Students simulate arms-control talks

Award-winning political science professor provides real-world diplomacy lesson in course


Scott Sagan

Sometimes it's hard to discern fact from fiction in the world of international diplomacy, according to political science Professor Scott Sagan.

When students enrolled in the course International Security in a Changing World gathered for a three-day arms control simulation exercise last quarter, participants playing the role of the Chinese delegation always knew what the Taiwanese were up to, recalled sophomore Josh Sandberg. Only later was it revealed that the Chinese had stolen the password to the Taiwanese group's e-mail account and were secretly reading all its classified memoranda.

"The notion that one country would read another's country's mail is certainly more realistic than we think," Sagan said during a May 13 noontime talk as part of the "Award-Winning Teachers on Teaching" series. "Now we know from reports that the British were bugging [United Nations Secretary General] Kofi Annan's telephone" in the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

Sagan is co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at the Stanford Institute for International Studies (SIIS). In 1996, he received the Hoagland Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and, in 1998, the Humanities and Sciences Dean's Award for Distinguished Teaching.

During the talk, Sagan explained how he has used the simulation exercise for the last seven years to introduce students to real-world diplomacy. He teaches the course with SIIS Director Coit D. Blacker and SIIS Senior Fellow William Perry. The class, which attracts up to 200 students, includes sections on "Weapons of Mass Destruction," "Terrorism, "Civil Wars" and "U.S. Foreign Policy." Before the simulation exercise takes place, students research and write memoranda outlining the goals that should guide their assigned country's behavior, and what strategies their delegation should adopt to achieve its goals, Sagan said.

The exercise encourages students to learn about the nuclear weapons policies of the United States and other countries, and it teaches them to empathize, but not necessarily sympathize, with the views of other nations. By playing the role of delegation members from states ranging from North Korea and Russia to the United Kingdom, students learn to defend views that may be unfamiliar and possibly disagreeable to them, Sagan said. "How do you do that with a straight face with credibility?" he questioned.

Sagan said he tries to make the exercise, which takes place in Buildings 50 and 60, as realistic as possible. Students are required to dress formally and adopt the language and posture of diplomats during private negotiations and plenary meetings. "We have people do what they do in real sessions," he said. For example, "When the Taiwan representative [invited as a special observer] speaks, the entire Chinese delegation walks out of the room."

During this year's simulation at the end of January, students were told that the U.S. and British governments had called for an emergency conference on nuclear non-proliferation to be held at Stanford. Participants were advised: "Concerns about Libyan and Iranian compliance with international nuclear inspections, North Korea's active nuclear weapons program and alleged nuclear weapons commerce between Pakistan and members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are threatening the international non-proliferation regime as never before." Students were instructed to debate the future of the NPT and nuclear non-proliferation "at this moment of acute global crisis."

Sandberg, who played a member of the French delegation, said the exercise was intense but fun. "I had to make speeches on the spot and run around campus trying to talk to delegates," he said. "It felt real. People took this very seriously. It made it a lot more exciting."

Graduate student Todd Sechser, the course's head teaching assistant, said the simulation teaches students that ordinary logistics can lead to success or failure. "A lot of times, human elements either aid or interfere with the negotiations," he said. Sagan added that the most effective delegations are often those that come the best prepared. "The exercise gives the same human feeling of working under pressure and cutting deals with enormous uncertainty," he said. "Welcome to the real world."