UN simulation exercise teaches real-world skills

UN simulation exercise teaches real-world skills

Course: International Security in a Changing World, (POLISCI 114S, HISTORY 104D)
Department/School: Political Science and History/School of Humanities and Sciences
Instructors: Scott Sagan and Gil-li Vardi
Course Description: Lecture with Discussion Section
Audience: Undergraduate history and political science majors, as well as nonmajors
Schedule: Lectures on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, 10:00-10:50 am plus one weekly 50-minute discussion section


Students confer at the simulation. Photo by Rod Searcey for Stanford VPTL.“We need to keep the Israeli and Iranian delegations apart, even though they’re alphabetically adjacent,” warned a United Nations employee, in advance of a two-day Security Council summit on the future of Iran’s nuclear program. Due to heightened security concerns at the UN’s permanent headquarters in New York City, the emergency meeting took place at Stanford’s Hoover Institution on February 6 and 7. Delegations from 22 countries attended the session, and after the first day of plenary speeches, impromptu conversations between ambassadors, and tense press conferences, a mood of uncertainty prevailed. While representatives from Iran told journalists they felt “bullied” by the United States and its allies, delegates from the United Kingdom and Western Europe huddled together quietly in order to hammer out a compromise, and a physicist from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sought to correct misunderstandings about the process of enriching uranium. Buzzwords like “light water reactor,” “unilateral sanctions,” “hexachloride,” and “non-proliferation regime” filled the room.

The stakes were high, but there was a catch: none of this was real. Though the pressured environment uncannily resembled an actual U.N. Security Council meeting, the event was in fact a full-scale simulation. It’s an exercise that is the centerpiece of a Stanford political science class, “International Security in a Changing World,” co-taught by professors Scott Sagan and Gil-li Vardi. According to Sagan, who has taught the class for 18 years, the simulation is an example of active learning that allows students to delve deeply into real-world policy questions while honing valuable skills in public speaking and collaborative problem-solving. As a teaching tool, the simulation ranks among the most challenging and rewarding learning opportunities offered to Stanford students. It is also thrilling to watch—the students I observed were so passionately committed to their roles that at times I felt that the future of nuclear non-proliferation hung in the balance.

How did this simulation come to exist? How do the instructors design and orchestrate such an elaborate pedagogical experience? And how do so many students (over 150!) become so familiar with the subject matter and with their assigned diplomatic roles?


Prof. Scott Sagan addresses delegates at the simulation. Photo by Rod Searcey for Stanford VPTL.For Scott Sagan, the Caroline S.G. Munro Professor of Political Science and a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), teaching the course is closely intertwined with research at Stanford. In fact, CISAC itself sprang from earlier versions of the course offered years ago during the Cold War.  In its current form, Poli Sci 114 is “a survey course on major topics of global security and American national security.” The simulation has always figured into the curriculum, though the form it takes varies: sometimes it reviews the existing nuclear non-proliferation treaty, sometimes it considers disarmament, and in recent years it has focused on Iran’s nuclear program.

Learning goals for the simulation

At the heart of the simulation, though, is a core set of driving pedagogical principles. Gil-li Vardi, a military historian and CISAC fellow, believes that the simulation allows students to consider the theories they read about in a new context: “What is the expression of these theories,” she asks students, “in real life? How are they being discussed in and between governments?” Vardi is careful to note that very few of her objectives for student learning “are specifically related to nuclear proliferation problems.” Rather, the students develop transferable skills, including negotiation methods and an understanding of “the limits of power, whether they are representing an influential nation or a much smaller country.” One of the hallmarks of the simulation, according to Vardi, is that “different students will get different learning experiences because they represent different countries.”

Sagan describes his goals for the simulation as threefold. Firstly, he wants students to understand the technical details involved in a country’s nuclear program—“how to differentiate, if it’s possible, between a nuclear power program and a nuclear weapons program.” This deep-dive into nuclear policy occurs through lectures given not just by political scientists, but by physicists and technical experts that Sagan brings in to advise the class. Secondly, students need to understand the impact of nuclear non-proliferation talks not just at the international level, but at the domestic level as well. “American students,” he says, “forget that…bureaucracy is everywhere,” and it’s important that they understand the implications of nuclear policy negotiations within Iranian society. Finally, Sagan echoes Vardi’s belief that the simulation teaches valuable negotiation skills, adding that “sometimes negotiations will have some ambiguity in an agreement so that both sides can go home and claim victory.”

Innovation supported by Stanford's Faculty College

This year’s course energized the teaching team and made the simulation even more realistic for students. Through the Faculty College at the Center for Teaching and Learning, Sagan teamed up with Vardi to create an interdisciplinary perspective on the material; students combined theoretical models from political sciences with historical documents. The Faculty College, a program of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education (VPUE), provides time, space, and resources for teachers across the university to collaborate and innovate on both new and existing courses, and Sagan and Vardi used their time at the College to think through exciting changes to their class.

Prof. Allen Weiner plays the UN Undersecretary at the simulation. Photo by Rod Searcey for Stanford VPTL.They fully incorporated Allen Weiner, the co-director of the Stanford Center on International Conflict and Negotiation, into the simulation as Undersecretary of the U.N., and brought in some of his law students to help draft key resolutions. The Faculty College planning sessions also led to the meaningful addition of students from Janine Zacharia’s journalism students, who posed tough questions to delegates in press conferences at the end of the first day of the simulation.

The student experience

Stanford students are well aware of the course, and of the unique opportunities it presents in their undergraduate education. Many I spoke with cited the reputation of the UN simulation as a key reason for enrolling. “The technical side of international relations interested me,” said Claudia McKenzie, a freshman who acted as Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, “and this simulation really puts the theories we’ve read about in class into practice.” Junior Chelsea Green, a political science major who headed the British delegation, took the course because “the simulation is the most practical application of my theoretical knowledge there could be.” “I’ve been dreaming about these negotiations for a while now,” she added.

Importantly—and in line with the instructors’ belief in the transferability of these skills—the two-day exercise isn’t appealing just to political science students. Ben Mittelberger is a junior computer science major with a strong engineering background, but lately he’s been looking to “bridge the gap between tech and the real world.” For Mittelberger, Poli Sci 114 “seemed highly relevant to me. It sold itself as a practical crash course in international security.” He emphasized that there are a number of engineering majors in the course, and that the international relations aspect of the simulation encourages these students to “apply technical proficiency to important political issues.”

Preparing for the simulation

Sagan and Vardi know very well that an intensive exercise of this magnitude cannot exist in isolation from the rest of the curriculum, and they carefully weave together preparations for the Security Council meeting with more general discussions of international security. In the weeks leading up to the simulation, students undertook hours of outside research on their assigned countries and roles. Each delegation was comprised of seven students, who played such parts as science advisor, legal affairs expert, and press attaché. All students met with a “head of state”—played by an instructor, TA, or Stanford scholar—who dictated the delegation’s policy priorities. Andrew Brooks, a course TA, explained that the first half of the course focuses intently on nuclear policy, so that all students are deeply familiar with “the intricacies of international politics and the different perspectives they need for their roles during the simulation.”

The big day

A student addresses the panel. Photo by Rod Searcey for Stanford VPTL.No amount of planning, though, can prevent the day of the simulation from turning into a frenetic hive of activity. Vardi, who acted as the Israeli head of state, admitted, “Logistically speaking, this is nothing short of a nightmare.” I witnessed firsthand the initial chaos of the conference, which resolved itself as, one by one, delegates took to the podium to introduce each country’s policy positions. While most speakers presented their cases with absolute gravity, some made room for levity: “Meine Damen und Herren,” began the head of the German delegation, as an image of Angela Merkel filled the overhead screen, “I am German, so I’ll keep this short.” Later in the day, the ambassador from the United Arab Emirates proposed a compromise resolution, suggesting to the room that, “We could sign this agreement and go home right now.” Weiner, the chair of the session, shot back, “I’m not sure that’s exactly true…”

Throughout the weekend, students were so busy arranging informal meetings with other delegations and frantically emailing their heads of state with updates and questions that, according to Vardi, “They didn’t find the time to have lunch!” That didn’t faze the students I spoke with, though, who found the simulation exhilarating if not a little exhausting. Green told me that she was “surprised how serious everyone is taking their roles…I’m impressed.” Mittelberger, who led the Russian delegation, noted that “after 18 hours, things get tough. A lot of it is posturing—when you gather more allies, you look more impressive.” Like Green, he emphasized the participants’ commitment to their roles: “I thought the negotiations were going to be much tamer. I had to be much more aggressive than I expected.”

A student "delegate" takes questions from the floor at the UN Security Council Simulation. Photo by Rod Searcey for Stanford VPTL.McKenzie began to understand the educational value of the simulation even during its most stressful moments. “By thinking as a representative of Turkey,” she said, “it teaches you to think from other perspectives. Things that seem irrational to me as an American may actually be rational from another country’s point of view.” By the end of the second day, enough delegates had come to similar conclusions that an agreement was reached. In a nod to the characteristic give-and-take of international security negotiations, Vardi called the compromise “vague enough for all of us to be happy about.”

How historical study contributed to success

What the students might not have known, though, was that the seeds of this compromise plan had been planted earlier in the course, through historical case studies. Sagan cited secret deals made in real-life negotiations between the United States and countries such as Cuba and Pakistan that allowed both parties to claim victory. The simulation’s final compromise was similarly convenient: Iran could explain away its pretensions to a nuclear weapon through a lie that other countries tacitly agreed not to question. According to Sagan, “The Iranian delegation announced…that there had just been an arrest in Tehran of three scientists and a senior member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard for having violated the Supreme Leader’s fatwa against working on nuclear weapons.” The United States delegation knew this was a lie, but decided to let the Iranians save face.

AFTER THE  SIMULATION: Assessing student learning

Najia Ashar, a professional journalist in Pakistan as well as a student of the class, interviews a "delegate" after the first day of Stanford's UN Security Council simulation event. Photo by Rod Searcey for Stanford VPTL.This year’s simulation may have ended with this unusual, last-minute agreement between Iran and the members of the Security Council, but students in the course continue reflecting on their experience long after the session gavels to a close.

One of the key challenges involved in designing such a simulation is determining how best to assess students on their participation. Vardi is careful to convey to students that “It’s never about how good your speech was.” Instead, students sift through emails written between and among delegations over the course of the simulation—published in a Wikileaks-style “data dump”—in order to write an academic article explaining the outcome of the simulation. This article, which will resemble an essay in a political science journal, forms the basis for students’ midterm grades.

In our conversation a few days after the event, Mittelberger told me he’s looking forward to synthesizing his experiences in the midterm. “During the simulation, I was so focused on my role as the head of the Russian delegation that I really couldn’t think about the learning I was doing,” he said. “The midterm allows me to step back and understand the big picture.”

The broader picture

What’s more, the simulation has a life beyond Stanford. Sagan designs the exercise to be “exportable” to other colleges and universities. Stanford alumni involved in the course as undergraduates or TAs now teach at Dartmouth, Berkeley, the University of Virginia, and Reed College, to name a few institutions that have adapted the security simulation for their students.

The course and its trademark simulation will no doubt continue to be among the most engaging undergraduate learning experiences here at Stanford. Sagan, Vardi, the course TAs, and the students themselves work hard to forge connections between theory and practice, between past and present, and between Stanford and the outside world. What results is a rigorous education in a field that is increasingly vital to international understanding and cooperation.


Headshot, Allen FrostAllen Frost is a Ph.D. candidate and instructor in the Department of English at Stanford. He has also served as an instructor in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric and as a writing tutor at the Hume Center.