Model Diplomacy: Smart, easy to use foreign policy simulations

Model Diplomacy is a series of free National Security Council simulations put out by the Council on Foreign Relations. Michelle used it in her class last year, and I decided based on her positive experience to try it in my intro to IR class this year.  In this post I’m going to explain the basics of Model Diplomacy, discuss my experience using it, and give my recommendation.  Spoiler Alert: I loved it.

All the simulations are structured the same way: students take on roles of the National Security Council, present their views on how to resolve a particular crisis on a contemporary issue of national security and under the direction of the National Security Advisor, try to convince the President to adopt their preferred options via debate with other members.  There is an optional second simulation where the students debate the issue again in the United Nations Security Council, representing countries instead of NSC members.

CFR has a pretty deep catalog of interesting cases available, almost all of them updated within the last couple of months (Global Climate Change Policy is the least recent, and yet has an update from 9 months ago).  The current crop of cases includes:

  • Dispute in the East China Sea
  • Unrest in Bahrain
  • Global Climate Change Policy
  • Drones in Pakistan
  • Humanitarian Intervention in South Sudan
  • Collapse in Venezuela
  • Interrogation Policy
  • Israeli-Palestinian Impasse
  • Economic Crisis in Europe
  • Russia and NATO in the Baltics
  • Boko Haram in Nigeria
  • Iran Deal Breach
  • Cyber Clash with China
  • North Korea Nuclear Threat

Each case includes a primer on the NSC, an extensive briefing on the case itself (the history and context, as well as a specific crisis scenario for the NSC to resolve), and additional videos and reading for follow-up research. Optional assessments are built into the system with rubrics, templates, and examples. These include short answer quizzes on the NSC and case primers, and position memos and policy review memos (the president turns in a presidential directive instead of a memo). There are also student and instructor manuals, a quick start guide, a guide for the supplementary UNSC simulation, and an overview of the NSC roles. These resources are very helpful in helping you and the students prepare for the simulation.

You can assign students specific roles in the NSC or leave them all as ‘general advisors’.  There are only about 14 roles built into the system, but you can customize new ones.  I would recommend assigning roles–they end up learning more about a particular agency and are in some cases forced to represent viewpoints other than their own.  It also ensures that a wide range of considerations–political, economic, diplomatic, legal, etc–are represented during the simulation.

The system is user-friendly.  You sign up as an instructor, pick your case (I let my students vote), and then have the system send email invites the students to register.  Once they do, you can assign them roles, which are then sent automatically to the students. The simulation is designed to be completed in a face-to-face classroom, but would easily work in an online environment either synchronously or asynchronously via message boards or social media.

So that’s the basic set up. Here’s how it worked in my class:

First, why did I decide to use Model Diplomacy? This was the 8 week version of my class, which meets once a week for 4 hours in the evening.  I usually reserve 30-45 minutes of that time for some kind of game or simulation.  In the 16 week version of the class I have my students play Diplomacy outside of class, turning in moves when they arrived in class. With only 8 meetings, that wasn’t possible–a standard full game of Diplomacy requires closer to 20-30 moves. I’ve had great experiences using Diplomacy to teach intro IR (Victor and I run workshops on using it, in fact) and didn’t want to lose it, so that meant using that reserved time for Diplomacy.  But practical concerns abounded. I didn’t want students to get bored with the game, and sometimes by the 6th or 7th move one or more countries are completely out of the running–meaning those students wouldn’t be active participants past the 3rd class.  I also wanted to have students write about the game, but try to avoid having papers due in the last week of class if at all possible, as they tend to have a ton of work due then.  So I decided to run Diplomacy in the first four class sessions only, with their papers due in Week 4.

That left three weeks to fill (week 5 being the midterm exam). I hit on Model Diplomacy as an option here–I’d wanted to try it for awhile, and this was a low-stakes commitment. I could give the students class time in weeks 6 and 7 to prepare, and then run the simulation in week 8.  Students voted on the case in Week 5 after the midterm (they chose Interrogation Policy), and I set up the simulation before Week 6’s class.  I assigned roles–luckily, with 14 students in this class, I did not have to double up roles or get creative with custom roles.  For role selection, they were asked to tell me if there was a particular role they wanted, and whether or not they were willing to serve as either the NSA or the President, as those roles are more challenging.  Every student except the President had to publicly post a policy memo on the case on Canvas, using the template and rubric provided on the Model Diplomacy site. The President instead writes a presidential directive, due after the simulation.  I also included the policy review memo as an essay assignment on their take home final exam.

We spent about an hour and 15 minutes on the simulation. I reviewed the basic three-part debate structure before we started–2 minutes each to present their initial positions, followed by discussion of the options–the risks, benefits, and limits–and then, clarification of specific actions as chosen by the president.  The student playing the NSA ran the meeting, with me sitting off to the side as the ‘Intern’.  Their requests for me to fetch them coffee were studiously ignored. I organized the room as a conference table, made placards for each student, and asked them to come professionally dressed, which only a handful failed to do.

The simulation succeeded beyond my expectations.  The students were on task, even with their technology out (something I usually ban in my classes).  All of them spoke in the initial sharing of their positions, and then all but 2 chimed in during the hour that followed, most of them many times.  The student playing the NSA did a brilliant job managing the discussion.  There was one point where I had to drop him a note to push the discussion into the third part of the debate and to encourage the students to consider one issue they had forgotten about (for that, I took on the role of Ivanka Trump).  But otherwise they didn’t need me at all, and if time hadn’t been a pressing factor, I wouldn’t have needed to interfere in the small way that I did. Students stayed in their role–several that I knew opposed the use of enhanced interrogation techniques argued vociferously for it in their roles; another student who isn’t particularly interested in economic issues kept returning the conversation to that subject in their role as Secretary of the Treasury.  Students challenged each other, and since they’d all completed the policy memos they were armed with enough information to be able to do so effectively.  It was honestly one of the most satisfying simulation experiences I’ve had in a long time.

Furthermore, the students really enjoyed themselves.  They all indicated this during the debriefing, and quite a few came up to me afterwards to say how surprised they were about how much they enjoyed it.  One student remarked he expected everyone to just sit silently, but that everyone really jumped right in and that this got him talking, too–even though he considered himself to not be the kind of student to talk a lot in class.

In terms of learning, they remarked on how this made the bureaucratic model of foreign policy decision making more clear, and that they understood better at how difficult and nuanced decision making can be in terms of both process and outcome. Certainly they demonstrated in their position memos a greater understanding of interrogation policy than they previously had, although it will be interesting to see how they do on their position review memos which form part of their final exam.

Overall this was a very satisfying experience, and I highly recommend Model Diplomacy. All told, the preparation on my part was a total of about 4 hours to review the online materials, set up the simulation in the system, write and post the memo assignments, create placards, and review the policy memos prior to the simulation.  The position and policy review memos helped structure course assignments and the final exam.  The simulation materials are high quality, current, and easily digestible by students, giving them enough options to help guide their research without curtailing creativity.  Whether you’ve never tried a simulation before or you are an experienced facilitator, these out-of-the-box simulations are worth trying, particularly if you have a small class.  While I used this in IR, you could certainly use this in an American politics class in your unit on the bureaucracy or foreign policy. It could adapt easily to an online environment and would work very well in a flipped classroom.

If you want to learn more about Model Diplomacy, head to their website (linked at the start of the post).  There’s also an entire series of interviews with other instructors that have used the simulation–check out the most recent one with Dr. Craig Albert of Augusta University–that link contains links to the other interviews in the series.