PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: gray zone

Simulation and gaming miscellany, International Tabletop Day 2017 edition

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Geek & Sundry has declared April 29 to be International Tabletop Day, and we at PAXsims are happy to celebrate the occasion with some recent items on conflict simulation and serious (or not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to our readers.

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How might Brexit negotiations go? Back in January 2016, Open Europe “wargamed” possible British-EU negotiations. According to the The Economist:

…the second part of the war games, a mock-up of how the EU would respond to a vote for Brexit, was worse. Lord Lamont, a former Tory chancellor of the exchequer representing Britain, argued that an “amicable divorce” was in everybody’s interests. Britain could negotiate a trade deal similar to Canada’s, liberating it from EU rules, including free movement of people. He even volunteered to pay something into the EU budget.

Yet other countries were unimpressed. John Bruton, a former prime minister representing Ireland, said Brexit would be seen as an “unfriendly act” and would threaten the peace process in Northern Ireland (Enda Kenny, Ireland’s real prime minister, made a similar point after meeting Mr Cameron on the same day). Steffen Kampeter, a former deputy finance minister representing Germany, said Britain would not be allowed to cherry-pick the benefits of membership without the costs. Mr de Gucht noted that a new trade deal would be negotiated by the European Commission and national governments with minimal British input. He and others added that they would try to shift Europe’s financial centre from London.

The starkest warning came from Leszek Balcerowicz, a former deputy prime minister representing Poland. He said the priority would be to deter populists in other countries who wanted to copy Brexit. For this reason Britain would be punished by its partners even if that seemed to be against their interests. Mr Cameron’s negotiations may be hard, but they are a picnic compared with what he would face were he to lose his referendum.

Earlier this year, students at the Blavatnik School of Government (University of Oxford) also conducted a Brexit simulation:

In our simulation, British negotiators successfully deployed “divide and conquer” tactics, particularly when individual member states became sympathetic to the UK’s domestic constraints and frustrated with the slow pace of talks. Michel Barnier and the European Commission were at their most effective when they framed issues through the indivisibility of the “four freedoms”. However, when it became apparent member states were willing to forgo freedom of movement, EU leverage was sharply diminished.

The participants in our simulation recognised the close economic relationship between the EU and the UK. On finance and the City, discussions centred on how to make “equivalence” work post-Brexit, with some creative proposals to sidestep the ECJ. However, in trade the UK quickly announced its decision to step out of both the Single Market and the Customs Union, leaving detailed negotiations for a future FTA until after Brexit.

Despite this mutual reliance, the Brexit talks might still shift to a game in which the two players seek to inflict pain on one another. In part this is because preserving the EU is seen to require a demonstration that leaving the club comes at a significant economic price, even though this would leave both worse off than under the status quo.

You can find additional discussion of classroom simulation of Brexit negotiations at the Active Learning in Political Science blog.

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NASAGA (the North American Simulation and Gaming Association) has podcasts! The latest edition by Sonya and Nicholas Wolfram explores “designed and emergent narrative” in game design.

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Following the US decision to respond to Syrian chemical weapon use at Khan Shaykhun with a punitive strike on April 7 against a Syrian air base, the always-interesting Red Team Journal used the event to highlight the importance of “Asking the Right Questions (Before and After).” In doing so, they noted the potential contribution of red teaming methodologies.

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You’ll find their full discussion here.

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At Small Wars Journal, Spencer B. Meredith III recently discussed “Reclaiming Strategic Initiative in the Not-So-Gray Zone: Winning Big Conflicts Inside Small Ones.” In the article he has some very positive things to say about the value of wargames and other simulations:

The first example occurred during a recent US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) Senior Leader Seminar looking at competition short of armed conflict. Framed as a wargame, this seminar simulated several scenarios where traditional power politics and violent extremism collided. Participants were asked to dig deeply into the underlying causes of threats, and how perceptions shape everything from core interests to immediate grievances. Yet the event did much more than explain why stability is so elusive, and peace even more so. It also raised several key areas where the United States and its partner nations can mutually support each other.

One centrally important area is in building responsive governance. The notion rests on several claims, foremost that nations and the governments that govern them need not homogenize their interests, to say nothing of values, in order to cooperate. This pragmatism stands in contrast to nearly three decades of idealistic foreign policy that claimed the universality of certain collective goods, but which really defined them along a US-centric vision of what they needed to look like, even when the substance was foreign to the nations being “helped”. This idealistic vision took many forms, from economic liberalization that forced developing markets open through IMF austerity measures; to military imposition of democracy in places that had neither centralized governance capacity, nor the social consensus to build it; to more recent social reengineering to fit a narrow vision of Western pluralism. All have run headlong into local values, competing national interests, and ultimately, contending visions of what the global order should look like and what leadership among peer and near-peer rivals can realistically be.

Responsive governance also requires that states establish and defend parameters for public debate. Yet like pragmatism, this does not have to mean democracy in any particular form. NATO partner nations have a range of electoral systems that speak to a variety of cultural, historical, and normative differences about who should govern, how, and under what constraints. By relying on the core concept of responsivity, rather than the vastly over-used “democracy”, the analytical frameworks expressed in the USSOCOM event have traction within solid scholarly research, and equally important, with buy-in from partner nations on whom the United States will continue to rely and give support.

There is particular praise for a series of simulations designed and run by the ICONS Project:

Administered for the Joint Staff SMA program, the University of Maryland runs a series of simulations designed to provide short, sharp scenarios that evolve over multiple iterations. Harnessing real-world events and massaging them into realistic near-term future situations, the ICONS project (International Communication & Negotiation Simulations) brings together subject matter experts to play various roles in real-time, web-based engagements. Several lessons emerge from the simulations. The most important are the complexity of the problems each party faces, and the battle for strategic initiative as more ebb and flow than a sole power defending against all comers. These perspectives provide vital reminders for both academia and practitioners with our respective checklists for analyzing the “facts on the ground”. In addition, the potency for non-state spoilers remains incredibly high, higher than a cursory glance of the configuration of forces would otherwise reveal. Much like small parties in coalition political systems that can swing the balance of power either way, non-state proxies can serve as force multipliers for larger states, as much as independent agents seeking their own highest good at the expense of others. The ICONS simulations highlight these challenges, while providing avenues for practical courses of action for the United States and its partners of concern.

I don’t doubt the value of ICONS simulations—they’re excellent. However I’ll admit to a certain degree of cynicism about the conceptual utility of “grey zones”—that messy area, short of full-scale armed conflict, where politics, diplomacy, social and economic economic forces, covert action, and violence interact. Specifically:

  1. It has always been thus. Pretty much the entire history of European colonial expansion involved all that stuff, for example. Supposed civil society actors (the Royal Geographical Society) working in hand with national governments! Foreign “volunteer” troops in local wars! Bribery! Subsidies for friendly potentates and warlords! Piracy! Local alliances! Powerful social and economic forces! Trade agreements as an instrument of national power! It’s all so new.
  2. The notion of grey zones risks becoming the self-licking ice cream cone of national security discourse, where people eagerly frame things as “grey zone” aggression when they actually have far more prosaic explanations. This was certainly one of the accidental findings of last year’s Atlantic Council simulation on conflict in the Gulf.
  3. The rest of us call this “political science.”
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Russian “little green men” caught in the act of gray/grey zone conflict Crimea? No, this is the British East India Company in Madras. Their British officers and advisors declined to be painted, citing operational security.

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Noise in the gray zone: more findings from an Atlantic Council crisis simulation

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Today I made a presentation to members of a US Department of Defense Strategic Multi-Layer Assessment group that is exploring so-called “gray zone” conflict, drawing upon some insights generated by the June 2016 Atlantic Council crisis simulation on US engagement in the Middle East. According the working definition used by the SMA team, the “gray zone” can be understood in the following terms:

The Gray Zone is a conceptual space between peace and war, occurring when actors purposefully use multiple elements of power to achieve political- security objectives with activities that are ambiguous or cloud attribution and exceed the threshold of ordinary competition, yet fall below the level of large-scale direct military conflict, and threaten US and allied interests by challenging, undermining, or violating international customs, norms, or laws

The Atlantic Council game was intended to examine US policy and regional stability, not “gray zone” conflict per se. Nonetheless, the participants certainly made use of myriad methods-other-than-(open) war: terrorism, support for armed non-state groups, cyber attacks, weapons-smuggling, information and influence campaigns, and so forth.

After a brief summary of the Atlantic Council game design and outcomes, I made several key points:

  • The parties were prone to interpret background conflict “noise”—accidents, actions by third parties—as deliberate “gray zone” warfare by a regional adversary. In the case of the Atlantic Council game, a car-bomb attack against the Iranian Embassy in Beirut was widely seen by the Iranian team as Saudi-backed revenge for Iranian actions in Syria (in fact, the Saudis were not involved in the attack, which was conducted by Syrian jihadists), while a clash between Iranian and KSA naval forces in the Gulf was viewed by both sides as a deliberate provocation by the other (whereas it was simply the accidental result of aggressive maritime maneuvering in disputed waters by local naval commanders).
  • Although the parties sometimes used “gray zone” activities to intimidate, deter, or otherwise signal their adversaries, those signals were often poorly understood—in part because signalling is often misunderstood in contexts of tension and conflict, but also because of the very ambiguity of such actions.
  • Routine actions were often reinterpreted in light of other developments. In the Atlantic Council game, for example, rising Saudi-Iranian tensions led the former to view the latter as upping the stakes in Yemen, while the latter was largely continuing on a business-as-usual basis in terms of moderate levels of support for the Houthi rebels.
  • Third parties often sought to further muddy the waters through actions in the “gray zone” intended to manipulate the perceptions of key actors. In the Atlantic Council game, for example, the ISIS team was happy to escalate Sunni-Shiite tensions so as to encourage greater Saudi-Iranian confrontation.
  • The very moral and legal ambiguity of the “gray zone” contributes to problems of threat perception and assessment. The US and Gulf teams regarded stepped-up support for Syrian opposition forces as a legitimate way of countering aggressive Iranian ambitions. By contrast, the Iranian team considered themselves as a status quo power, supporting a longstanding Syrian ally threatened by illegal, externally-backed subversion and insurgency.

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I’m not a big fan of the “gray zone” concept, partly because I think it is so ambiguous, and partly because I think it simply describes a quite common aspect of statecraft and conflict rather than anything strikingly new. Viewing the Atlantic Council game through the “gray zone” lens generated another insight, however: the very real danger that paradigms create their own reality, and may serve to frame events in ways that distort their actual causes, intentions, and implications. Rather like looking for monsters under your bed at night, it is all too easy to misperceive the shadows of the so-called “gray zone”—all the more so because some of them actually are monsters.

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You’ll find the full set of slides from my presentation here.

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