutionary ways that were unheard of prior to the Arab Uprisings from 2010 and further. The mobilization and collective action came in the form of protest, confrontation, and speaking out against injustices. Women sought to gain access to the decision-making process and power. For example, in Yemen, when women were told by their President that it was “un-Islamic for male and female protesters to march side by side, women took to the streets just to prove him wrong and challenge cultural traditional Islamic norms. Arab women in Egypt engaged in protests in Tahrir Square to fight for their status as women despite being fought and cleared out by army officers.

    These uprisings affected geo-politics and yes, the outcomes have been disastrous and for now women may be worse of. It doesn’t mean that in the long run they won’t be able to break the status quo and have a seat at the table and forward their interests.

    Quotes from:

  3. Stephen Downes-Martin 20/12/2017 at 11:09 am

    The exercise was a great idea. Take a position on the extreme edge (NOTE – NOT an “extreme position”) and see what can be done within the constraints. This fits the AI research into heuristics by Doug Lenat during the 80’s. His research indicated best results are gained NOT at the edge or some balanced central position, but at the points just inside and away from the edge. So past resesrch indicates that policies of unilateral disarmament etc should be leavened with small selected breaks from those policies.

    I hope that future exercises explore the space just inside the boundary introduced by this one … versus a nuclear power dictatorship willing to use and threaten the use of nukes BUT whose policies are also leavened by small responses to diplomacy and other acts by their targets.

  4. Stephen Downes-Martin 20/12/2017 at 10:52 am

    “Sometimes counter-intuitive strategy will work the best” does not contradict “Often counter-intuitive strategy will be disastrous”.

    The question arises “to whom is it counter intuitive?”

    I do not know the statistics of non-democracies giving in to opposition or demands from the female part of the population over geostrategic issues. Yes, Saudi Arabia has recently allowed women to drive … but Saudi engagement in Yemen continues.

  5. Natalia Wojtowicz 18/12/2017 at 3:46 am

    This is absolutely the high point of the simulations – allowing new strategies to come to life. We need to face the reality that old strategies have outlived their purpose. To improve, we need to consider that not only the parameters, but also initial assumptions can be changed. After all, sometimes counter-intuitive strategy will work the best.

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