Liam Hunt


The ICONS Project: A Simulation of International Affairs

The anarchic world of international relations is difficult to properly convey in the classroom setting. Repeating the common tropes of the field, however, is easy-- concepts borrowed from economics and the behavioural sciences, like game theory and rational choice, are relatively simple when scrawled on paper. What isn’t easy is understanding when to apply them, how they might go wrong, and what to do when they fail.

This requires a degree of expertise found only in the trenches of real-world statesmanship. Although as academics we’re cozily removed from this arena, John Mitton and David Beitelman’s Comparative Foreign Policy Simulation provides a taste of the international negotiating experience as true to life as it gets without leaving the classroom.

The course is structured around a series of online real-time conferences offered by the University of Maryland as part of the ICONS Project--an initiative dedicated to advancing students’ understanding of complex international issues and strengthening their ability to navigate them collaboratively. Our class was divided into two teams: the United States and China. Together, we joined two other universities representing a host of countries such as Russia, Germany, India, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

Each participating country was split into several strategy teams based around one of the four pre-determined policy areas: trade and finance, terrorism and defense, border security, and environmentalism.

When I found out I was on the United States’ environmental team, I thought I had it easy. My experience, however, was anything but.

We planned to cut an ambitious deal around the transfer of renewable energy technologies in exchange for a modest carbon tax and a long-term commitment to greenhouse gas reductions. According to my academic priors, this was a ‘positive-sum’ game; a can’t lose situation.

In practice, all of the reliable theories and strategies I had counted on going into the simulation--material I had so credulously lauded in classrooms prior--got me nowhere. Nothing seemed to work. Rationalizing our policy proposal didn’t get us far, and neither did the more gritty divide-and-conquer power politics. By the end of the first conference we had walked away without winning over any support.   

We quickly realized that each participating country seemed to have vastly different objectives in mind. Russia’s interests mostly had to do with Arctic exploration; India was fixated on electric vehicle research; China--well, we still don’t know what China wanted. Realizing this, all four policy teams met to devise a renewed strategy.

We came out of that meeting with a new game plan: a tit-for-tat strategy focused on our most pivotal interests. We agreed that the carbon tax could be thrown out if we could land a favourable trade deal with Germany; we could then use this trade deal as a bargaining chip in securing their support on our renewable energy plan.

For the next few days we exchanged messages around the clock with Germany and Finland to establish a trade bloc in exchange for their mutual support on our energy policy. Just in time for the second conference, we were promised their support, and with it we were able to form a dominant coalition by giving up our lower-priority policy initiatives as concessions.

Ultimately, we were able to bargain our way to a 5-to-9 majority coalition. We succeeded by the skin of our teeth, but only by deferring to classic quid pro quo strategies so rudimentary so as to warrant their glossing over in diplomacy textbooks.   

One of the more obvious limitations is that the negotiating environment of a real international summit doesn’t exactly parallel an internet-based simulation without any of the real world consequences. However, this didn’t stop us from coming away with a new, invaluable understanding of the social and psychological elements of a real political negotiation: I came away having learned the importance of coalition-building, the tools of compromise, and, most importantly, not to overlook the most basic, and seemingly unacademic, aspects of strategy. 

The experience was both intellectually rewarding and revitalizing, and stands out as a highlight of my tenure at Dal. And, in the months following, it was funny watching the real-life parallels as they went down at the Halifax International Security Forum--which featured high-level negotiations between delegates from over 60 countries. Their strategies were refreshingly unacademic.