Two weeks ago, 160 of my Stanford students traded their flip-flops and iPhones for business suits and foreign identities to deal with Iran's nuclear crisis. Representing 23 countries and an international press corps, they spent 48 hours in a United Nations simulation -- haggling, coercing, leaking, reporting, drafting resolutions, objecting to resolutions, amending resolutions, cajoling, and colluding.
Stanford has gotten a lot of ink for pioneering online education. Less known but just as pioneering is the university's role in developing decidedly lower tech, in-the-flesh, international security simulations. Martha Crenshaw and I were the lucky inheritors of this particular international security course and its simulation, which was devised 16 years ago by our colleague Scott Sagan and has been frequently rated by students the highlight of their Stanford experience ever since. Sagan's simulation has plenty of company. Condi Rice began teaching simulations in her civil-military relations course nearly 20 years ago and ran four simulations this fall alone. Another colleague, Coit Blacker, routinely runs a simulation in his U.S. foreign policy seminar. Sagan's simulation has been exported to U.C. Berkeley, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, Reed, the University of Virginia, and Yaroslavl University in Russia.
In government, war games and "table top exercises" (for example: this one, this one, and this one) that simulate national security crises have been used for decades to test hypotheses, galvanize attention, understand bureaucratic myopia, see how strategic logic plays out, and hone perceptions of foreign adversaries and allies. The results are often illuminating and terrifying. In 1983, a war game against the Soviet Union called Proud Prophet used actual top secret U.S. war-fighting plans and secretly had Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John W. Vessey, Jr. and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger play themselves. "The result," recounts Paul Bracken, "was a catastrophe that made all the wars of the past five hundred years pale in comparison. A half billion human beings were killed in the initial exchanges and at least that many more would have died from radiation and starvation."
But what if you don't have gray hair, top secret war plans, positions of power, or 20 years of experience in the Beltway? What can undergraduates get out of simulations? I put these questions to my current class, some faculty colleagues, and former students who participated in simulations I conducted at UCLA from 1999-2011. Here are the top three things I found:
1. Analytic Calisthenics
Simulations make students walk in the shoes of others. It's one thing to read about China's national interests and historical ties with Iran; it's quite another to feel and live them -- to be put in the hot seat briefing Hu Jintao or answering hostile questions from other world leaders about why China insists on vetoing additional sanctions against Iran. There is nothing quite like role immersion to foster greater analytic flexibility and understanding. Given the prevalence of "mirror imaging" in U.S. policymaking -- where officials wrongly assume other countries see the world just as we do -- fostering greater analytic flexibility and understanding are no small things. Especially if it starts young.
I don't have any rigorous empirical data about how lasting these effects are. But here's what one former student emailed about her crisis simulation experience 13 years ago:
I remember thinking some of my peers had read similar material to me but being shocked at their interpretation. This happens with regularity [in my job now]....The difference is that I think I always anticipate their differing viewpoints and intentions, and simply avoid assuming they have seen things my way just because we have received the same information.
2. The Value of the "Oh Shit" Moment
Undergraduates are used to structure, certainty, and clarity. They like knowing exactly what is expected of them, and when. Who wouldn't? But the real world doesn't work that way. This is especially true in national security affairs, where intelligence is never clear, time is short, options are incomplete, allies and adversaries are constantly eyeing their own interests, and surprises are almost never the good kind. Simulations provide a low-risk environment to learn how to operate in conditions of rampant uncertainty, fluidity, self-interest, and duplicity -- with the clock ticking and everyone watching.