Contact: Todd S. Sechser
March 19, 2010 — Tomorrow approximately 120 University of Virginia students will assume the roles of ambassadors to a global arms-control negotiation, about two months ahead of the actual event in New York this May.
The two-day simulation began Friday. Students in politics professor Todd Sechser's international relations course were assigned to one of 18 national delegations, and are negotiating secret and public deals as they frantically attempt to draft a resolution regarding the future of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty before the conference deadline expires Saturday evening.
The world's largest and most important nuclear arms control treaty, which entered into force in 1970, aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons while promoting cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, Sechser said. The treaty requires that its members meet every five years to evaluate its progress, identify challenges and discuss possible revisions. Sechser's event simulates the May's 2010 review conference, in which 189 member states will participate.
The simulation began today with team meetings, with each delegation advised by a "head of state" played by one of nine instructors (including Sechser), four of whom are traveling to Charlottesville for the event.
During today's plenary session, each delegation chair was give a five-minute PowerPoint talk outlining their country's aspirations for the conference. The final session is scheduled for Saturday from 4 to 5 p.m. in Maury Hall room 209.
By playing delegates from countries like China, Iran, and Venezuela, Sechser said, students learn to defend views they may not necessarily share. "Representing another country's views can be illuminating for students whose knowledge of international issues has always centered around the United States," he said. "Students quickly realize that most international disagreements are not simply caused by stubbornness or misunderstandings – they stem from real differences of interest."
Throughout the conference, students are required to remain in character, wear proper professional attire and adhere to diplomatic protocol. They will give public speeches, research and write policy memos, debate strategy choices, and strike agreements with fellow "ambassadors."
Just as in the real world, progress will not come easily for the student teams. For example, at the outset of the conference a coalition of Middle Eastern nations plans a procedural effort to have the Israeli delegation removed from the conference. The students will have to negotiate a resolution to the dispute.
At the conclusion of the event, students will write papers reflecting on the lessons of the experience.
The exercise provides a useful counterpoint to the theoretical perspectives covered in class, Sechser said.
"International relations theory offers a simplified view of the world, and it is useful for that reason," he said. "At the same time, diplomacy in the real world is messy and complex. And dealing with that complexity takes more than just intellect."
Since 2002, Sechser has organized large-scale simulations of a global arms-control negotiation for undergraduate students at Stanford, Duke, Columbia and Dartmouth universities. This is the second time he is organizing a simulation at U.Va.
The event is funded by the Jack E. Harper Jr. Endowment for Public Service, with support from U.Va.'s Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics.