The crises are imaginary, the diplomacy lessons real
MEDFORD, MASS. — A quick glance around the world will teach aspiring diplomats that their career paths may well lead right to the center of a fast-breaking crisis.
But put together events like civil war in Nigeria, the threat of nuclear attack from Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein, and sparring between France and the US over oil in West Africa, and even the most committed internationalist might have second thoughts.
Learning to confront multiple high-stakes emergencies was all part of a simulation that kept grad students busy over a weekend this fall at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass. The exercise gave students hands-on experience with modern diplomacy. Even as they read about the violence erupting in the Middle East and watch the cautious reengagement of North Korea from a safe distance, students are able to put to the test important decisionmaking and negotiation skills.
"Simulex" places real countries in imaginary scenarios that highlight contemporary international issues. The students' goal is to avoid conflict - and students use political and economic methods of persuasion in addition to the threat of military intervention. Whether it means mobilizing domestic public opinion or enforcing economic tariffs, students find that a demonstration of force can take form in a variety of ways.
"There is a tremendous value in sensitizing students to the constraints of decisionmaking in a crisis," says Dr. Robert Pfaltzgraff, professor of security studies who's run the simulation for more than 20 years. It can offer an education that reaches well beyond the classroom, he notes.
Simulex maintains its relevance by relying on realistic scenarios. These usually attempt to re-create familiar situations, but not necessary imitate real life - although Simulex 1989 predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall one week before it actually collapsed.
This year's simulation centered around an internal crisis in the African state of Nigeria, a departure from previous years, when Asia and the Middle East have been a focus.
"Security studies can barely locate Africa on the map," explains Elaine French, one of the scenario writers. In part, she explains, that's because Africa confronts "softer" security issues - though significant ones - like small-arms proliferation, internal war, limited conflict, HIV/AIDS, famine, drug trafficking, and humanitarian emergencies.
Scenario writers drew from their experiences in Africa. Roy Adkins was a Peace Corps volunteer in Congo-Brazzaville; Chris Maier is a former intelligence analyst for the West Africa Region; and Elaine French worked for a think tank in South Africa. They spent eight months writing the scenario, including parts that escalate conflict, and intelligence reports for the teams.
Their experience and research suggested they not only use Africa, but specifically Nigeria as the center of the conflict. Besides being the most populous country in Africa, Nigeria has a history of military coups, large religious and ethnic differences, oil interests, and defense contracts and military training programs from the US. It also has maritime and land disputes still pending with Cameroon and Guinea in the International Court of Justice.
Fletcher's Simulex is managed by a "Control Team." Acting as "God and nature," it serves as both umpire and information resource during the weekend-long exercise. This group also represents governments not involved in the simulation, as well as public opinion and the national intelligence capabilities for both teams. Participants are often frustrated to learn when their team's covert activities are "leaked" by Control to others.
Students gave the experience high marks.
"If you are an American interested in security studies and doing foreign-policy work," says Alex Thier, Simulex's Nigerian insurgency force leader, "there is nothing more valuable than having to put yourself in somebody else's shoes."
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