Log in to get started!

Don't have an account yet? You can create one below.

Student Instructor
Display Title
Humanitarian Intervention in South Sudan

The weakness of cease-fire agreements and the return of climate conditions favorable for warfare means the South Sudanese face the threat of mass violence, reprisals, and possibly even genocide.


Rival South Sudanese factions have fought a civil war since the end of 2013, causing mass displacements, tens of thousands of deaths, and widespread hunger. Negotiations between the leaders of these factions are stalled, and South Sudan’s dry season approaches, signaling intensified fighting and a humanitarian crisis of potentially historic proportions. The president has asked the National Security Council (NSC) for options on whether and how the United States should pursue a humanitarian intervention in or around South Sudan.

Lead Image
South Sudanese citizen waving a flag.

The Situation

Rival South Sudanese factions have fought a civil war since the end of 2013, causing mass displacements, tens of thousands of deaths, and widespread hunger. Negotiations between the leaders of these factions—President Salva Kiir and rebel commander and former Vice President Riek Machar—are stalled, and South Sudan’s dry season approaches, signaling intensified fighting and a humanitarian crisis of potentially historic proportions. Already, about two million South Sudanese have been driven from their homes, and food shortages and health needs have grown acute. Observers fear an eventual famine. Although a United Nations peacekeeping mission is present in South Sudan, other countries, including the United States, have begun to consider additional action to protect civilians. The president has asked the National Security Council for options on whether and how the United States could pursue a humanitarian intervention in or around South Sudan. NSC officials will need to take into account the pressure on the United States to act, including the “responsibility to protect” (R2P), as well as the significant costs, benefits, and risks of unilateral or multilateral intervention.



  • Humanitarian intervention
  • Responsibility to protect
  • Weak states
  • Peacekeeping, peace enforcement, and peacemaking
  • Civil war
  • Multilateralism
  • Peace negotiations



  • Costs, benefits, and risks of humanitarian interventions
  • Debates surrounding R2P
  • Underdevelopment and its effects
  • Impact of the resource curse
  • U.S. role in South Sudanese independence and corresponding U.S. interests
Guide Sections
An Introduction to the National Security Council
National Security Council meeting

“The function of the Council shall be to advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security...”

– Title I of the National Security Act of 1947

1.1 Overview 

The United States plays a critical role in establishing and maintaining international order in an increasingly globalized world. The range of foreign policy issues that require its attention or involvement is vast: from conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria to tensions with North Korea and Iran; from long-standing alliances with European and Asian powers to complex, evolving relationships with Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa; from the stability of global finance to the promotion of economic opportunity in low-income countries; and from climate to health to nuclear proliferation to terrorism. There is little around the world in which the United States does not have a vested interest. Further, issues such as immigration, trade, and cybersecurity underscore the fading distinction between domestic and international matters.

U.S. leaders use a range of tools to pursue a foreign policy that they believe will safeguard national security and achieve U.S. goals:

  • diplomatic, such as bilateral or multilateral consultations and negotiations, treaties, defense and security agreements, resolutions at global and regional bodies such as the United Nations, and public diplomacy to promote U.S. views and culture
  • economic, such as trade and investment agreements, tariffs, sanctions, embargoes and boycotts, development assistance, loans for the purchase of U.S.-manufactured products, and sales of arms, equipment, and technology
  • military, such as missile strikes, nuclear deterrence, ground force deployments, ship and submarine patrols, blockades, unilateral or partnered military exercises, foreign military training, and special operations forces
  • unconventional actions, sometimes secret, undertaken by the U.S. government and its proxies, such as training and assisting foreign intelligence services, supporting armed nonstate actors, private security contracting, and cyberwarfare

Effective policymaking requires a deft combination of these tools. To accomplish this, policymakers need to clearly define U.S. interests and gauge the interests, resources, and motivations of foreign governments and nonstate actors. The U.S. intelligence community helps policymakers in their work by collecting and analyzing a vast range of information, including satellite images, communications records, documents, data, and personal observations.

Foreign policy successes and failures are often associated with presidential decisions. Less explored is the decision-making system that helps the president make those critical choices and coordinate their implementation. This guide will help you understand the system through which the United States creates and implements its foreign policy.

Learn More
See More
National Security Council meeting
CIA Director George Bush discusses the evacuation of Americans from Beirut

“....I envisioned a special role for the national security advisor, who is the manager of the National Security Council. I needed an honest broker who would objectively present to the president the views of the various cabinet officers across the spectrum.”

— George H.W. Bush, “A World Transformed,” p. 18

1.2 The Interagency Process

Whether it aims to respond to an immediate crisis or to advance a long-term objective, a successful foreign policy–making process starts with a clear articulation of interests and goals. Policymakers and their advisors then formulate policy options to meet those goals and consider each option’s strengths and weaknesses. This process is challenging in the best of times. Information may be unreliable or incomplete, an adversary’s intentions may be unclear, and a decision’s consequences may be unknowable. Leaders often have to choose from a list on which every option is imperfect. Adding to this uncertainty is the complexity of the U.S. government’s foreign policy machinery: numerous agencies—each with its own interests and biases—seek to influence how policy is decided and carried out. In these circumstances, it takes considerable effort to run a process capable of producing sound policy decisions.

The National Security Council (NSC) plays a critical role in this effort. Its mission is to help the president effectively use a variety of instruments—military, diplomatic, or otherwise—to forge policies that advance U.S. national security goals.

The NSC was created by the National Security Act of 1947, which defined it as an interagency body intended to “advise the president with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security.” Following World War II, in an age of expanded American interests and responsibilities, the NSC was expected to provide a place where the heads of federal departments and agencies could cooperate to develop and recommend to the president policies that would advance U.S. aims. The NSC and its staff were also meant to manage the policymaking process so that the president would receive a full range of advice and opinion from the departments and agencies involved in national security.

The NSC has evolved significantly over the years, adapting to the preferences of successive presidents and the challenges they faced. Variables such NSC meeting attendees, the frequency of meetings, the amount and format of information passed to the president, the importance of consensus, and the relative dominance of the NSC over other government institutions have changed over the decades.

During this time, the NSC has evolved to comprise various interagency committees and a large staff to prepare analysis and coordinate policymaking and implementation. The NSC is at the center of the interagency process, one through which relevant government agencies address foreign policy issues and help the president make and execute policy choices.

I. National Security Advisor

The national security advisor (formally assistant to the president for national security affairs), a senior advisor to the president, is at the heart of the NSC structure. Ideally, the national security advisor’s role is twofold: to offer advice to the president and to coordinate and manage policymaking. Because they have direct access to the president and do not represent a cabinet department such as the State Department or Defense Department, national security advisors are in a unique position to drive foreign policy decisions, manage the actors involved, and mitigate conflict throughout the decision-making process.

II. National Security Council Staff

The NSC staff consists of individuals from a collection of agencies that support the president, the vice president, and the administration. NSC staff members are generally organized into directorates that focus on regions or issues. The size and organization of the staff vary with each administration.

The NSC staff provides expertise for the variety of national security policy matters considered by the committees and the president. It manages numerous responsibilities, including preparing speeches, memos, and discussion papers and handling inquiries from Congress on foreign policy issues. Staff members analyze both immediate and long-term issues and help prioritize these issues on the interagency agenda.

III. Committee Structure

Committees are at the core of policy deliberation and policymaking in the NSC. They fall into four categories:

  • The highest-level is the National Security Council itself. Formal NSC meetings are chaired by the president and include individuals named by the National Security Act of 1947 as well as other senior aides the president invites.
  • The principals committee (PC) comprises cabinet-level officials who head major government departments concerned with national security, such as the secretaries of state and defense. The national security advisor traditionally chairs the principals committee.
  • The deputies committee (DC) includes the deputy leaders of the government departments represented on the principals committee and is chaired by the deputy national security advisor.
  • Policy coordination committees (PCCs) cover a range of regional areas and issues. Each committee includes officials who specialize in the relevant area or issue at one of the departments or agencies in the interagency system. PCCs are generally chaired by senior directors on the NSC staff. Much of the day-to-day work needed to formulate and implement foreign policy across the U.S. government happens at the PCC level.

This committee structure tackles both immediate crises such as an outbreak of conflict and enduring issues such as climate change. In the normal course of events, PCCs conduct analysis on an issue, gather views on it and its importance from various departments, formulate and evaluate policy options, and determine what resources and steps would be required to carry out those options. The deputies committee, meanwhile, manages the interagency process up and down. It decides what PCCs to establish and gives them specific assignments. It also considers information submitted by the PCCs, ensuring that it is relevant, complete, and clear, before relaying it to the principals committee or the full NSC.

The principals committee is the highest-level setting, aside from the NSC itself, for debating national security issues. It consists of the heads of the NSC’s component agencies—essentially all the members of the NSC except the president and vice president. Formal NSC meetings, which the president chairs, occur whenever the president sees fit. They consider issues that require the president’s personal attention and a direct presidential decision.

The goal of this committee structure is to foster consensus on policy options or highlight where and why consensus cannot be reached. If officials at one level agree on an issue, it may not need to go to senior officials for a decision. This practice reserves the president’s time, and that of the principals, for the most complicated and sensitive debates.

When a crisis erupts, however, issues may not follow the usual path up from the PCCs. In these cases, NSC staff members and officials in government departments and agencies generally draft papers drawing on their expertise, available intelligence, and any existing contingency plans. Policy options are then debated and decided at the appropriate level, depending on the nature and severity of the crisis. The policymaking process may also deviate from this model based on the preferences of each president.

For the purposes of Model Diplomacy’s NSC simulation, you will role-play the NSC meeting with the assumption that the committees described have already done their jobs and passed critical information to the highest-level decision-makers.

Presidential Decisions

When the president makes a policy decision, it may take the form of a verbal instruction recorded in a NSC staff document and shared with relevant departments and agencies. The president may also issue formal decisions in documents that lay out the administration’s policy and explain its rationale and goals. These documents have gone by different names under different presidents. President Donald J. Trump issues national security presidential memoranda, which replace the presidential policy directives and presidential study directives that President Barack Obama issued.

The president may also issue an executive order. In the past, presidents have issued executive orders for such purposes as facilitating sanctions against foreign individuals and establishing new offices in government departments to achieve foreign policy aims. For federal agencies, both national security directives and executive orders carry the full force and effect of law, though the president’s authority to issue these kinds of documents is sometimes questioned.

National Security Council meeting
President Bush leads a meeting of the National Security Council.

“These complex times have made clear the power and centrality of America’s indispensable leadership in the world.”

— Obama 2015 National Security Strategy

1.3 Departments and Agencies

Although many executive branch departments and agencies are involved in foreign policy and, depending on the issue, play a role in the NSC process, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence community form the core of the foreign policy bureaucracy. The Department of the Treasury, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice often play crucial roles as well.

Department of State

The Department of State conducts the United States’ relations with other countries and international organizations. It maintains U.S. diplomatic presence abroad, issues visas for foreigners to enter the country, aids U.S. citizens overseas, and manages cultural exchanges and other programs to promote American interests. As head of the department, the secretary of state is the president’s principal foreign affairs advisor and has a keen understanding of the United States’ international relations, the relationships between foreign countries, and the behavior and interests of their governments.

Department of Defense

The Department of Defense carries out U.S. defense policy and maintains U.S. military forces. It includes the U.S. ArmyNavyMarine Corps, and Air Force, as well as an array of agencies with missions ranging from advanced technological research to defense cooperation with friendly countries. The department employs more than two million military and civilian personnel and operates military bases across the United States and abroad. The secretary of defense, the head of the department and the president’s principal defense policy advisor, stays up-to-date on the security situation in foreign countries and the possibilities and implications of U.S. military involvement. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff is the highest-ranking member of the U.S. armed forces and the president’s top military advisor.

Intelligence Community

The U.S. intelligence community consists of seventeen agencies and organizations, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which gather and analyze intelligence to help policymakers formulate and implement U.S. foreign policy. Each of these agencies has its own mission; for example, the NSA focuses on signals intelligence (information gathered from communications and other electronic signals) and the Defense Intelligence Agency on military information. The director of national intelligence, the president’s principal advisor on intelligence issues, oversees this network of agencies with the aim of ensuring that they work together and deliver the best possible information to U.S. policymakers.

Department of the Treasury

The Department of the Treasury carries out policy on issues related to the U.S. and global economies and financial systems. The secretary of the treasury, as head of this department, serves as one of the president’s chief economic advisors and is responsible for addressing a range of economic concerns, including growth, trade and investment, and the position of the U.S. dollar. The Treasury’s ten bureaus, which include the U.S. Mint and the Internal Revenue Service, do much of the department’s work, which ranges from collecting tax to printing currency and executing economic sanctions.

Department of Homeland Security

Created soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Department of Homeland Security works to counter and respond to risks to American security. It focuses on issues such as terrorism prevention, border security and immigration, disaster response, and cybersecurity. Familiar agencies within the department include U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which checks travelers and goods coming into the United States; the U.S. Secret Service, which protects the president and investigates financial crimes; and the Transportation Security Administration, which ensures security at airports. The secretary of homeland security oversees the department and advises the president on relevant issues.

Department of Justice

The Department of Justice investigates and prosecutes possible violations of federal law, represents the U.S. government in legal matters, oversees federal prisons, and works more broadly to prevent and respond to crime. Agencies such as the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration are part of the department, as are divisions focusing on particular areas of law, such as national security and civil rights. Leading the department is the attorney general, who offers legal advice to the president and the heads of other departments, including on matters under discussion in the NSC.

Learn More
See More

Guide Glossary


alliance:an official partnership between two or more parties based on cooperation in pursuit of a common goal, generally involving security or defense.
attorney general:head of the Department of Justice and chief lawyer of the U.S. government. Among other duties, he or she offers advice on the legal aspects of proposed policies to the president and other department heads.


bilateral:undertaken between two entities, generally countries.
blockade:an act of war wherein a foreign military cuts off access to a specific location, usually a port, to impede deliveries of supplies. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba—calling it a “quarantine” to avoid the implication of declaring war—in response to Soviet missile activity on the island.


Cabinet:the group comprising the vice president of the United States and the heads of all fifteen federal executive departments, such as the secretaries of state, defense, commerce, labor, and education. Other officials may also have cabinet rank, depending on the administration.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS):the highest-ranking member of the U.S. armed forces. The CJCS does not exercise command authority over U.S. troops, but instead works with the leaders of the U.S. military services to fulfill his function as the top military advisor to the president and other senior officials.
chief of staff to the president:a close advisor to the president who is responsible for coordinating the implementation of presidential policy and managing the Executive Office of the President (EOP), which includes the national security staff among many other entities.
cyberwarfare:defensive and offensive actions taken by a government or nonstate actor in the realm of information network systems and digital infrastructure. Specific actions include planting computer viruses, mounting denial-of-service attacks to disrupt internet and network activity, and conducting electronic surveillance.


deputies committee (DC):the intermediate-level setting, below the principals committee, for debating issues in the National Security Council (NSC) system. Chaired by the deputy national security advisor, it comprises the second- and third-ranking leaders of the departments and agencies represented on the National Security Council. It manages the interagency process up and down, answering to the principals committee and assigning and reviewing the work of interagency policy committees.
director of national intelligence:the president’s principal advisor for intelligence-related matters and the head of the intelligence community, a network of seventeen agencies and organizations, such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), that collect and analyze information to assist policymaking.


executive order (EO):a decision issued by the president that carries the full force and effect of law. An executive order usually instructs government departments and agencies to implement or modify particular policies or procedures.


foreign policy:a country’s attitudes and actions in the international arena. Foreign policy includes two principal elements: goals or interests as the country defines them, such as peace with one’s neighbors, and the means pursued to advance these interests, such as diplomatic negotiations, trade agreements, and military alliances. A country carries out its foreign policy through its dealings with other countries, international organizations such as the United Nations (UN), and nonstate actors such as corporations and advocacy groups.


interagency:involving two or more agencies. The National Security Council (NSC), for example, is an interagency forum, not a forum internal to any one agency.


multilateral:undertaken among three or more entities, usually countries. The term frequently describes organizations such as the United Nations (UN).


National Security Act:a law signed by President Harry S. Truman in 1947 to reorganize the agencies and processes related to intelligence, foreign policy, and the military. Among its reforms, the act established the National Security Council (NSC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
national security advisor (NSA):the so-called honest broker of the national security policy process and the president’s principal advisor on national security issues. The NSA manages the National Security Council (NSC) staff, chairs the principals committee, and coordinates and manages policymaking with the goal of ensuring effective policy development and implementation.
National Security Council (NSC):an interagency body that serves as the forum for the president to discuss and take action on the most critical national security issues facing the United States. Its membership has varied since its creation in 1947, and now includes the president, vice president, national security advisor, secretaries of state and defense, and a variety of other senior officials.
National Security Council (NSC) staff:the president’s national security and foreign policy personnel. The NSC staff receives direction from the president via the national security advisor, provides expertise on issues and regions, and collaborates frequently with employees from other government departments and agencies to carry out the interagency policymaking process.
national security presidential memorandum:a type of presidential directive, or official order from the president, on matters related to national security. Called different names by different administrations, these documents may initiate a review of current policy, reorganize the structure of the national security policy apparatus, or lay out new strategies.
nonstate actors:individuals or groups that do not belong to or act on behalf of a state. This may refer to nongovernmental organizations such as Amnesty International, media outlets such as the New York Times, or terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.


policy coordination committees (PCCs):the lowest-level setting for debating issues in the National Security Council (NSC) system and the home of much of the day-to-day work needed to formulate and implement U.S. foreign policy. Often chaired by a senior director on the NSC staff, PCCs develop, coordinate, and carry out policy options in distinct regional and functional areas.
principals committee (PC):the highest-level setting, aside from the National Security Council (NSC) itself, for debating issues in the NSC system. Generally chaired by the national security advisor, it comprises cabinet-level officials who head major government departments concerned with national security, such as the secretaries of state, defense, and homeland security, and other senior officials.


sanction:a tool of statecraft, frequently involving economic measures such as asset freezes and trade restrictions, used to exact a certain behavior or outcome from another party. The U.S. and EU sanctions against Russian companies and individuals that aim to encourage Russia to end its interference in Ukraine are an example.
secretary of defense:the principal defense policy advisor to the president and head of the Department of Defense, which oversees the formulation and execution of defense policy and manages U.S. military forces.
secretary of energy:the head of the Department of Energy, which executes U.S. policy on energy, environmental, and nuclear issues and oversees seventeen national scientific research laboratories.
secretary of homeland security:the head of the Department of Homeland Security since its creation after the attacks of September 11, 2001. This department works to protect U.S. security by implementing federal policy concerning terrorism prevention, border security, immigration, disaster response, and cybersecurity.
secretary of state:the president’s chief foreign affairs advisor, the country’s chief diplomat, and the head of the Department of State, which conducts the United States’ relationships with foreign countries and international organizations.
secretary of the treasury:one of the president’s chief economic advisors and head of the department of the treasury, which carries out policy on issues related to the U.S. and global economies and financial systems. The department is home to the U.S. Mint and Internal Revenue Service, among other agencies.


tariff:a tax on goods arriving from a foreign country, generally used as a tool of trade and foreign policy to penalize adversaries or favor allies or domestic producers.


U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations (UN):the ambassador-level official who advances U.S. foreign policy interests in the bodies and forums of the UN system.
unilateral:undertaken by only one entity, generally a country.


vice president:the second-highest-ranking official of the U.S. government and first in line to assume the presidency if the president dies, resigns, or becomes unable to serve. Though given only one responsibility in the Constitution—to serve as president of the U.S. Senate, with the power to break ties—the vice presidency has become a visible part of the modern White House. Today’s vice presidents undertake a variety of functions, from serving as an all-purpose presidential advisor to carrying out diplomatic trips abroad. The personality of the individual who occupies this post and his or her relationship with the president define the scope of the role.
Case Notes Sections
South Sudanese citizen waving a flag.

“The war started between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar. The war could end there.”

— Nyakhor, Nuer woman, June 3, 2015

2.1 The Issue

South Sudan is in crisis. Since winning independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades of bloodshed, the country has faced a troubled existence. Despite having large oil reserves that could fuel a strong economy, South Sudan remains one of the world’s least developed countries. Government institutions are dysfunctional. Political and ethnic rivalries between President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar caused the government to effectively collapse in late 2013, plunging the country into a civil war marked by ethnically targeted attacks.

This conflict has led to a severe humanitarian crisis in South Sudan. More than four million South Sudanese, out of a population of thirteen million, have been driven from their homes, disrupting agricultural production and local markets. As a result, food shortages and health needs have grown severe. As many as 383,000 people have died since the beginning of the conflict.

Although a UN peacekeeping mission has been present in South Sudan since 2011, this crisis has also led other countries, including the United States, to consider launching their own humanitarian interventions to establish or maintain peace and ensure access to humanitarian aid. Such interventions would be guided by the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine, adopted by the world’s governments in 2005 after they failed to prevent a number of genocides. According to this doctrine, countries have a responsibility to intervene in other countries in cases of crimes against humanity or genocide. However, this norm is not legally binding and its application in past cases has been controversial.

South Sudanese citizen waving a flag.
South Sudanese woman carrying water.

“Stop killing. We need peace… Only WFP gives us food. We can’t find it anywhere else. There’s not enough in the market. And there’s too much water in the land to cultivate crops.”

— Elizabeth, South Sudanese teenager, March 2015

2.2 Background

Historically, the region in and around South Sudan has struggled with harsh geography, an unforgiving climate, an underdeveloped economy, and dysfunctional, often feuding, governments. South Sudan’s huge oil deposits have fallen under mismanagement and the threat of violence. The oil wealth has not benefited most of the South Sudanese people. Given these factors, even in peacetime the population of South Sudan lives on the edge of a humanitarian disaster.

The current crisis traces its roots to a decades-long civil war between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), among other smaller rebel groups. The war ended in 2005, and in 2011 South Sudan seceded from Sudan in a referendum supported by 98.8 percent of the electorate. Salva Kiir, the head of the SPLM/A, became South Sudan’s first president. He appointed a rival militia leader, Riek Machar, as his vice president. Machar represented the Nuer ethnic group (making up 16 percent of the population), while Kiir represented the Dinka (36 percent). These groups, which are South Sudan’s largest ethnicities, are closely related and do not have a long history of tensions; indeed, their members have often intermarried. However, their relationship has deteriorated over decades of fighting among rival South Sudanese militias that claim different sectarian affiliations. Kiir believed that Machar’s appointment would help unify the new country.

However, the two leaders disagreed over the allocation of oil profits. Kiir wanted the profits to flow into the central government, but Machar said they should go to South Sudan’s individual states. (Machar’s home state of Unity has some of the nation’s richest oil fields.) Additionally, Kiir took steps to bolster his executive powers, whereas Machar argued for power to be less centralized.

In mid-2013, Kiir launched a series of investigations and suspensions that he portrayed as anticorruption measures but that were widely denounced as an attempt to consolidate his power. Claiming his rivals were plotting a coup, Kiir fired his entire cabinet, including Machar, who had declared that he would challenge Kiir in the next presidential election.

In December 2013, violence erupted in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, between ethnic Dinka and ethnic Nuer soldiers in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), now South Sudan’s national army. The resulting firefight killed at least five hundred people, including civilians. As Dinka soldiers moved to massacre Nuers, Nuer militias retaliated in kind, resulting in thousands of executions. Nuer soldiers mutinied and deserted across the country. Machar fled Juba, rallying a rebel Nuer army. Since then, violence has continued across South Sudan, primarily between the SPLA, loyal to Kiir, and Machar’s rebel forces, known as the SPLM/A in Opposition (SPLM/A-IO). Other militias have also conducted attacks, which have caught civilians in the crossfire.

This conflict has disrupted the livelihood of millions of South Sudanese by severely threatening agriculture, on which many rely to support themselves and their families. Many farmers, already struggling under drought conditions, have left their fields. Those who stay are at the mercy of one or both warring parties, as well as many loosely affiliated gangs and militias roaming the countryside. Severe disruptions to South Sudan’s agricultural production have sparked a food crisis, and 2.5 million people now face starvation.

The 2016–2017 dry season was marked by severe food shortages. In February 2017, the United Nations and some government agencies declared famine in parts of the country. The humanitarian crisis, coupled with ethnic violence, continued to batter the South Sudanese, many of whom were left homeless. According to a May 2017 announcement from the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 1.8 million South Sudanese had fled their country, 62 percent of them children.

International attempts to resolve the crisis have so far been unsuccessful. Groups such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) have attempted to facilitate negotiations between the warring parties several times, but each cease-fire between Kiir’s and Machar’s forces has collapsed shortly after being agreed on. In 2016, it seemed that a fragile peace had been achieved, but it too collapsed after only six months. Peacekeeping forces with the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) have so far been unable to manage the tensions. Meanwhile, violence and food scarcity have continued, and international aid groups cannot access parts of the country to distribute humanitarian aid.

In June 2018, Kiir and Machar met for the first time since 2016 and a signed an IGAD-brokered peace deal. They later agreed to a power-sharing deal, according to which Machar would return as vice president. Analysts have expressed skepticism about whether this deal will last and stress that, despite this apparent progress toward peace, the ongoing humanitarian crisis has yet to end. Cease-fire violations and human rights abuses, including rape and mass killings, have continued even during the peace negotiations.

The violence in South Sudan has drawn widespread outrage from the United States and other governments. President Barack Obama condemned the fighting after it broke out in December 2013 and imposed sanctions on individuals on both sides of the conflict. The Donald J. Trump administration has also condemned the violence and placed additional sanctions on government officials; in 2018, it announced that it would review its aid to South Sudan. Additionally, the United Nations has frequently condemned actions by both Kiir’s and Machar’s forces, publishing reports of mass atrocities and recruitment of child soldiers by both sides. In July 2018, the UN Security Council voted to enact an arms embargo on South Sudan to stop the flow of weapons to participants of the conflict. However, critics argue that the embargo comes too late to have a serious effect and risks jeopardizing the peace process.

South Sudanese citizen waving a flag.
Obama meeting with Kiir

“Deadlines keep passing and innocent people keep dying. The log-rolling and delay has to end…This is an outrage and an insult to the people of South Sudan.”

— U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, August 11, 2014

2.3 Role of the United States

The United States has played a significant diplomatic role in South Sudan since the beginning of the twenty-first century. It helped broker the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), which included a provision for a referendum on southern secession, marking the first step toward South Sudanese independence. The United States has also made substantial investments in the country’s development; from 2014 to 2016, the United States gave South Sudan nearly $1.6 billion in humanitarian assistance. Over the years, the United States has also voted to authorize—and has funded—a series of UN peacekeeping missions in the region.

Although some policymakers argue that South Sudan has little economic or geopolitical significance for U.S. foreign policy, many moral and political factors create pressure for U.S. intervention. First is preventing atrocities and reducing the violence and loss of life in South Sudan. Many observers have criticized U.S. responses to past humanitarian crises, such as the 1994 Rwandan genocide, arguing that the United States should have done more to prevent atrocities. As this crisis gains the attention of more governments and human rights groups, the United States faces pressure to demonstrate its commitment to upholding human rights. Additionally, as the United States helped broker the 2005 CPA that led to South Sudan’s independence, seeing the new country spiral into genocide and famine could signal the failure of a significant American diplomatic effort.

Notwithstanding that the United States has an interest in responding to the crisis in South Sudan, any response comes with possible costs, notably the risk to U.S. personnel on the ground and a significant economic investment. Depending on how NSC members assess the risks and potential benefits, various options for a direct intervention are available. The first question, nevertheless, is not how to pursue a humanitarian intervention but whether to pursue one at all.

NSC members have three main policy options to consider.

Intervention in South Sudan

Bringing aid directly to displaced persons within South Sudan would require a major humanitarian and military intervention. Given the poor condition of the roads and other infrastructure in South Sudan, the United States and any partners would need helicopters to assist in the delivery of aid, as well as generators, communications equipment, and shelters to facilitate and sustain the operation. The military would also need to establish no-fly zones to protect troops and aid workers on the ground. This type of intervention could help the greatest number of people in need, but it also poses the greatest costs and risks to U.S. lives. To consider a direct intervention in South Sudan, NSC members will need to debate how the U.S. military would respond to attacks or armed interference and whether it would try to enforce a cease-fire in order to facilitate a lasting political outcome. This option thus has two variants:

a) Exclusively humanitarian intervention

The United States and any partners would conduct a humanitarian intervention to distribute aid inside South Sudan but would not seek to affect the conflict itself. The only goal would be to relieve human suffering. Personnel would negotiate with parties in South Sudan but not use force if they encountered resistance to their efforts to distribute assistance. U.S. troops would be authorized to fire only in case of imminent danger to themselves, civilian aid workers, U.S. military equipment, or aid installations or supplies. An intervention under these rules would be possible only if Kiir—and ideally other leaders—explicitly consented to the United States’ and any partners’ entering the country. Difficulties in the relationship between Kiir’s government and the United States also could raise questions about the feasibility of a consensual intervention.

b) Humanitarian intervention with peace enforcement

This option is the most ambitious. Its goal would be to address the conflict itself while simultaneously helping to relieve human suffering. It requires the same elements as the previous option to enter South Sudan, set up aid delivery stations, and protect aid workers, but it adds another military “line of operation” directed at enforcing peace among the warring parties. U.S. and any partner forces would be tasked with enforcing the most recent cease-fire agreement by physically keeping the warring parties apart. Should the intervention at this level fail, troops would need to become involved in peacemaking, which entails creating conditions to make a durable peace deal possible (e.g., by seeking to gain territory or attacking other parties). Either way, this operation requires significant military action. U.S. forces would be authorized to open fire on any party to the conflict, if necessary. U.S. troops would also be allowed to use force to defend civilians as well as themselves, their equipment, and aid personnel or supplies.

Intervention in neighboring countries to provide humanitarian aid

Almost two million South Sudanese refugees have made it to bordering countries, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and Sudan. Governments of these countries and UN agencies would likely welcome additional assistance from the United States and partners in providing food, shelter, security, and medical care to the ballooning number of refugees. This option would involve sending civilian employees and funds to support humanitarian efforts already being undertaken on the ground, as opposed to deploying a major military presence. However, some U.S. military personnel would be needed to ensure safety, and cargo aircraft and helicopters would be needed to reach otherwise inaccessible places. This approach would require fewer personnel and less equipment than a direct intervention in South Sudan. It would show that the United States was taking action to relieve the suffering of the South Sudanese people while putting few Americans in harm’s way and incurring fewer economic costs than an intervention in South Sudan would. Military personnel and aircraft from the United States and any partners would enter only those countries whose governments approved, making such an intervention consensual. Overall, this option would limit risks and costs, but it would not aid internally displaced persons in South Sudan, nor would it get at the root causes driving the conflict.

No or minimal involvement

Given the costs, risks, and complications of the other options, restraint deserves as much consideration as direct action. It would save taxpayer dollars and keep U.S. aid workers and troops out of harm’s way, not to mention that a poorly executed U.S. military intervention could inflame tensions, sparking more fighting and loss of life. The United States could continue or even increase its financial support for relief efforts undertaken by nongovernmental organizations and UN agencies and devote funding and diplomatic support to facilitating negotiations. It could also impose additional sanctions on individuals involved in the conflict. Such an approach would likely decrease U.S. influence in South Sudan’s affairs, yet it holds some chance of improving the situation while avoiding a direct U.S. intervention. However, this option would not provide the same level of relief to those suffering in the crisis as the others.

Case Notes Glossary


cease-fire:an agreement by one or more parties to a conflict to end military activities at a specified time, often for the purpose of allowing the pursuit of peace negotiations or the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA):a 2005 accord ending the Sudanese civil war that began in 1983. Among other provisions, the agreement, signed by Sudan’s government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), created a semiautonomous Southern Sudan region and called for the region’s people to vote in a 2011 referendum on independence.
coup d’état:a government takeover, often led by the military, that does not use the country’s codified mechanisms for changing power (such as elections).


genocide:the intentional mass destruction of a group of people based on religion, ethnicity, or another identity or characteristic. The United Nations (UN) recognized the act of genocide as a crime under international law in 1948.


Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD):an eight-member East African regional organization established in 1996 and the primary convening authority for negotiations in the South Sudanese conflict. IGAD’s mission includes regional cooperation and support to members on issues such as economic development, food security, and the environment.
internally displaced person (IDP):an individual forced to leave home due to conflict or natural disaster who, unlike a refugee, remains in his or her country of origin and does not cross a recognized international border.


no-fly zone:an area where aircraft are prohibited from flying, sometimes imposed in conflict zones and enforced with the threat of armed retaliation. A recent international example is the no-fly zone over Libya approved by the UN Security Council (UNSC) in 2011.


referendum:a vote, typically organized by a government, in which participants approve or reject a certain policy proposal. This is a form of direct democracy, in which citizens themselves (as opposed to elected representatives) make a policy decision.
refugee:an individual forced to leave home due to conflict or natural disaster who, unlike an internally displaced person (IDP), crosses a recognized international border and does not stay in his or her home country.
responsibility to protect (R2P):a nonbinding norm holding that outside powers have a responsibility to intervene in response to a government’s failure to protect its population from mass atrocities such as genocide, even though this violates the government’s sovereignty. The world’s governments adopted the R2P doctrine in 2005, but it remains controversial and unevenly applied.
Riek Machar:the head of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army in Opposition (SPLM/A-IO). An ethnic Nuer and a longtime member of the mainstream SPLM/A, Machar formed his own splinter rebel group in the 1990s and then served in the Sudanese government before reconciling with the SPLM/A in 2002. Machar served as vice president of Southern and then South Sudan from 2005 to 2013, when Kiir fired him.


Salva Kiir:the president of South Sudan. An ethnic Dinka and longtime southern rebel, Kiir became vice president of Sudan, president of Southern Sudan, and head of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) after John Garang’s 2005 death. Kiir was elected president of the new South Sudan at the country’s independence in 2011.
sanction:a tool of statecraft, frequently involving economic measures such as asset freezes and trade restrictions, used to exact a certain behavior or outcome from another party. The U.S. and EU sanctions against Russian companies and individuals that aim to encourage Russia to end its interference in Ukraine are an example.
secession:the act of breaking away from a territory or leaving an organization, usually for the purposes of establishing a new one. The secession of eleven southern, slaveholding states from the United States and their subsequent establishment of the Confederate States of America led to the American Civil War.
Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A):South Sudan’s ruling political party and armed forces, led by President Salva Kiir. The SPLM/A began under John Garang’s leadership as a rebel group against the Sudanese government and has long represented a broad constituency with sometimes divergent goals.
Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army in Opposition (SPLM/A-IO):the South Sudanese rebel group led by former Vice President Riek Machar. Mostly Nuer and often supported by smaller militias, the SPLM/A-IO is a splinter group from South Sudan’s ruling party and armed forces. It has not expressed a consistent agenda.
Sudanese civil war:an armed conflict between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), sparked by the 1983 creation of the SPLM/A. The war, which also involved various smaller militias, is considered to be a continuation of earlier hostilities between Khartoum and southern rebels that occurred from 1955 to 1972. It ended with the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).
Role Play Sections
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.1 Role

Welcome to your role as a participant in the National Security Council (NSC)! You should have received an email with your role assignment, but if you did not, you can view your assignment by clicking on the “My Simulations” tab on your account page. At this point, you should have reviewed essential background information about the NSC, read the case, watched the accompanying videos, and perused some of the additional reading. Whether you have been assigned a specific role as an individual or part of a group, or as a general advisor to the president, we suggest you read the case once again to identify material that is particularly relevant to your role or that requires further investigation. After that, you will conduct independent research as you write your position memo and prepare for the role-play.

There are four subsections that follow. Research and Preparation (3.2) will aid your research for the position memo and provide additional reading to guide your research; the Guide to the Memoranda (3.3) provides information about position memos and an example; and the Guide to the Role-Play (3.4) provides more information on the in-class role-play.

You can learn about your role by reading the information provided on your role sheet, which can be found in the Guide to the Role-Play section (3.4).  Review this information thoroughly and often, as your objectives and strategy in the position memo and role-play will be shaped by the institutional perspective of the role you have been assigned (unless you are playing a general advisor). After you finish the role-play and subsequent debrief, you will have an opportunity to share your personal thoughts and recommendations on this case in a policy review memo (Section Four, Wrap-up).

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.2 Research and Preparation

Your role sheet contains three parts: a description of your role, issues for consideration, and research leads. The role description details the position you will portray in the role-play. The issues for consideration will guide your thinking and assist you in approaching the case from the perspective of your assigned role. Most relevant, however, are the research leads. Going beyond the reports and articles linked to throughout the case and in the reading list, these research leads provide suggested materials and topics for further research specifically relevant to your assigned role. Below are some tips to review as you prepare for the role-play exercise.

Research and Preparation

  • Draw on the case notes, additional case materials, and your own research to familiarize yourself with

    • the goals of the NSC in general and of this NSC meeting in particular;
    • the U.S. interests at stake in the case and their importance to national security;
    • your role and your department or agency, including its purpose and objectives in the government and on the NSC;
    • the aspects of the case most relevant to your role;
    • the elements that a comprehensive policy proposal on the case should contain; and
    • the major debates or conflicts likely to occur during the role-play. You need not resolve these yourself, of course, but you will want to anticipate them in order to articulate and defend your position in the NSC deliberation.
  • Set goals for your research. Know which questions you seek to answer and refer back to the case notes, additional readings, and research leads as needed.
  • Make a list of questions that you feel are not fully answered by the given materials. What do you need to research in greater depth? Can your classmates help you understand these subjects?
  • Using the case materials, additional readings, and discussions with your classmates, weigh the relative importance of the U.S. interests at stake in the case. Determine where trade-offs might be required and think through the potential consequences of several different policy options.
  • Conduct your research from the perspective of your assigned role, but be sure to consider the full range of U.S. interests at stake in the case, whether diplomatic, military, economic, environmental, moral, or otherwise. This will help you strengthen your policy position and anticipate and prepare for debates in the role-play.
  • Consider what questions or challenges the president or other NSC members might raise regarding the options you propose and have responses ready.



  • Consult a wide range of sources to gain a full perspective on the issues raised in the case and on policy options. Seek out sources that you may not normally use, such as publications from the region(s) under discussion, unclassified and declassified government documents, and specialized policy reports and journals.
  • Remember: Wikipedia is not a reliable source, but it can be a reasonable starting point. The citations at the bottom of each entry often contain useful resources. 
  • Just as policymakers tackle issues that are controversial and subject to multiple interpretations, so will you in your preparation for the writing assignments and role-play. For this reason, evaluate your sources carefully. Always ask yourself:
    • When was the information produced? Is it still relevant and accurate?
    • Who is writing or speaking and why? Does the author or speaker have a particular motivation or affiliation that you should take into account?
    • Where is the information published? Determine the political leanings of journals, magazines, and newspapers by reading several articles published by each one.
    • Who is the intended audience?
    • Does the author provide sufficient evidence for his or her analysis or opinion? Does the author cite reliable and impartial sources?
    • Does the information appear one-sided? Does it consider multiple points of view?
    • Is the language measured or inflammatory? Do any of the points appear exaggerated?
  • Take note of and cite your sources correctly. This is important not just for reasons of academic integrity, but so that you can revisit them as needed.
  • Ask your teacher which style he or she prefers you use when citing sources, such as Modern Language Association (MLA), Chicago Manual of Style, or Associated Press (AP). 

Reading List


2.1 The Issue

Jennifer Williams, “The Conflict in South Sudan, Explained,” Vox, January 9, 2017, https://www.vox.com/world/2016/12/8/13817072/south-sudan-crisis-explained-ethnic-cleansing-genocide

Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun, “The Responsibility to Protect” Foreign Affairs, 2002, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2002-11-01/responsibility-protect

Alex de Waal and Abdul Mohammed, “Breakdown in South Sudan: What Went Wrong—and How to Fix It,” Foreign Affairs, January 1, 2014, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/sudan/2014-01-01/breakdown-south-sudan.


2.2 Background

Katherine Noel and Alex de Waal, “Understanding the Roots of Conflict in South Sudan,” CFR.org, September 14, 2016, https://www.cfr.org/interview/understanding-roots-conflict-south-sudan?cid=rss-analysisbriefaskcfrexpertsb-understanding_the_roots_of_con-091416

Carol Berger, “Old Enmities in the Newest Nation: Behind the Fighting in South Sudan,” New Yorker, January 23, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/old-enmities-in-the-newest-nation-behind-the-fighting-in-south-sudan

Lesley Warner, “South Sudan Post-Independence: Things Fall Apart,” War on the Rocks, July 17, 2014, http://warontherocks.com/2014/07/south-sudan-post-independence-things-fall-apart/


2.3 Role of the United States

The Fault Lines Digital Team, “Sudan Expert: International Community Enabled South Sudanese Corruption,” Al Jazeera America, April 12, 2015, http://america.aljazeera.com/watch/shows/fault-lines/articles/2015/4/12/sudan-expert-international-community-enabled-south-sudanese-corruption.html.

Colum Lynch, “Inside the White House Fight Over the Slaughter in South Sudan,” Foreign Policy, January 26, 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/01/26/exclusive-inside-the-white-house-fight-southsudan-obama-conflict-susanrice-unitednations/.

Ciaran Donnelly, “What the U.S. Must do to Save South Sudan, a Nation it Helped Create,” Time, October 31, 2017, http://time.com/5004092/south-sudan-us-assistance/


Further Reading

Fred Aja Agwu, “The Challenge of Humanitarian Intervention Since Rwanda,” Council of Councils, August 6, 2014, http://www.cfr.org/councilofcouncils/global_memos/p33324.

Madeleine K. Albright and Richard S. Williamson, “The United States and R2P: From Words to Action,” 2013, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/23-united-states-responsibility-protect-albright-williamson.pdf.

Charlotte Alfred, “How South Sudan’s Conflict is Killing Women Far From the Battlefield,” WorldPost, July 10, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/07/10/women-in-south-sudan_n_7707560.html.

———, “Meet the South Sudanese Farmers Who Want to Feed Their War-Torn Nation,” WorldPost, June 1, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/06/01/south-sudan-farmers_n_7488264.html.

Jon Lee Anderson, “A History of Violence,” New Yorker, July 23, 2012, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/07/23/a-history-of-violence-4.

Jeremy Astill-Brown, “South Sudan’s Slide into Conflict: Revisiting the Past and Reassessing Partnerships,” Chatham House, December 2014, http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20141203SouthSudanConflictAstillBrown.pdf.

Cheri Baker, “Brutal Violence in South Sudan: How Peacekeepers Can Do More to Protect Civilians,” War on the Rocks, November 27, 2016, https://warontherocks.com/2016/11/brutal-violence-in-south-sudan-how-peacekeepers-can-do-more-to-protect-civilians/

James Copnall, “Bullets Banish Books in South Sudan as Education Becomes a Casualty of War,” Guardian, July 7, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/jul/07/bullets-banish-books-south-sudan-education-casualty-war.

———, “South Sudan: Fighting Against History,” African Arguments, May 26, 2015, http://africanarguments.org/2015/05/26/south-sudan-fighting-against-history-by-james-copnall/.

Alex de Waal, “Sizzling South Sudan: Why Oil Is Not the Whole Story,” Foreign Affairs, February 7, 2013, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/sudan/2013-02-07/sizzling-south-sudan.

Pamela Dockins, “What Triggered the Kiir-Machar Rift in South Sudan?” Voice of America, January 9, 2014, http://www.voanews.com/content/what-triggered-the-kir-machar-rift-in-south-sudan/1826903.html.

Charlton Doki and Adam Mohamed Ahmad, “‘Africa’s Arms Dump’: Following the Trail of Bullets in the Sudans,” Guardian, October 2, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/02/-sp-africa-arms-dump-south-sudan.  

Peter Dörrie, “China Is Stealthily Arming Troops in South Sudan,” The Week/War Is Boring, March 11, 2015, http://theweek.com/articles/543301/china-stealthily-arming-troops-south-sudan.

Peter Dörrie, “No One Is Winning South Sudan’s Civil War,” War Is Boring, April 28, 2015, https://medium.com/war-is-boring/no-one-is-winning-south-sudan-s-civil-war-3d95e9f12af0.

Janice Elmore, “Kittens in the Oven: Dashed Hopes in South Sudan,” War on the Rocks, January 14, 2014, http://warontherocks.com/2014/01/kittens-in-the-oven-dashed-hopes-in-south-sudan/?singlepage=1.

Lee Feinstein and Anne-Marie Slaughter, “A Duty to Prevent,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2004, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2004-01-01/duty-prevent.

Simona Foltyn, “Independent South Sudan’s Economic Woes,” Al Jazeera, July 8, 2015, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2015/07/independent-south-sudans-economic-woes-150705112843046.html.

Emily Fornof, “South Sudan Activists Call for Civil Society Role in Peace Process,” United States Institute of Peace, May 27, 2014, http://www.usip.org/publications/south-sudan-activists-call-civil-society-role-in-peace-process.

Leymah Gbowee, “The Voice of South Sudan’s Women Must Be Heard to Give Peace a Chance,” Guardian, February 23, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/feb/23/south-sudan-women-peace-talks-leymah-gbowee.  

Rick Gladstone, “South Sudan Leaders Amass Great Wealth as Nation Suffers, Report Says,” New York Times, September 12, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/13/world/africa/south-sudan-salva-kiir-riek-machar-corruption.html?ref=world

Andrew Green, “Kenya’s Troop Withdrawal Could Seal the Fate of South Sudan’s Peace Process,” World Politics Review, November 15, 2016, http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/20452/kenya-s-troop-withdrawal-could-seal-the-fate-of-south-sudan-s-peace-process

Peter Greste, “Thinking Outside the Ethnic Box in S Sudan,” Al Jazeera, December 28, 2013, http://blogs.aljazeera.com/blog/africa/thinking-outside-ethnic-box-s-sudan.

Rebecca Hamilton, “Seize This Crisis to Push South Sudan Reform,” Reuters, January 9, 2014, http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2014/01/09/seize-this-crisis-to-push-south-sudan-reform/.

Rebecca Hamilton, “U.S. Played Key Role in Southern Sudan’s Long Journey to Independence,” Atlantic, July 9, 2011, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/07/us-played-key-role-in-southern-sudans-long-journey-to-independence/241660/.  

Zlatica Hoke, “South Sudan Conflict Fuels Humanitarian Crisis,” Voice of America, March 7, 2015, http://www.voanews.com/content/south-sudan-conflict-fuels-humanitarian-crisis/2671353.html

Nathaniel Ross Kelly, “The Bloodiest Conflict No One Is Talking About,” War Is Boring, June 1, 2015, https://medium.com/war-is-boring/the-bloodiest-conflict-no-one-is-talking-about-39e0d4d48912.  

Princeton Lyman and Kate Almquist Knopf, “To Save South Sudan, Put it on Life Support,” Financial Times, July 20, 2016, http://next.ft.com/content/c4f24d75-b2d7-3667-bcb2-6d25be5f3f75.

Colum Lynch, “South Sudan’s Attacks on U.N. Could Imperil Future Peacekeeping,” Foreign Policy, October 10, 2016, http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/10/10/south-sudans-attacks-on-u-n-could-imperil-future-peacekeeping/

Justin Lynch, “Is There Any Hope Left for South Sudan?” New Yorker, July 14, 2016, http://newyorker.com/news/news-desk/is-there-any-hope-left-for-south-sudan?intcid=mod-latest?reload.

Tristan McConnell, “A Year of War in South Sudan,” Medium, December 17, 2014, https://medium.com/@t_mcconnell/a-year-of-war-in-south-sudan-ea4170f05a03.

Ty McCormick and Siobhán O’Grady, “The New York Times South Sudan Op-Ed That Wasn’t,” Foreign Policy, June 9, 2016, http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/06/09/the-new-york-times-south-sudan-op-ed-that-wasnt.

Andrew S. Natsios, “Lords of the Tribes,” Foreign Affairs, July 9, 2015, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/sudan/2015-07-09/lords-tribes.

Siobhan O’Grady, “The African Rebel Leader Who’s Stoked About Trump,” The Atlantic, November 26, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/11/south-sudan-machar-kiir-trump-clinton/508499/?utm_source=atltw

Jason Patinkin, “No Country for Civilians,” Foreign Policy, August 31, 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/08/31/no-country-for-civilians-south-sudan/

Jason Patinkin, “Four Years on, a Harrowing Sense of Déjà Vu in South Sudan,” Christian Science Monitor, July 8, 2015, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/2015/0708/Four-years-on-a-harrowing-sense-of-deja-vu-in-South-Sudan.

Sudarsan Raghavan, “With Oil at Stake, South Sudan’s Crisis Matters to Its Customers,” Washington Post, January 20, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/with-oil-at-stake-the-war-in-south-sudan-matters-to-its-customers/2014/01/20/dcca9432-7d25-11e3-97d3-b9925ce2c57b_story.html

Philip Roessler, “Why South Sudan Has Exploded in Violence,” Washington Post, December 24, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2013/12/24/why-south-sudan-has-exploded-in-violence/.

Marc Santora, “As South Sudan Crisis Worsens, ‘There Is No More Country,” New York Times, June 22, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/23/world/africa/as-south-sudan-crisis-worsens-there-is-no-more-country.html.

———, “A Search for Survival and Family Amid the Violence in South Sudan,” New York Times, June 27, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/28/world/africa/a-search-for-survival-and-family-amid-the-violence-in-south-sudan.html.

Somini Sengupta, “Beleaguered Blue Helmets: What Is the Role of U.N. Peacekeepers?” New York Times, July 12, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/13/sunday-review/what-is-the-role-of-un-peacekeepers.html.

“Soaked in Oil: The Cost of War in South Sudan,” Al Jazeera, March 4, 2015, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2015/03/soaked-oil-cost-war-south-sudan-150302102747401.html.

“South Sudan’s New War: Abuses by Government and Opposition Forces,” Human Rights Watch, August 2014, http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/southsudan0814_ForUpload.pdf.

The Sudd Institute, “South Sudan’s Crisis: Its Drivers, Key Players, and Post-Conflict Prospects,” August 3, 2014, http://suddinstitute.org/assets/Publications/572b7eb3cea73_SouthSudansCrisisItsDriversKeyPlayers_Full.pdf.

Jérôme Tubiana, “An Elusive Peace in South Sudan,” Foreign Affairs, February 3, 2015, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/africa/2015-02-03/elusive-peace-south-sudan?cid=nlc-foreign_affairs_today-020415-an_elusive_peace_in_south_suda_5-020415&sp_mid=47954946&sp_rid=c21hbGNvbXNvbkBnbWFpbC5jb20S1.

———, “Lasting Solutions Elusive for South Sudan’s Militia Problem,” World Politics Review, March 12, 2012, http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/11716/lasting-solutions-elusive-for-south-sudans-militia-problem.  


Quotation Sources

Nathaniel Ross Kelly, “South Sudan’s Butchers Are Exempt from Punishment,” War is Boring, June 3, 2015, https://medium.com/war-is-boring/south-sudan-s-butchers-are-exempt-from-punishment-21fcc1eb25a0.

John Kerry, “Deeply Concerned by Failure of South Sudan Peace Talks to Meet Region’s Deadline,” U.S. Department of State, August 11, 2014, https://2009-2017.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2014/08/230500.htm.

Antony Loewenstein, “South Sudan’s Elite Power Struggle Deepens Crisis,” Al Jazeera America, April 3, 2015, http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/4/south-sudans-elite-power-struggle-deepens-crisis.html.

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.3 Guide to the Memoranda

A major goal of the Model Diplomacy program is to strengthen your ability to write concise, articulate, and persuasive documents that busy colleagues can absorb quickly. In completing this section and Section Four, you will write two memoranda, or memos. These assignments will improve your writing skills and give you a taste of how U.S. foreign policy is conceived, coordinated, and executed.

What is a memorandum?

  • A memo is a formal, succinct written message from one person, department, or organization to another. It is an important form of formal, written communication in the workplace. A memo is generally short, to the point, and free of flowery language and extraneous information. A memo is typically informative or decision-oriented and is formatted in a way that helps readers quickly grasp the main points.
  • In the National Security Council (NSC), memos consider, coordinate, and articulate policy options. They help analyze, evaluate, advocate, and channel those policy options and decisions within the bureaucracy.
  • Memos also function as historical record. Many memos related to NSC discussions and presidential decisions are filed in government archives. Some are later declassified and released to help people understand how policy was devised at a given time in U.S. history. You can access historical examples of memos online. One such resource is maintained by the Federation of American Scientists and offers links to memoranda and directives that various U.S. presidents have issued.

Position Memo 


  • The first memo everyone (except the president) writes is called a position memo. It is written from the perspective of your assigned role. It presents a set of policy options for consideration by the NSC and recommends one of them to the president. The recommendation, or position, outlined in this memo is the one you will present during the role-play. (Keep in mind you may change your position as a result of the role-play discussion.)
  • The position memo will help your fellow NSC members consider the issue efficiently and facilitate decision-making by the president. Equally important, it will help you clarify your understanding of the case by forcing you to identify the essential facts and viable policy options.
  • If you have been assigned a specific role, remember that you are writing from the point of view of the department, agency, or office you represent. Using your institutional position as a lens, you will outline a set of options to address the crisis. Make sure you take into account the pros, cons, and ramifications of each option as it pertains to your role and as it is informed by your reading of the case materials and further research. Also, anticipate critiques of your proposed policy and incorporate your response into the memo. Doing so will help you prepare for the role-play.

Note: If you are assigned the role of president, you will not write a position memo. Instead, you will write a two-page presidential directive, or PD, at the conclusion of the role-play. You will address the PD, which will follow a memo format, to the NSC members and inform them of your final decision regarding the policy option or options to be implemented (see below).

If your teacher has chosen to assign everyone the role of general advisor to the president, you will not need to write the position memo from a particular institutional position. Instead, you will have the flexibility to approach the issue from your own perspective, incorporating a comprehensive assessment of the crisis into your argument.


Position Memo Guidelines

Total length: approximately one thousand words

  • Subject and background (two short paragraphs): Summarize in the first paragraph the significance of the issue in the context of U.S. foreign policy and national security. Identify in the second the central policy question or questions to be decided. Provide just enough information about the crisis so that the reader understands your memo’s purpose and importance; do not attempt to discuss the case in any depth.
  • Objectives (bullet points): Succinctly state your department’s objectives in the current crisis. These can be general national security objectives (such as preventing war) or more specific goals tied to your department’s mission (such as protecting U.S. citizens). They should be important to U.S. national security, directly tied to the case, and feasible. These objectives should guide the policy analysis and recommendation that make up the rest of your memo.
  • Options and analysis (one paragraph for each option): Present and analyze several options for U.S. policy. Discuss their costs, benefits, and resource needs where possible. To illuminate the trade-offs inherent in complex policy decisions, be sure to acknowledge the weaknesses or disadvantages of each proposed option. No option is likely to be perfect.
  • Recommendation and justification (several paragraphs): Identify your preferred policy option or options and describe how you think it or they could be carried out. Explain your reasoning, keeping in mind that you aim to convince the president to follow your recommendation. Addressing the weaknesses or disadvantages you identified in the options and analysis section can help strengthen your argument.

Click here to see a sample position memo.

Presidential Directive


The format of the presidential directive is simpler than that of a position memo. A directive contains a record of the policy option or options that the president has chosen as well as the accompanying orders to various parts of the government with details on how to carry out these decisions.

  • Start with a short paragraph describing the purpose of the memo. Everyone you are writing to was in the NSC meeting, so only brief context is needed.
  • Explain in numbered paragraphs the decisions you have made, why you have made them, and any details regarding how you want the decisions carried out.
  • Explain the communications strategy for the decision, considering both relevant foreign governments and the public. Also, consider that you may wish to keep certain elements of the decision secret from the public.
  • Include any additional details before you sign.
  • Be sure to include all the information necessary for NSC members to understand and carry out your intentions.

Click here  to see a sample presidential directive.

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.4 Guide to the Role-play

During the simulated NSC meeting, you will meet to debate and discuss U.S. policy options in response to the issues outlined in the case. Consistent with the NSC’s mission to advise the president, you should raise the issues that are most important for the president to consider. This will enable him or her to make the most informed decision on policy options. Though you may or may not agree with this decision, your responsibility as an NSC member is to provide the best possible analysis and advice from the perspective of your role.

Role-play Guidelines

  1. Stay in your role at all times.
  2. Follow the general protocol for speaking.
    1. Signaling to Speak

      1. The National Security Advisor (NSA) will administer the meeting and should decide on a speaking order. Wait to be called on by the NSA.
      2. If you would like to speak out of turn, signal to the NSA, perhaps by raising a hand or a placard, and wait until the NSA calls on you.
    2. Form of Speech
      1. Address the president as Mr. or Madam President and your fellow NSC members in the same fashion (for example, Madam Secretary).
      2. Do not exceed predetermined time limits. If you exceed these limits, the NSA will cut you off.
      3. Frame your comments with a purpose and stay on topic. Remember that you must advise the president so that he or she can reach a decision on a precise policy question.
    3. Listening
      1. Take notes while others are speaking.
      2. Refrain from whispering or conducting side conversations.
      3. Applause and booing are not appropriate. Your words will be the most effective tool to indicate agreement or disagreement.


Role-play Tips

  • There is no right or wrong way to participate in a role-play, but the better prepared you are, the more likely you will be able to advance a position effectively, and the more you and your classmates will get out of the experience.
  • Be patient during the role-play. Do not hold back from sharing your perspective, but be sure to give others a chance to do the same.
  • Where there are competing interests, make the judgment calls that you would make if you were a government official, as informed by your earlier consideration of potential trade-offs. Ensure that the consequences of various decisions are carefully weighed.
  • Where appropriate, find common ground with other members of the NSC during the role-play. With whom might you work in advocating your proposed policies? You may find that combining several policy ideas into a new proposal with broader support is an effective strategy if the debate is at an impasse.
  • Think critically about the strengths and weaknesses of your approach as the discussion continues. It is important to subject your own arguments to the same scrutiny that you apply to those of your fellow students. Rethink your arguments as appropriate to take into account the feedback and counterarguments that other NSC members present.
  • You cannot win or lose the role-play. Instead, you should aim to offer a well-reasoned articulation of your position while making concessions and adjustments where you believe they are warranted.
Line Item
2 to 3 minutes per participant
  1. Present initial positions to the president.
  2. Investigate the nuances of the positions through questioning.
  3. Clarify the central questions to be debated.
Procedural Notes

Each participant presents his or her position statement. If time permits, the president may ask questions to understand each NSC member’s position and bring out the essential questions he or she wishes to debate.

30 to 60 seconds per participant
  1. Clarify the obstacles, risks, opportunities, and threats.
  2. Evaluate the various positions on their merits.
Procedural Notes

This is the debate portion of the role-play, when participants can defend their recommendations against others’ and identify potential areas of compromise or agreement.

30 to 60 seconds per participant
  1. Narrow the options to a few comprehensive and well- focused strategies that the president prefers.
  2. Provide the president with clear recommendations (from NSC members), perhaps as a consensus or through a vote.
  3. Arrive at a final presidential decision 
Procedural Notes

This round should start with the president’s stating one to three preferred options to be fleshed out.

Wrap Up Sections
Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.1 The Debrief

After the debate and deliberation close, the president will announce his or her decision, to be later finalized in the form of a written presidential directive (PD). If time permits, you will participate in a debrief following the president’s announcement.

Be active in this debrief. The role-play might seem to be the most challenging part of the experience, but the debrief is equally important. It will reinforce what you learned during the role-play exercise and refine your analytical skills. It will also force you to step out of your role and to view the case from a personal perspective. You will have the opportunity to discuss any challenges you encountered and how you felt about the final presidential decision. The debrief will close with a reflection on the complexities and challenges of crafting foreign policy. This should help clarify your understanding of what you learned and answer any lingering questions. This exercise will also assist you in completing your final assignment, the policy review memo.

Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.2 Reflecting on the Experience

The following questions are proposed to guide the discussion in the in-class debrief. This is not an exhaustive list and may vary depending on how your role-play exercise unfolded.  If your class does not hold a debrief, these questions will nonetheless help you reflect on the role-play and write your policy review memo: 

  • Which issues received adequate attention during the role-play? Which, if any, received excessive attention or were left unresolved?
  • Did the group consider long-term strategic concerns, or was it able to focus only on the immediate issue and the short-term implications of policy options?
  • Which U.S. interests did the group or the president prioritize in the PD and why? Were you comfortable with this prioritization?
  • Did time constraints affect the discussion and influence the policymaking process?
  • What techniques did you use to convince others that your policy position was the best option? What were successful strategies employed by others?
  • What were the most significant challenges to your position? Did any make you rethink or adjust your position?
  • Did your points cause anyone else to change his or her arguments or position?
  • What political, economic, and other issues arose that you had not previously considered?
  • How did the simulation change your perspective on foreign policy decision-making?
  • If you could go back, what would you have done differently in presenting and advocating your point of view?
Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.3 Policy Review Memo

The policy review memo is your final assignment in the Model Diplomacy simulation. In the debrief discussion after the role-play, you and your classmates went beyond the role you played and thought about the issue from a variety of perspectives. Now that the National Security Council discussion and debrief are behind you, you can consider whether you personally support your recommended policy given the full spectrum of arguments and considerations that arose. Shedding your institutional role and writing from a personal point of view, you will craft a policy review memo that outlines and reflects on the policy options discussed, incorporating and critiquing the president’s decision where appropriate.

If you played the role of president in the simulation, your memo should still reflect your personal opinion. You can comment on the course of action you ordered as president, further justify it, write more extensively on the options you dismissed, or suggest and support alternate options.

No matter which role you played originally, take into account all you have learned. Your instructor will want to see whether and how your understanding of the issue and of the policymaking process has evolved from that expressed in your position memo.

As for the position memo, a sample policy review memo is provided for your reference.

Policy Review Memo Guidelines 

  • Subject (one short paragraph): Offer a brief statement about the significance of the issue as it relates to U.S. foreign policy and national security. Provide just enough information about the crisis so that the reader can understand the purpose and importance of your memo. Be sure to include an initial statement of whether you agree or disagree with the president’s decision.
  • Options and analysis (one paragraph per option): Present and analyze the options discussed during the debate, deliberation, or debrief. Discuss their drawbacks, benefits, and resource needs. Be sure to acknowledge any weaknesses or disadvantages of the proposed options.
  • Recommendation and justification (several paragraphs): Identify and explain your preferred policy option or options in more detail. Here, you can explain why you personally favor one or more of the recommendations that you initially presented or the president chose, or different options entirely. If you choose to support the options you presented in your position memo, make sure to justify why you feel yours is still the best position.
  • Reflection (one to two paragraphs): Discuss how your position and the presidential directive are similar; if they are not, discuss how they are different. Use this section to give your thoughts on what the president should have included in his directive, or what you would have done differently. Remember, this is from your point of view; you are no longer advocating on behalf of a department or agency.

Click here to see a full example of a policy review memo.