UW News

May 12, 2022

Simulation offers UW students practical experience in crisis negotiation

Students sitting at a table

During the International Strategic Crisis Negotiation Exercise, students act as members of diplomatic teams and hold strategic negotiations about a real-life crisis.MAAIS

Robert Pekkanen has a collection of anecdotes from years of simulation exercises.

One year, students role-playing as the Russian team hacked into rivals’ email accounts. Another time, the North Korean group threatened to storm out over a misspelled name tag. Pekkanen once sent team members to separate rooms to cool down during a heated strategy debate.

This is all part of Crisis Negotiation, a capstone experience for Master of Arts in Applied International Studies (MAAIS) students. Pekkanen, professor in the Jackson School of International Studies, said he boldly hopes it will be the best class students take at the University of Washington.

“I hear from students years later and they tell me, ‘I really remember that. That was a great negotiation exercise, and I use some of these things from the class in my professional career,’” Pekkanen said. “That’s really rewarding for me because that’s my goal.”

This year’s ISCNE will take place on May 14 and 15. Click here to watch a video featuring the ISCNE from 2015.

The centerpiece of the course is the International Strategic Crisis Negotiation Exercise (ISCNE), an annual event facilitated by MAAIS and the Center for Strategic Leadership at the U.S. Army War College, which Pekkanen calls “ideal partners.” Offered in the spring, the course is open to graduate, undergraduate and non-matriculated students.

Each year, MAAIS and the U.S. Army War College collaborate to select a real-world crisis scenario. Students then act as members of diplomatic teams from different countries and hold strategic negotiations in person over a two-day period. Past scenarios included a crisis in the South China Sea and a conflict in Cyprus. The plan for next year is an Arctic scenario.

Pekkanen was instrumental in creating the course when the MAAIS program, which began in the 2014-15 school year, was in its planning stages. While getting his doctorate degree from Harvard University, Pekkanen was invited to a high-level simulation exercise by faculty members. The simulation featured crises in Northeast and Southeast Asia, and introduced Pekkanen to an entirely new method of learning about international relations and politics. The experience stuck with him, and he wanted to bring a similar opportunity to the UW.

“Students learn negotiation, teamwork and leadership,” Pekkanen said. “They’re getting those practical skills, and that also kind of differentiates it from other classes. That was my vision at the beginning: I wanted to give students a simulation experience that’s a kind of practical learning. It’s also something they’ll remember their whole careers.”

This year’s scenario takes place in 2024 with the People’s Republic of China hosting diplomatic delegations from North Korea, Japan, the Russian Federation, South Korea and the United States. The goal is to restart Six Party Talks and bring an end to the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear program.

Students will role-play as diplomats charged with negotiating a solution that will serve the national interests of their assigned countries while also bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula. Leading up to the event, the class received background briefings on the Korean Peninsula, leadership and teambuilding, and negotiation tactics.

“If students are on the South Korean team, they try to figure out what South Korea’s policy should be and then they try to act in that way,” Pekkanen said. “Then they get to see how the U.S. responds and how China responds and how North Korea responds.

“As a result, they uncover something about the dynamics of relations in Northeast Asia that’s different from what they can learn through our usual format of lectures and showing their understanding in essays.”

Teams are also paired with high-level mentors, who don’t make decisions but are there to enhance learning and monitor group dynamics. This gives students the opportunity to work with U.S. diplomats, business executives, military leaders and UW faculty.

“We encourage mentors to ask questions like, ‘You know, I wonder what Japan’s position is on that?’ This kind of intervention stimulates student learning,” Pekkanen said. “Mentors are also there in case students say, ‘We have this idea, but would China really do this in the real world?’ and they need guidance. They can get a reality check from the mentors who know about what’s going on.

“The whole course is designed for the students to learn as much as possible through the three steps of their preparation, the simulation weekend and reflections afterward. I really feel like it is a unique experience at the University of Washington.” 

For more information, contact Pekkanen at pekkanen@uw.edu.