Using Simulations to Teach International Relations

A separatist movement takes over an American-owned gas plant in an authoritarian Middle Eastern state. Pro-democracy activists take to the streets to protest a President’s decision to remove term limits. Nationalist fishermen attempt to evade Chinese warships to plant the Filipino flag on Scarborough Shoal. The UN Special Representative convenes a conference to negotiate a comprehensive peace for Syria. An earthquake in the Mediterranean precipitates a series of natural disasters impacting NATO members states. 

Multimedia ‘injects’ can be used to make scenarios ‘real’

Surrey students have dealt with each of these scenarios in roles as diplomats and national security officials. Simulations are an important teaching tool – they allow students to see events from the point of view of those tasked with responding to them. In International Relations, that often means taking on the roles of decisionmakers tasked with making life or death decisions, or seeing the world through the eyes of a country with which we may be unfamiliar, to help us understand how that state perceives is national interests and experiences domestic political pressures. Most importantly, simulations allow us to ground theoretical discussions of international cooperation and norms of conduct, in scenarios that test the limits of collective action when interests are at stake. 

Students participating in Model NATO

At Surrey we use such simulations on our International Relations courses at all levels. Undergraduates studying the behaviour of great powers will face of as US and Chinese officials to avoid war in a crisis that is spiralling out of control in the South China Sea. In November 2019, as part of NATO’s 75th anniversary summit in London, two delegations of Surrey students – representing the United States and France, no less – took part in a major crisis simulation in which the alliance’s major committees, chaired by diplomats with direct experience of working in the NATO bureaucracy, were commandeered to negotiate a common response.

Negotiation skills are essential for diplomacy simulations

On the MSc International Relations, students studying international intervention travel to Chatham House to simulate a meeting of the UN Security Council, and negotiate an authorisation for international intervention under the Responsibility to Protect. Students experience first-hand and in real-time what they’ve learned conceptually in class: the juxtaposition of state sovereignty and individual rights, the conflict between democratic and authoritarian polities over intervention, and the compromises inherent in a world of both values and interests. Later in the year, our Intervention Pathway students apply their understanding of the literature on post-conflict processes to try and solve the obdurate diplomatic problem of bringing sustainable peace to a country – Syria – that has been the site of not just civil war, but a civil war in which a host of international actors have had significant interests and involvement.

So simulations are an important teaching tool, which facilitate student learning by doing. Linked assessments such as policy papers and diplomatic cables bring a sense of realism to preparation and evaluation. Most importantly, simulations are fun, which makes for motivated and engaged students, who learn pretty quickly that events have a way of devouring even the best-laid plans, and that there’s always someone out there prepared to throw a spanner in the works.