Shots have been fired. Two superpowers hover near the brink of armed conflict. The president ... is Tweeting.
What do you do?
For 89 Duke University undergraduates, the spring semester started Monday with a national-security role play that had an obvious answer: Work the problem.
Above all else, “we’re trying to emphasize crisp, clear communications, critical thinking, making sure that our communications are [flowing] not only top to bottom, but laterally,” said Tim Nichols, the Sanford School of Public Policy visiting professor and former U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer who organized the exercise.
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“And they’re struggling with that,” he said, “and that’s exactly what I wanted.”
Nichols and his fellow professors gave participants a ripped-from-next-year’s-headlines scenario: an armed clash between U.S. and Chinese ships in the all-important sea lanes of the South China Sea, with lots of uncertainty about what started it.
Groups of six to 10 students assumed the roles of U.S. military, intelligence, diplomatic and White House bodies, and figured on spending all day Monday and Tuesday morning at the Fuqua School of Business navigating their way to a “de-escalation” of the crisis.
In each classroom, a professor or two was on hand to offer feedback, shedding light on how decision-making organizations are supposed to function and about how well the students were working with each other and the other groups.
Elsewhere in the building, Nichols kept a team of graduate students and military officers busy feeding the groups bits and pieces about what was supposedly happening half a world away. “Collectively, they’re weaving a fabric of where we want to go,” Nichols said.
From the outset, the students had trouble keeping track of all the information that was coming their way via dozens of fictional emails, communiques and news alerts. The professors stepped in with a message of their own: Get organized.
“Right now, you guys are talking way past each other,” political science professor Kyle Beardsley told the 10 students assigned to represent the Department of Defense’s crisis team as they struggled to size up the initial reports, which also included talk of a cyberattack on a U.S. Air Force base.
Down the hall, political science professor Peter Feaver was saying pretty much the same thing to the eight students assigned to run point for the National Security Council. A former NSC aide in real life, he reminded them the White House body’s job is to help “make the whole government work” in a coordinated way, taking advantage of the “human capital” available in key agencies like defense and the Department of State.
All the while, the curveballs kept coming.
The first shot
It was never quite clear, for instance, whether a Chinese or U.S. ship fired the first shot or whether the Chinese one had even fired at all. An early “White House” press briefing didn’t settle the point, the student assigned the role of spokesman managing to assert several of the possibilities as fact and get away, at least for the moment, with the obvious contradiction.
Intelligence gatherers not only were having trouble shedding light on the situation, they were having to work hard to avoid causing more confusion. “Beijing Station just called in,” one student reported to the NSC team after receiving a particularly foggy report. “There’s negative knowledge.”
And there were more than just the Chinese to track. As the morning went on, both the defense and NSC teams found themselves vexed by the supposed eagerness of the Philippine government to get involved.
“Wait, why are the Philippines calling for war?” computer science student Brittany Williams, playing the NSC team’s crisis operations manager, asked after learning the island nation’s government wanted to invoke a mutual-defense pact and deploy forces.
The students chuckled at obvious tangents, like a tweet from a former official blaming the clash on the Islamic State.
They struggled more with less-obvious ones, like a report that a U.S. troop transport aircraft had crashed in Afghanistan with massive loss of life.
“One of the toughest things for the NSC to know is when a bad thing is a distraction,” Feaver told Williams and her colleagues after the exercise’s behind-the-scenes masters served up the plane crash. “What’s the bigger narrative you’re struggling with? ‘The U.S. is weak, the U.S. is not protecting its own people, the president is AWOL and doesn’t know what’s going on.’ Does this change the narrative, or reinforce the narrative?”
“Reinforces,” Williams answered.
“And that’s at best,” Feaver said, driving his point home. “We’re assuming it’s unrelated.”
Despite the public-policy focus of the exercise, the point of the forum was to draw together students from across Duke’s academic units, rather than just ones from the Sanford School. The program ultimately answers to Dean of Undergraduate Education Steve Nowicki’s office.
“We want to expose a broader slice of Duke” to the relevant issues and thought processes, said Nichols. “We have engineers, we have dance majors, we have biologists, we have public-policy and foreign-policy folks, and they’re all getting together.”
The students had to contend with the “natural rubs” of competing institutions, the firehose-like flow of information and with understanding that “real coordination” is more than just relaying an email to another group, he added.