Crisis simulation gives ASU students a look at the complexities of diplomatic conflict


The world’s attention turns to an Asian country contending with sectarian violence and the possibility of mass killing of civilians. Its long civil war is 15 years in the past, but religious extremism, bad governance and vulnerability to natural disasters put the nation in a fragile state. A new government starts cracking down on opposition demonstrations, arresting and disappearing opposition leaders, and offering arms to followers of the majority religion. And then comes a humanitarian crisis: A volcanic eruption off-shore launches an enormous tsunami, devastating coastal areas and forcing residents to move inland, hungry and homeless.

That was the daunting challenge recently presented at a simulation hosted by the International Rule of Law and Security program, jointly developed by the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University.

In the exercise, thousands of civilians are in desperate need of food, water, shelter and medical care. The government increases its campaign to disappear the opposition and silence moderate voices. The threat of a mass atrocity demands international attention. Leaders from throughout the world — grappling with competing interests and conflicting information — must figure out how to respond.

The event drew almost 60 law students, undergraduates and other graduate students to ASU Law’s Beus Center for Law and Society in downtown Phoenix. They were divided into six teams — the United States, China, India, France/European Union (EU), the United Kingdom/Commonwealth and the United Nations (U.N.)/nongovernmental organizations — each led by a former U.S. government official. Over the course of the two-day simulation, details of the crisis continued to evolve. By design, the scenario was complicated and fast-changing, and not everybody was getting the same information.

International Rule of Law and Security Program Director Julia Fromholz said it was an all-too-real example that helped prepare students for the diplomatic challenges they could face when racing to stave off mass civilian casualties.

“Students gained a better understanding of the competing interests among countries and organizations trying to respond effectively to an international crisis,” said Fromholz, who teaches international human rights law in ASU Law’s Washington, D.C., program, as well as a class in Phoenix on law and foreign policy. “They also learned more about mass atrocities and some of the tools that countries and organizations use to try to prevent or mitigate them. And I hope it increased their interest in going into foreign policy or international work.”

The sessions were led by Jim Finkel, a 35-year veteran of the senior civil service who worked with Fromholz when she was at the U.S. Department of State. He has a wealth of experience to draw from in crafting such simulations, as the final two decades of his career focused on the evolution of U.S. policy toward the prevention of genocide and other mass atrocities. He said the simulation is designed to reflect the real-life challenges of trying to gather and assess accurate information as quickly as possible.

“The idea is to give all of the students as lifelike an experience as we can of what it’s like to be a government or international organization official, or an NGO trying to wrestle with these events as they unfold,” he said. “And we are trying to recreate all of the experiences involved with different kinds of information, contradictory information, cascading information, working on a country that you don’t know a great deal about to begin with, and having to become an instant expert.”

Multilateral negotiations

photo of Clint Williamson and Julia Fromholz

Ambassador Clint Williamson, distinguished professor of practice at ASU Law and senior director for law and national security at ASU’s McCain Institute with Julia Fromholz, director of the International Rule of Law and Security program and professor of practice at ASU Law.

After two rounds of breakout sessions followed by country presentations in plenary sessions on Friday, everyone returned for the final four rounds on Saturday. As the crisis deepened, negotiations stalled, with teams unable to reconcile their competing interests. Tactful and strategic diplomacy was interrupted by moments of genuine frustration.

“The students worked all through lunch, they talked about it when they went home at night,” said Lauren Burkhart, director of ASU Law’s Washington, D.C., affairs. “They’re very engaged and very interested, and it even got a little heated at times, so I think they’re having fun but also appreciating some of the challenges.”

Challenges they may not fully appreciate from simply reading a book or attending a class.

“It’s sort of all of the horsemen of the apocalypse, but it's one of the reasons I like doing this,” Finkel said. “It’s useful in terms of a pedagogical tool. You know, it’s one thing to sit in a lecture hall or to read a whole bunch of books about something. And it's something very different to come into a room like this and have to come up with these kinds of decisions.”

Although the students were presented with seemingly every challenge imaginable, Finkel said it’s not an implausible scenario. Such crises tend to occur in unstable nations, amid an entanglement of problems that cannot be easily isolated or resolved.

“The thing about atrocity events is they tend to take place in countries that are more off the beaten path,” he said. “They tend to take place in countries that are weak states with bad governance, and lots of corruption. So these are countries that are wrestling with a variety of problems simultaneously. And that tends to be more the reality, as opposed to somebody waking up one morning and deciding to carry out a large-scale and systematic atrocity. These things tend to evolve over time, there's a variety of factors, and that's what makes it so difficult to deal with them. There are nested issues in there and you have to figure out what's the best way to attack which part in which order.”

Spencer Morgan, a second-year ASU Law student, said he has been studying foreign relations since high school and has participated in numerous crisis simulations — but none as detailed as this one.

“I really enjoyed the depth and breadth of information that we were given,” he said. “I've done a few crisis scenarios, and most of them are pretty shallow as far as information, so you're just kind of making it up as you go along. But this, we were given a lot of really compelling and realistic information.”

Another second-year ASU Law student, Hunter Shi, expected the simulation to be focused on human rights. He enjoyed the challenge of having to grapple with a multitude of issues instead, which he found highly engaging.

“I didn’t expect it to become so real, to be so similar to the real world,” he said. “It helped me understand how hard it is to gain a consensus, and, even if you’re in an advantageous situation, how hard it might be to achieve your strategic goals.”

The interdisciplinary exercise was meant to draw students from beyond the law school, like Dane Whittaker, a master’s degree student in ASU’s School of Sustainability. He’s interested in governance and the implications of policy-making, and says similar scenarios can be conducted for natural resource management. The specific wrinkles of the scenario might be different — conservation efforts could be affected by invasive species or regulatory changes — but the basic challenge of consensus-building among multiple stakeholders remains the same.

As a law school outsider, the simulation gave him valuable insight into the intersection of science and policymaking.

“You have to come in with a bit of humility, being ready to step into a world where you don't know the language, and you don't know necessarily how things work,” he said. “But I think it's really important, especially from a science perspective, to see how information is processed and used in policymaking, because no one's going to read a 15-page, single-spaced, 10-point-font science report. They need something that’s digestible and quick and tells them what they need to know and how to apply it.”

Finkel said the simulation is, in fact, designed with that kind of multidisciplinary approach in mind.

“If you're a law school student, there are lessons to wrestle with in terms of international criminal law,” he said. “If you are focusing on public health or humanitarian aid, there's a complex humanitarian emergency. There is a terrorism sub-theme playing out in the final round. There's crime and corruption. There’s a little bit of everything.”

photo of students at IROL exercise

Students discuss their tactics and plan during an international crisis simulation exercise presented by the International Rule of Law and Security program at ASU Law.

The final act

Preparing for the final round, the U.N./NGO team is working feverishly in their designated conference room. As some members bounce from room to room negotiating with countries and relaying information back to team headquarters, Morgan is hammering out a draft U.N. Security Council resolution on his laptop, trying to concentrate on that task while also participating in the group conversation. Meanwhile, Fromholz is helping Whittaker craft the impassioned speech he must deliver. They dissect it line by line, ensuring that it is not only accurate but compelling enough to sway the other parties and help Whittaker’s NGO achieve its objectives.

It’s invaluable coaching from foreign policy veterans who have seen these situations from different angles.

“Our sherpas, or guides, were an amazing part of this,” Whittaker said. “There was the formal simulation and the information that we were running through, but so much learning was happening through what Julia was telling us and the context that she was giving. She was explaining how things actually work, how departments are structured and the mechanisms you can use. The leaders truly made this the learning experience that it was.”

It was a dramatic conclusion to the two-day simulation. In the end, there were no winners — only effort exerted and lessons learned. But team leaders were struck throughout by the participants’ level of engagement, and how passionately they embraced their roles.

“It was a success because the students were highly engaged and learned so much,” said Fromholz afterward, noting several students had already asked when they might have the chance to do it again. “I was impressed by the quality of their analysis and presentations, and by how game they were to jump into their roles.”

Freshman Ethan Pelland was one of the undergraduates who participated.

“I really like learning experiences where you’re putting things into practice as you go,” he said. “Regardless of where you are, even if you are a freshman, a graduate student or a law student, you should take part in this the next opportunity you have.”

In his closing remarks, Finkel hoped the participants had newfound appreciation for how challenging these roles can be.

“Hopefully you sympathize a little more with what it’s like to sit in the White House as information is cascading in, some of it conflicting,” he said. “I view all of you as the future of U.S. foreign policy, and I hope that if you find yourselves in these situations, you can pull some of the things you’ve learned out of your tool kit.”

The students were guided by six team leaders with experience in a range of federal government roles:

United Nations/NGO team: Julia Fromholz, a professor of practice at ASU Law who worked in the Department of State in both Washington, D.C., and Islamabad, Pakistan, and also in nongovernmental organizations in the U.S. and overseas.

U.K./Commonwealth team: Brian Mohler, a career U.S. diplomat who retired in 2009 at the rank of minister-counselor after serving in a variety of high-level roles in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Canada, among other assignments.

India team: Retired Col. Bruce Pagel, a professor of practice in the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. Colonel Pagel served for 28 years, active and reserve, as a judge advocate in the U.S. Army.

China team: Scott Ruston, a research scientist with Arizona State University’s Global Security Initiative, a universitywide interdisciplinary hub for researching complex challenges in the global security arena, where he leads the Narrative, Disinformation & Strategic Influence research pillar. Ruston is also 27-year veteran of active and reserve service in the U.S. Navy.

U.S. team: Brette Steele, who serves as the director of prevention and national security at ASU’s McCain Institute for International Leadership. Before joining ASU, Steele served in both the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Justice, focusing on preventing violent extremism in the United States.

EU/France team: Ambassador Clint Williamson, distinguished professor of practice at ASU Law and senior director for law and national security at ASU’s McCain Institute. He served on the National Security Council, as the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, and in a number of U.N. and European Union posts.

media contact
media contact: 
Nicole Almond Anderson
nalmond@asu.edu