Stephen M. Walt

‘It’s only a game’ — really!

A week ago I had the opportunity to participate in a one-day simulation of the broad international effort to address Iran’s nuclear program, sponsored by Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. The participants were divided into various teams (the United States, EU, Russia, China, Iran, Israel, and a “GCC” team representing other Persian ...

Delegates and ambassadors to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) attend an informal IAEA meeting in Vienna on September 22, 2009. AFP PHOTO/Joe KLAMAR (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)

A week ago I had the opportunity to participate in a one-day simulation of the broad international effort to address Iran’s nuclear program, sponsored by Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. The participants were divided into various teams (the United States, EU, Russia, China, Iran, Israel, and a “GCC” team representing other Persian Gulf states), along with a control team that supervised events (and played the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency). Several prominent journalists observed the proceedings and were also available to “leak” information to. The simulation was designed to begin on Dec. 1, 2009 and cover the next twelve months, and various teams were able to negotiate face-to-face (bilaterally or multilaterally), move military forces around, issue press releases, make back-channel offers, etc.; in short, they could undertake virtually any action that might have been possible in the real world.

The result, as has already been reported, was discouraging: by the end of the game, Iran hadn’t agreed to halt enrichment, the P5+1 coalition was collapsing, and the United States and Israel were having what could politiely be called a “candid and frank exchange of views.” The sole piece of good news was that there had been no recourse to military force by the time the game ended.

Several participants have recently published their own “take-aways” from the experience, which they appear to have found sobering. Writing in the Washington Post, David Ignatius (who was one of the journalists in attendance) suggested that although it was only a simulation, the game nonetheless “revealed some important real-life dynamics-and the inability of any diplomatic strategy, so far, to stop the Iranian nuclear push.” The head of the “Iranian team,” former NSC aide Gary Sick, has offered reflections of his own in a recent piece in The National, noting that “By the end of the game, the Americans had driven away all their ostensible allies, and wasted immense time and effort, while Iran was better off than it had been at the beginning.” Sick also suggests that “the moves of the US team were quite similar to the strategy actually employed by the United States over the course of the last three administrations.”

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience but drew a different set of conclusions from it.  (I was on the U.S. team, and was assigned the role of SecDef Robert Gates). My conclusion at the end of the game was that one could draw no firm conclusions from the experience, and my principal concern was that participants would be tempted to do just that.

In my view, what one might call the “external validity” of the game was limited by three unrealistic features.

First, the timetable of the game was extremely compressed. In effect, we were trying to simulate a full year of negotiations in a mere six hours. Thus, each hour of the game covered two months, which meant that a team could send a message to another team and receive a reply in due course, only to discover that a month or more had passed and the original message was now effectively obsolete. More to the point, the breakneck pace of the game did not allow for any time for reflection, for the weighing of alternatives, or even the formulation of clear or novel strategies. (Each team was given about twenty-five minutes to plan its approach before the game began, and I like to think U.S. leaders do a bit better than that in real life. Heck, Obama just spent several months deciding what to do in Afghanistan). Yes, time is a precious commodity and policymakers are often forced to juggle multiple commitments, but I believe a more realistic timetable would have produced very different results. 

Second, trying to simulate a complex multiparty negotiation with four or five-person “teams” was problematic, particularly when some team members (myself included), had to leave the game temporarily to teach their regular classes. This constraint required me to be absent for 90 minutes, which in terms of the game’s timetable meant that the U.S. Secretary of Defense was effectively incommunicado for three “months.” The same problem sidelined the person who played the Secretary of State for a similar period. Moreover, given that team members had no staff and thus no subordinates to give orders to, there was no one to delegate to and it was impossible to conduct continuous consultations with all of the relevant parties, even when both sides may have wanted to. What must have looked to some like Bush-era “unilateralism” was instead simply an unavoidable artifact of the game’s structure.

Third, the composition of the different teams was unavoidably slanted. The U.S., Russian, Chinese, Iranian teams were all populated with and led by Americans, while the Israeli team was made up entirely of Israelis and the EU team was composed of Europeans. To have confidence in the validity of the results, therefore, you have to assume that each of the teams actually played the way that their real-life counterparts would have. That might be true in the case of the U.S., Israeli, and European teams (though I wouldn’t assume it), but it’s obviously more of a stretch with the others.

These difficulties are not the fault of the game’s organizers, who faced obvious constraints in putting the exercise together. Ideally, such a simulation would have been played over a long week-end and covered a shorter time period, but it would have been far more difficult to assemble an equally impressive array of participants for an entire weekend. Putting together a genuinely multi-national participant list (including appropriate Iranians?), would have been even harder if not impossible.  

The bottom line is that one ought to be exceedingly wary about drawing any conclusions about what this artificial exercise actually teaches. To me, its real value is not as a crude crystal ball that allows us to divine the future, or even as an analytical device that helps us identify particular barriers to resolving some thorny diplomatic problem. After all, it’s not exactly headline news to discover that resolving the Iranian nuclear issue isn’t easy, that there are certain tensions within the P5+1, or that Iran’s objectives are at odds with those of the other participants. 

Rather, the potential value of such an exercise lies in forcing participants to take on different roles and see how a problem looks from a wholly different perspective. With hindsight, I wish we had mixed things up a lot more: with some Israelis on the Iran team, with real Russians, Chinese or EU citizens playing on the U.S. or Israeli side, and so forth. That might have taught us about some of the sources of misunderstanding that have made this issue so hard to resolve, whatever the actual “outcome” of the game might have been. 


Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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