Amy Zegart

The Fog of War Game

One-hundred sixty Stanford undergrads take on Iran.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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.

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.

 Twitter: @AmyZegart

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