Teaching Foreign Policy (Online) With Model Diplomacy

Today we have a guest post by Vincent Druliolle, assistant profesor in the Department of International Relations, Universidad de Deusto, Bilbao, Spain. He can be contacted at vincent [dot] druliolle [at] deusto [dot] es.

Last September I joined a different university, which led to teaching two new modules. This past term I taught foreign policy for the first time and used Model Diplomacy by the Council of Foreign Relations. I had to shift from my initial plan of running Model Diplomacy in class because of Covid-19, but this did not overly worry me, and I was further encouraged by Charity Butcher’s recent post. Like her, I chose the ‘basic’ version of the simulation with a view to devoting only one two-hour class to the activity. I allocated each role to groups of four students, with each group writing a position memo, but I ran the simulation twice with half the class participating each time, so that I could divide each group into pairs. Four students per role is too much for an in-class simulation, and I thought that splitting each group into two was even more necessary for the online format.

I used Google Meet as a platform for the simulation without any technical glitches. Because each role was played by two students, I told the class to connect with their partners through Whatsapp or some other medium so that they could exchange opinions about the proposals put forward by the other actors. I also warned them that I wanted to listen to both members of each pair during the simulation. This worked well and participation was good overall. It was entertaining to see students on various parts of my screen using their mobile phones to debate with their partners while their classmates were speaking. At one point a student was caught speaking on an open mic, which is probably an important lesson to be learned.

However, the constraints of technology deserve to be stressed. I acted as the President to manage the NSC meeting, so I was the one who allowed students to take the floor. I informed students that they had to speak one by one as it is impossible to have more than twenty microphones switched on at the same time in an online setting. Students had to raise their hand if they wanted to speak. As a result, the debate was far more orderly than it would have been in class or in real life.

Model Diplomacy is a fantastic resource for teachers and it is completely free. It has an impressive variety of cases and adapting a simulation to one’s particular needs requires only a few clicks. Thanks to the wide range of background material recommended to the students, the instructor can be confident that they will use relevant documents to prepare for the simulation, which is a great advantage of Model Diplomacy for both students and instructors. My students enjoyed working with videos, official documents, and different reports—instead of academic articles—to write their position memos. Model Diplomacy thus increases students interest and is also a good opportunity for them to familiarise themselves with a range of policy documents.

I used Model Diplomacy even though I was not specifically interested in the US decision-making system. Although the actors and decision-making processes are likely to be different in other settings, the simulation is useful to understand how the various aspects of a foreign policy issue are intertwined and the dilemmas that this creates for decision-makers. However, in my view Model Diplomacy completely overlooks the kind of political bargaining described by Allison’s bureaucratic politics model that we had discussed at length in class. Without it, foreign policy decision-making looks very much like the meeting of a debate league. Therefore, I think that Model Diplomacy can be made “more real” if the relationship between the various actors and the institutions they represent could be integrated into the preparation phase of the simulation. Students should be provided with an overview of these relationships, or analyse them prior to the simulation. A student even suggested that before the formal NSC meeting they should be given the opportunity to form coalitions and design strategies to defend their own agendas, which I think is a very interesting idea.

Having said that, my experience using Model Diplomacy is largely positive. An aspect I found particularly useful is the set of instructions given to the students about the dynamic of the simulation (which can of course be modified to suit one’s learning objectives) and their role in it. These instructions are very detailed, another reason I can recommend Model Diplomacy to instructors and students who might have little to no experience with this kind of activity.