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Korbel Students Play Out Global Conflict in Sié Simulation Series

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Emma Atkinson

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Students sit around a table in a small room, engaged in discussion.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to lead a country through a time of war or global conflict, to deal with non-state actors and the threat of nuclear war?

If the answer is yes, then the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy’s latest event series would be a perfect fit.

In partnership with the Korbel School of International Studies, the #SiéSimulation events put students at the helm during simulations of different global conflicts. The program started in fall 2022 with a simulation involving Russia, Ukraine and nuclear armaments. The goal is to hold one simulation per quarter, but the next event won’t be held until the fall of 2023.

“It’s a more casual forum than a classroom, where students feel as if they're being graded or adjudicated,” says Hilary Matfess, Korbel professor of international studies and one of the designers of the simulations. “It’s where they can put forward theories of international relations, put to the test things that perhaps they did learn in the classroom, but do so in a way where you're not necessarily stressed about deadlines, and you're not necessarily stressed about formatting the paper correctly.”

The simulations are strictly for graduate students and usually involve a group of 30 to 40 participants. The students are assigned roles as different non-state actors and heads of state for the different countries involved in the fabricated—but realistic—international conflict before being given specific scenarios that they must respond to, acting as those heads of state.

The latest simulation centered around instability between China, Pakistan and India.

Debak Das, Korbel professor of peace and security, explains the setup:

“So, all the folks in India are in one group, all the folks in the United States are in another group, and they're given the first scenario. In this case, because we were looking at escalation dynamics in southern Asia, we had this situation where China had encroached onto Indian territory and held a large part of Indian territory in the Northeast.”

After each scenario, the groups separate to discuss their options and settle on a course of action before coming back together to share and debrief. Then, based on those actions, Das and Matfess create another scenario to which the groups must respond.

The participants go through three rounds of scenarios before a final debrief with Matfess and Das.

“That's the whole idea, right, is that you put them in different situations, get them to exercise their analytical capabilities in situations like this,” Das says, “And I think we were all extremely, pleasantly—I wouldn't say surprised—we were all, I think, in many ways, very impressed by the way that they thought through things and the kinds of policy options that they generated.”

Matfess says it’s easy for grad students to get wrapped up in the rigorously academic side of international relations—but the simulations are an opportunity to take what’s being talked about in the classroom and apply it to real-world situations.

“That's at the heart of what we're doing at the Korbel School,” she says. “We're a private institution for the public good. And I think this is one way that we can have students better understand how what they learn in the classroom actually can contribute to their endeavors to better the world.”

International studies second-year master’s student Anne Lauder played the defense minister of Russia in the last simulation. She also stresses the importance of taking academic material into the real world.

“I think in a simulation, it's a little bit more interactive, versus just having classroom discussions, which was really important to have a new perspective,” Lauder says. “I think, at least for me, it gave me more ideas about understanding some of the constraints and some of the other structural issues that might affect the way that actors behave in conflict contexts.”

She says she’d recommend the Sié Simulation events, which will resume next fall, to students who are looking to take their international studies experiences beyond the theoretical setting of the Korbel classroom.

“As a grad student, don't overlook the value in having opportunities to engage in this work outside the classroom,” Lauder recommends. “We’re all busy, and everyone gets exhausted. But I think a lot of times people don't always recognize the value in these opportunities outside the classroom; it’s something you definitely shouldn't pass up, because we don't always get these opportunities, and they're not offered everywhere.”