Photo by Rod Searcey

Taking on a crisis (simulation) in the South China Sea

By Sam Wolfe, Stanford Class of ‘20

O n Feb. 10, 2017, the United Nations Security Council was advised of a collision between a U.S. Navy destroyer and a Chinese Navy vessel in the South China Sea, and the subsequent detainment of U.S. troops by the Chinese government. Trading in their T-shirts and shorts for pantsuits and ties, diplomats from around the world huddled in undisclosed locations to develop responses as the crisis unfolded.

Said Professor Amy Zegart, a Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) senior fellow who has been handling these crises for years, “There’s nothing that compares to experiencing the ‘Oh, shit’ moment.”

Thankfully, this one was merely a simulation, part of Zegart’s course titled “International Security in a Changing World.” Zegart is co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at FSI. Assuming the roles of ambassadors, political leaders and spokespeople, Stanford students negotiated their way through a volatile mass of international relationships for two days straight. With the assistance of former CIA acting director Michael Morell and former U.S. ambassador Nicholas Burns, who committed theatrically to their role-playing duties, students worked to compile information, determine strategies and push their nation’s interests forward.

Photo by Rod Searcey

The scenario, which twisted and turned as students were presented with further obstacles, was designed to be relevant but unpredictable, too. It tested students’ capacity to adapt to changing circumstances and required them to conduct deep research into both current and historical issues of national security.

The skills that they developed from doing so apply far beyond the realm of diplomacy. The students learned “how a crisis might evolve on its own and escalate into something far beyond the intentions of anyone, far beyond the intentions of the countries involved,” said Luis Rodriguez, a first-year doctoral candidate who played the president of Vietnam.

Zegart, co-director of FSI’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, was similarly effusive about the interdisciplinary power of the exercise. “We have a lot of students from computer science, engineering, MS&E [Materials Science and Engineering]. I think it’s great.” She stressed the relevance of international security to a variety of fields and the universal nature of the issues that students dealt with throughout the simulation. “I think every company needs a foreign policy today,” she said. “Especially if you’re working in the tech industry, if you’re working at Google or Facebook or Twitter. Guess what? Foreign policy is your day-to-day job. You just may not know it yet.”

Photo by Rod Searcey

The simulation did, of course, attract students passionate about international relations. Matthew Wigler, a sophomore studying political science, described himself as “tremendously interested in international security.” His role was to manage North Korea’s public affairs, a task that required him to take on an entirely foreign mode of communication.

“I’ve had to engross myself in the way that a North Korean press release would be stated,” Wigler explained. “There’s a lot of protocol, there’s a lot of procedure there. It was mesmerizing just pouring myself into this world, reading all these different Korean press releases, all these Korean policies, seeing the way they see themselves in relation to the world and how that gets expressed in the documents that they release to the public.”

When asked how the exercise compared to real-world diplomacy, Ambassador Burns was emphatic: “I think it’s a very well-framed simulation. It’s real to me… It shows you that in a real crisis there is often a lack of information or conflicting information, or, in our 21st-century world, fake information. You have to work hard to ascertain the facts of a situation before you can act.”

Photo by Rod Searcey

Former CIA acting director Morell, meanwhile, sank his teeth into the role of President Trump, sending out “tweets” to the participants that played into real-time negotiations, commenting that “China attacked our ship” and also noting, “Our brave sailors defended themselves or they would have been hostages too. China is out of control.”

One particularly revealing chapter of the simulation was the press conference, in which public affairs representatives from each country had to field questions from a mock press corps made up of faculty. Ambassador Burns, acting as a journalist, pressured students about the “outbreak of neutrality” that saw traditional allies of the United States refuse to take sides in the dispute. The scrutiny was intense, but students worked hard to justify their country’s behavior and offer paths forward.

The final result was mixed: The detained U.S. troops were returned, but China vetoed the proposed resolution of a 120-day cooling-off period without any military vessels moving through the region. The result mirrored the compromises that characterize real-world international relations, agreed the simulation’s leaders and designers.

Photo by Rod Searcey

Ultimately, the event’s pedagogical value extended far beyond traditional teaching tools like lectures and seminars. “We can lecture students until we’re blue in the face about what it’s like to deal with uncertainty and information asymmetry,” Zegart said, but the simulation provided them something out of the ordinary, something “really fun. I think students just learn more when they’re having fun.”