March 22, 2010 — On Friday and Saturday, University of Virginia students taking politics professor Todd Sechser's "International Relations" course set aside their textbooks and got a first-hand taste of diplomacy during a two-day simulation of a global arms-control negotiation.
The 120 students assumed the roles of diplomats in one of 18 national delegations to the 2010 review conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – a simulation of a real-life meeting scheduled for May in New York. The treaty requires that its 189 member nations meet every five years to evaluate the treaty's progress, identify challenges and discuss possible revisions.
The students role-played delegates from countries with widely differing interests, from China, Iran and Venezuela, to Pakistan, South Korea, Israel, Brazil and the United States. To thoroughly understand the unique interests of each nation, the delegations did research and were advised by a "head of state" played by one of nine instructors (including Sechser), four of whom traveled to Charlottesville for the event.
In the process, 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 were required to remain in character, wear proper professional attire and adhere to diplomatic protocol. They gave speeches, debated and sought to strike agreements with their fellow "ambassadors."
Just as in the real world, progress did not come easily. In her opening remarks, the leader of the North Korean delegation, Francesca Parente, took off her shoe and pounded the podium – a la former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's tantrum in a 1960 United Nations session – as she denounced the United States and her allies as "liars, hypocrites and bullies."
Israel, one of a handful of nations with nuclear weapons that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, attended the conference as an observer – scheduled to speak, but with no power to vote. The conference was barely under way before delegations from the Middle Eastern nations of Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia called for a vote to have the Israeli delegation expelled. When the measure failed, they walked out in protest, joined by Venezuela.
Facing this revolt, Iva Ballvora, who chaired Israel's delegation, struggled to temper her anger. "It is on!" she declared, reeling off a list of what Israel might push for – economic sanctions against Iran and an embargo on Iranian natural gas and oil – if the Middle Eastern bloc did not drop its protest. Then, channeling her inner diplomat, she noted that Israel would rather not go down that punitive road, and was ready to engage in constructive negotiations.
"Somebody always has to offer a hand first if you want progress," she said.
Stepping out of character to reflect on what she was learning, she noted, "You realize how hard it is to get anything done, in contrast to when you read about some of these issues and wonder why people can't just get together and make some progress."
Eventually, the Middle Eastern bloc returned to the conference, but Israel-centered crises continued. Every time Israel rose to speak, Iran's delegation walked out of the room. Then an Israeli memo marked "Top Secret" was found on the floor by Iran's delegation, who quickly circulated the memo to everyone in the conference. The memo noted that Israel had no plans to join the treaty, but simply wanted to have a strong presence in the negotiations, fanning the fires of resentment among the Middle Eastern delegations.
The simulation ran for four hours on Friday afternoon, and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday. Racing against the clock, the delegations negotiated secret and public deals to try and adopt a resolution regarding the future of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but ultimately came up one vote short of the 10 needed to endorse the resolution.
"After all that work, it sucked that we couldn't pass the resolution," said Ashley Mathieu, a member of the Venezuelan delegation. "People really got into their characters and roles. It was pretty intense."
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."
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 was the second time he organized a simulation at U.Va.
The event was funded by the Jack E. Harper Jr. Endowment for Public Service, with support from U.Va.'s Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics.