Students experience international diplomacy through crisis negotiation

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The faces of the faculty and students from the School of International Affairs (SIA), Penn State Law and Presidential Leadership Academy reflected the seriousness of the situation. Col. Jim Muskopf of the U.S. Army War College was describing a conflict that has been stalemated for 91 years involving the region of Nagorno-Karabakh in the southwest corner of Azerbaijan. The participants would be charged with attempting to move toward a peaceful resolution in a volatile part of the world using the processes common in international conflict resolution.

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At 4 p.m. Friday, Oct. 12, negotiations were set in motion with a request from Professor Richard Butler playing the role of United Nations special representative of the secretary general. Butler actually is a former Australian ambassador to the U.N. The negotiations concluded at 2 p.m. Saturday.

“It was amazing. Intense, difficult and extremely challenging,” said Tarisai Mukalhera, who is in his first year at SIA, focusing on policy research and development. “It is a completely different way of thinking that gets people out of their comfort zones.”

SIA Professor Dennis Jett, a retired U.S. ambassador, asked his colleagues at the War College to bring The International Strategic Crisis Negotiation Exercise to Penn State this year to help students gain experience in international diplomacy, negotiation techniques, and strategic and national-level decision making. “It is an excellent way to capture the intensity of this type of process under tight time constraints and with strict communication protocols,” Jett said. He said he hopes to make the simulation an annual event.

The scenario-driven exercise is set 10 years into the future. Negotiating teams represented Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia, Turkey and the United States in a setting similar to a U.N. summit. Muskopf stressed the time management aspects of the process and that “the goal is to experience the process, not to achieve a solution. No one has resolved this crisis in all the years we’ve been doing it,” he said.

Lessons learned

“Once I shelved the idea that I was going to be the one to come up with a brilliant idea that resolves the crisis, things went better,” said Ashton Zylstra, an SIA student who was a member of the U.S. team. “It gave me a better understanding of how the U.S. fares in relation to other countries and how much power we do or do not have in a given situation,” she said.

In addition to the 36 graduate students from SIA, and a juris doctor-master of international affairs student, three Penn State Presidential Leadership Academy students participated. Arianna De Reus, a sophomore in the College of Agriculture, said the biggest lesson she learned is that “all nations have economic, social and political objectives, and will do whatever it takes to protect their own people and allies.”

Mukalhera was part of the Russian team whose goal was to appear interested in independence for Nagorno-Karabakh but whose true objectives were to maintain the status quo keeping all the players in exactly the same position pre- and post-negotiation. In order to reconcile all the information from numerous meetings with numerous countries, the team had a large white board with outcomes, positions and players plotted. “In a great part we accomplished what we set out to do. To make sure that we have everyone under our belt. … One of the most interesting elements is how personalities play a role in the negotiations," he said. "Talks may fail or succeed not on content but purely based on the personality of the negotiators.”

Mukalhera who is from Zimbabwe said that what impressed him most was “the high level of strategic thinking that you have to put in.” He said that although in his career he intends to play a “behind the scenes role” in international negotiations in areas such as trade and economic policy, the process taught him to be more thoughtful about how you present yourself to others.

De Reus said she was struck by the complexity of the process. “I learned how delicate trust is in relation to diplomacy, and how all nations have complex, interconnected objectives that affect many other nations when making decisions,” she added. “This exercise was a brief glimpse into the lives of national leaders and heads of state who have to make difficult, strategic decisions in the interest of their respective governments every day.”

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Last Updated October 31, 2012