Crisis Engaged

students around a conference table

In the midst of the simulation... Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

Dickinsonians join students from several military academies to prepare to tackle global crisis

by Tony Moore

There has never been a shortage of crises across the face of the Earth, across the centuries. And Dickinson has an intensive annual exercise that prepares students to address and work through global crises that might be looming on the horizon.

Come together

This year, “Crisis in the South China Sea” found Dickinson students teaming up with five other colleges, plus students from the Air Force Academy, the Naval Academy, West Point and the Virginia Military Institute to explore governmental and military responses to potential conflict in the region.

“We decided on the South China Sea theme because it represents a thorny set of territorial disputes that has had flare-ups of conflict in the past,” says Andrew Wolff, associate professor of political science and international studies, who coordinated the event. Wolff notes that the U.S. has no territorial claims in the South China Sea and therefore isn’t a party to regional disputes. But this arm’s length relationship allows flexibility in the U.S. response to any conflict that arises. “However," he adds, "the disputes are serious enough that it is possible that the U.S. could be sucked into a spiral of hostilities.”

Real-time crisis management

Students inhabited roles across the spectrum of the U.S. national security establishment through four teams: Department of Defense, Department of State, the intelligence community and the White House. On these teams, participants had to consider the tangled but often disparate web of interests strung among actors such as China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).

“I learned a lot more about how decisions are made and policies are formed in real time—and just how tricky it is to be flexible in dealing with developing situations,” says Austen Dowell ’17 (international studies, Russian). “I really enjoyed the fast-paced nature of the simulation as well as the need for communication between peers, and this experience taught me a lot about improving interpersonal skills in the workplace that I hope to use in any future policy career.”

Student at a whiteboard

James Higgins ’17 maps it all out. Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

Asymmetrical angles

Those skills were developed through tasks involving cooperation, making decisions with imperfect information and large group strategy development, all mimicking the asymmetrical realities inherent when multiple federal agencies approach situations from their own angles.

“Although I initially understood how the process worked, I learned a great deal about each department's role in detail,” says James Higgins ’17 (international studies). “Building consensus … is a complex decision process. There are many voices that want to be heard—usually all at once. One cannot experience that environment at all in a textbook.”

Co-hosted by Dickinson and the U.S. Army War College, the weekend-long event is a product of a Mellon grant. And it helps students make intellectual connections with large, pressing issues and personal connections with students from seemingly disparate institutions.

“Not only do we hope that all students take away a deeper appreciation for the complexity of national security decision making,” says Wolff, “but we also hope these simulations foster ties and greater understanding between students from military academies and civilian liberal-arts institutions.”

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Published June 7, 2017