Simulating Brexit

2153602543_91bc39b403In the spirit of not wasting a good crisis, the UK’s decision to leave the European Union offers a great way into understanding a number of political dynamics.

Of course, we need to tread a bit carefully here, for a number of reasons. Firstly, this is a highly fluid situation, so whatever one might plan for the autumn might be completely overtaken by events. Secondly, some of the things that have happened over the past week are so extreme and atypical that while you might reproduce them in a simulation setting, you are almost certainly never going to see them happen again. Thirdly, there’s an awful lot going on, so you need to pick your targets clearly.

With all those caveats in mind, some options still present themselves.

Most obviously, there is going to a negotiation to agree the terms of the UK’s exit, as per Art.50 TEU. Now, as I don’t need to tell you (but maybe do need to tell some of the campaigners), this means the other member states agree a position, then negotiate with the UK to reach an agreement, which is then approved by all (plus the European Parliament (EP)).

This would work well with a large group, representing as many of the different parties as you like, using whatever protocol the EU finally establishes for this (probably available in the autumn), or just the same rough approach I set out in a different EU-crisis scenario earlier this year. The need for EP approval adds a nice little twist, as member states will have to take account of it throughout the negotiations, while simultaneously thinking how they can make sure MEPs don’t make life any more complicated than it already is.

The difficulties will be primarily one of scale: with up to 28 states, can students find enough material to support their negotiating briefs? I’m aware of some groups that are pulling together such intel, but even this will be relatively brief, especially if your negotiation gets into any substantive issues (which it most likely would). One way around this would to limit discussion to core principles and a framework deal, or to a particular area of policy.

The second obvious option to pursue is one focused on the domestic politics of the situation. Here, a Parliamentary debate might be in order, either on confirming the result of the referendum, or an outline negotiating brief for the government in the Art.50 talks, or on motion of no confidence (this one is a bit further down the line). This let’s students get into party politics (both at the inter- and intra-party levels) and ties in nicely with all the other shenanigans going on in Westminister these days.

The third option draws a bit from both of the first, by focusing on any one actor in this process and drawing up a detailed negotiating brief for them: the UK, another member state, the EP, the European Council President or the Commission. This gets much deeper into substantive issues, so it’s best suited to those who already know about the workings of the EU, including any law students you can drag in: you could do this with a much smaller group, or even run parallel groups. Moreover, given the apparent lack of planning that was done before the vote, you could probably then send your final brief to that institution and have a good chance that they’d use it.

Finally, you could step out of the narrowly political perspective and look at the impact of Brexit on something else, such as an industrial sector, or a company. Here the work would be an impact assessment and could range as widely as you like (business students are an obvious addition). This option is best for those who don’t normally teach the EU, or who are teaching outside Europe, since there will be global political and economic repercussions: consider, for example, impacts on NATO and US foreign or trade policy.

As always, the key consideration should be that you are clear about your learning objectives: what do you want to achieve from this? If you can keep this clear, then you’ve got some great opportunities waiting for you.

Bridge Repair

Forth BridgeIn my last post about teaching comparative politics, I discussed replacing expository writing assignments with a set of templates for students to use when designing presentations. I thought the templates might be a more effective method of getting students to apply theory to past events. For the spring semester, I have decided to ditch the theoretical content altogether, for these reasons:

Continue reading “Bridge Repair”

Arts and Crafts day… aka Exploring Global Inequality and Poverty

This is a guest post from Leanne Powner, Visiting Assistant Professor in Government at Christopher Newport University.  Leanne is also the author of the Empirical Research and Writing: A Political Science Student’s Practical Guide.

To begin my unit on global poverty and inequality in Introduction to International Relations, I asked students to pick a poor country from a list that I provided and use the World Bank World Development Indicators databank to extract information on population, GDP, and GDP per capita, as well as the composition of the national economy (percent from industry, services, and agriculture). We then constructed scale models of the size and composition of the economies out of three colors of crepe paper; they input their GDP and composition data into a Google spreadsheet which calculated the length of the streamers. Students attached the streamers to a sheet of paper showing the country name, GDP, GDP per capita, and population, and we taped them to the board. We compared these to ones I had made showing the US, Russia, and the Philippines (middle-income). This all seemed fine – the US’s was a bit excessive (see below) – until I explained that the scale on their models was 10 times greater than the scale of mine. 20151119_161829Their 29 cm streamer would have been 2.9 cm using the scale for the US/etc ones. I drew this on one of the posters to demonstrate and showed them a model for Ethiopia (a low-income country) on the same scale as the US and Russia.

The difference in streamer lengths was staggering and really gave students a good idea of how relatively wealthy the US is. When presenting the streamers that I had made, I taped them to the bottom of the projector screen and presented them in the order of Philippines, Russia, US. The R
ussia one trailed on the floor, but after taping the US one to the screen, I retracted the screen up to the ceiling…. then rolled the ball of crepe paper all the way to the back of the classroom…. and then all the way back to the front again…. and there was still a pile of crepe paper left on the floor. Ethiopia’s, in contrast, was only about 6″ long. It was an absolutely priceless teaching moment for $3 in dollar-store crepe paper.

The basic spreadsheet, which includes a sheet that calculates streamer length from student data, can be found here. I am happy to share additional materials from this project on request to .

Modelling a mess

Some Greek misunderstanding about having a meal break

One of our perennial themes here at ALPSBlog is the notion of learning from learning, the idea that even when nominal objectives are not achieved, there’s still something (much, even) to be learnt. I get you to try and build a 20m bridge across a lake, using only tissue paper, you fail, but get something from the experience none-the-less.

This past week I was asked (jokingly, I hope) whether I could capture the negotiations on the Greek bailout saga. I’ll assume you’ve heard about this, even if you didn’t follow the details and that, like me, your over-riding impression was one of a chronic failure to find constructive or timely agreement between the various parties. The Onion has its own drole simulation of the forces at work.

Now this is different from the learning from failure model in that it appears to be a situation where failure to find some agreement is not an acceptable option and where all the good options are excluded and all the remaining options come with big costs. Let’s call it a messed-up situation that only gets worse over time.

Now this is really interesting to explore with students, both as a specific case and an example of poor negotiation. As a case-study, the Greek crisis touches on democracy, European integration, party politics, macro-economics and a bunch of other big social science issues: any simulation would be a great entree into these. As a negotiation format, it brings together an interesting combination of domestic and international actors, with varying degrees of resource (and legitimacy) in an environment where rules are highly flexible (which means you could capture much of the fluidity in a classroom).

However, the big question is quite what you want to capture in a simulation.

If the main thing is the inability to find a lasting solution, then you immediately hit an issue with the time and space constraints of the classroom: neither your students nor your university will let you have a simulation that drags on for several years. The only option here would be to have a game where resolution was fundamentally impossible, and each new cohort of students would simply play during their allotted time, to reach a new conditional outcome. However, that comes at a price to the visibility of the whole sequence.

If the aim is to highlight the lack of good options, then it becomes much easier. A few years ago (i.e. nearer the start of the Greek crisis), I wrote a game about austerity politics, modelled very much on the Eurozone’s travails. This game hasn’t got a good outcome (in the sense of optimal for most players), but it could be extended further, either by adding more domestic political constraints/challenges or by creating an external IMF-ish role to make it even more painful. The game already has rounds, so you could just keep on pushing this on, so that everyone get’s even more tetchy with each other.

A third option would be to focus on how the unstructured nature of the negotiation environment matters. Students could be given the task of trying to design a more formalised structure for the participants, with roles and responsibilities, in order to help them see how the different parts fit together. This would then be a critique of the real situation and a way into the underlying tensions.

This last is something that I’m tempted to try with my students this autumn, not least because they will have to learn how to organise themselves in order to be able to discuss productively how others should be organised. Since I’m aware that my students do read these posts, I’ll say no more, other than I can see several ways that they could do this, to better or worse effect.

This last point brings us back to the main issue, namely of identifying your learning objectives. That’s not just true of this, but of all your learning activities. Once you know where you want to end up, the path to get there becomes that much more clear.


Politics in Real Time

No ControlStudents often perceive history as a series of unique and disconnected events that are irrelevant to the experience of the present. Subsequently abstract principles seem impossibly vague. A recent column in The New York Times is a brilliant demonstration of how to solve this problem:

What Would Thucydides Say About the Crisis in Greece?

A nice complement is:

Europe’s Attack on Greek Democracy

That these two essays were written by a historian and an economist, and published online to a global audience, is perhaps illustrative of how political scientists fail to communicate effectively with students and with the wider world about current events.

Refuting an Expert

Bacon Skepticism On The Rise
Bacon Skepticism On The Rise

I’m going to guess that Simon’s reference to Serbian pig-farming in his last post means that one of the books he read in 2014 was From Voting to Violence by Jack Snyder (W.W. Norton & Company, 2000). For several years I used this book for an assignment in comparative politics that I called Refuting an Expert.

The student’s job in this assignment was to select one of the forty-two different claims Snyder makes in the book and analyze why the claim was incorrect. I’ve put the complete list of claims here. A few highlights:

  • Serbia gained its independence in the early 1800s because of the interests of Serbian pig merchants.
  • Russian president Boris Yeltsin launched the war in Chechnya to save his administration.
  • Israeli Arabs tolerate discrimination because of the economic opportunities that Israel affords them.

To help students do a credible job of challenging Snyder, a supposed expert on the subject of the book, I gave students these instructions:

Cats Fear Cow Chauvinism
Cats Fear Cow Chauvinism

All quality scholarship is based upon the creation and analysis of arguments. A person asks a question, gathers information, and proposes an answer to the question that is based on that information. The quality of the answer depends on both the accuracy of the information gathered and how well that information has been organized into an argument. In more technical terms, the validity of any truth claim rests upon empirical evidence and logical consistency.

When analyzing the quality of your and others’ research:

  • The first step is to identify what question is being investigated. What is the puzzle that the author is trying to explain?
  • The second step is to identify what the author claims is the cause and effect of this puzzle.
  • The third step is to identify how the author links cause to effect. What does the author claim is the relationship between the two?
  • The fourth step is to identify how the author measures changes in whatever is being used to indicate cause and effect. Are numerical data being used? Do the data actually signify what the author says they signify? Should the author be using some other kind of data?

Authors often use certain words that provide clues that will help you find all of this information. These words are:

  • Main, primary, only
  • Not, cannot, no, never, seldom, rarely
  • None, neither, nor
  • All, any, entire, most, each
  • Must, always, generally, often, will
  • But (especially if combined with “only” or “must”)
  • However, although, in contrast, contrary, instead, unless, despite
  • False, incorrect, contradict, fail
  • True, correct
  • Should, ought, shall
  • Cause, effect, reason, depends, because, imply
  • Assumes, assumption
  • Claim, argument, argue, contend
  • Proof, prove, evidence, empirical
  • In fact, thus, therefore, of course, thereby, similarly
  • Tend, tendency
  • Conclude, conclusion, result

We Are All Charlie Hebdo

Pencil Hand

I had one of my usual posts about teaching ready for publication today, but I felt the need to write briefly about yesterday’s attack on the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, in which twelve people were murdered and eleven were wounded. My work, if not my existence as a person, is premised on the exchange of ideas. This blog is but one minor example. Many of the ideas I give and receive are inconsequential, impolite, or downright disturbing. Once in a while, though, I am surprised by information that makes me think differently than I did before — I learn something new. The people who killed many of the staff of Charlie Hebdo, and those who encouraged the killers, have no interest in learning about ideas that are different from those they already hold. They do not want to learn, and they don’t want anyone else to learn either, because they fear the knowledge of just how stupid they really are.

The surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo say that its next edition will be published on Wednesday.

Rwanda Simulation After-Action Report

KagameLast week I launched the first of my five two-day simulations in my introduction to IR course. Last week’s simulation was on conflict in central Africa with student teams representing Rwanda, Uganda, Congo, the USA, and France. I’ll run through the elements of the simulation and students’ responses to it.


I wanted students to learn something about a region of the world they were unfamiliar with, experience negotiation in a real-time, crisis-driven environment, and connect their experience to international relations theories.


Students are reading Chasing Chaos by Jessica Alexander to gain some contextual knowledge on the geographic setting for each simulation; I’ll talk more about this book in a later post. Students are also wrote briefing memos; the readings on which the memos are based provide additional information relevant to each simulation.


Day 1 of the simulation:

  1. An intelligence report — a fictional crisis scenario — is revealed. Each team also gets informed of its  goals. I set up both of these tasks beforehand on our Canvas LMS so that I could just click a few buttons before class started.
  2. Teams prepare positions (15 minutes) and present them (3 minutes each).
  3. Negotiation (15 minutes).

Day 2:

  1. Teams reconvene to discuss strategy and prepare counter-proposals (10 minutes).
  2. Teams present their positions (2 minutes each).
  3. Negotiation (20 minutes).
  4. Debriefing (10 minutes).

Points added to students’ final grades, calculated on a 1,000 point scale, served as the incentive for students to participate:

  • 20 points if a student’s team achieved its primary goal.
  • 10 points for achieving the team’s secondary goal.
  • 0 points for not achieving either goal.
  • 40 points for achieving either the primary or secondary goal as part of a unanimous agreement between all five teams.



Some of the goals that I wrote for teams were too vaguely worded; for example, “Uganda establishes an alliance with Rwanda.” The goal should have specified the commitments expected from Rwanda in an alliance. Also, teams did not need the entire amount of time allotted to present their positions, and the positions that were presented were too general. I should probably ask teams to create specific proposals, perhaps by having teams write them down before announcing them to the class.


The class energetically dove into the simulation and they stayed within role, so I think the preparation by means of the briefing memo paid dividends. Students clearly understood the effects of political actors with conflicting interests. One student took a purely instrumentalist approach by trying to convince all five teams to reveal their goals in the hopes of thereby reaching a unanimous agreement, so that everyone could earn the maximum possible points, but he got nowhere — an interesting sub-optimal outcome.

In the debriefing, students identified realist theory as the best explanation for the events that occurred during the simulation, a natural conclusion given the competing interests and the fact that all five actors were nation-states.

If anyone would like the documentation I created for this simulation, just let me know. I’m happy to share.

Critical thinking and reading of contemporary events

“ask me a question…”

For any Politics student, critical thinking is a central skill that they need to acquire and develop. Without it, it is impossible to engage in a meaningful way with the world around them or to have a sense of how their own ideas work and cohere.

I’m always a bit hesitant about taking relativistic views to an extreme, but certainly contemporary politics requires us to have an appreciation of the way in which we are manipulated – consciously or unconsciously – by political actors and by the media.

With this in mind, recent weeks have been very instructive for me, as I follow events in two conflicts – Ukraine and Gaza.

I’m not a specialist in either region, and their impacts on my own field of research is relatively small, but I am interested in what’s happening.

In both cases, we have multiple actors, each of whom uses a wide range of strategies to communicate their position and interests to a wider public, including me. As such, I find particular interest in the way that news is framed and the way in we encounter Lukes’ three faces of power.

This week has seen a couple of pieces that have made me think some more about these issues and which might be of interest to students when discussing either media effects or the cases themselves.

On Ukraine, The Guardian has a good debate on western media coverage, which opens up some useful questions.

On Gaza, a friend pointed me towards a piece by Ottomansandzionists that made me consider several aspects of what’s happening.

In both cases, it has been the process of reflection that I’ve appreciated, getting me to question what I hear, read or watch. And without questions, we don’t get to answers.

PS – as I finish writing this, I also notice a piece by Simon Jenkins (a man with whom I usually disagree vehemently), which also makes me reflect some more about how we commemorate the First World War.  As with the other articles, it’s somewhat provocative and might stimulate some discussion and debate.