Last year, in the middle of our Iran simulation, the faculty leaked intelligence imagery showing additional suspected nuclear sites in Iran. This year we interrupted the simulation with a North Korean nuclear test, just days before the real Kim Jong-Un authorized one. In one of my earlier U.S. crisis simulations, the computer equipment broke in the middle of a PowerPoint briefing to the "President," played by UCLA Chancellor Al Carnesale. In another, students learned that the United States had just captured a suspected terrorist in Afghanistan and had to decide whether to authorize the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques." Unlike the movies, it was wildly uncertain what this man knew or whether torture would elicit anything useful. This year our Iranian and North Korean delegations took it upon themselves to hack into country email accounts and send fake classified communications that pitted the Russian and Chinese delegations against each other. Talk about surprises.
One of my former students calls these the "Oh, shit" moments of a simulation. Facts fade from memory, but "Oh, shit" moments seem to last forever, judging from the responses I got. Nearly every student who took my simulation more than a decade ago said (some more tactfully than others) that they didn't remember a single thing from my class except the "Oh, shit" moments and how they handled them. That painful silence, that moment where you are feeling overwhelmed by information and pressure, when things are going awry, when you are confronting tough moral choices and don't know how it all ends -- this is the stuff of life, not just national security. But because simulations are not real life, students are often far more open to learning how to test-drive their coping skills.
3. The Fun Factor
Let's face it. Ruling the world, even a simulated one, is really fun. And fun is the best doorway to learning. When Martha Crenshaw and I actively advertised the Iran simulation this year, course enrollment tripled. About 40 percent of our students come from majors that may surprise you -- everything from computer science (which explains the hacking), human biology, English, mechanical engineering, and classics. Fun is what draws students to try their hand at something new. Fun is what rivets their attention to the speaker instead of their Facebook page. It's what fosters new relationships, class camaraderie, better discussions, and I hope a lifelong interest in international relations. And it's what convinces a dozen faculty to devote extraordinary energy to a weekend exercise that promises only pizza and a U.N. water bottle thank you gift.
One current student summed up her simulation experience this way:
The UNSC simulation was the most exciting academic experience I've ever had the pleasure of being a part of....I can't remember the last time I eagerly engaged in challenging, research-based discussion and debate with such a wide range of people. If every course had such a creative way to integrate material, I'm certain that there would be an exponential increase in both learning and passion.
And I didn't pay her to say it. Honest.
As universities rush into online education, they also need to continue looking for ways to innovate in the physical classroom. In the online craze, face-to-face interaction is increasingly seen as an inefficient drain on productivity and knowledge diffusion. Maybe it is. But it's also the key to successful collaboration and negotiation. Foreign-policy makers have known this forever. It's why Benjamin Franklin traveled all the way to Paris to win French support for the American Revolution, why Nixon met Mao in Beijing instead of just sending him a cable, and why Hillary Clinton traveled more than any other secretary of state in history even though she could tweet like nobody's business. Why do foreign and business leaders with all the wonders of the Internet at their fingertips still travel the globe to sit in windowless meeting rooms? Because that's how they generate new ideas, develop relationships, and hammer shit out.
Foreign-policy making is a contact sport. Universities need to do more and think harder about new ways of teaching students the full array of analytic and interpersonal skills they need to succeed at it. A good place to start is one simulation at a time.