Teaching Model Diplomacy at the U.S. Military Academy
Captain Brandon Archuleta is an assistant professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. A West Point graduate himself, he was commissioned into the U.S. Army as a field artillery officer in 2006 and served in both Iraq (2007–2008) and Afghanistan (2009–2010). He received his PhD in government from the University of Texas at Austin. His research interests include American grand strategy, national security, and defense policy. In May, he used Model Diplomacy in two sections of "American Politics," an introductory course required for every West Point freshman. CFR Education Advisor and former U.S. Navy Lieutenant Eric Gardiner spoke with Archuleta about his experience with Model Diplomacy and the importance of teaching foreign policy and international affairs to both students and future military officers. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What courses do you teach at West Point?
I teach American politics and the public policymaking capstone course for our seniors majoring in American politics. Next year, I will be course director for "American Politics," the introductory course that all cadets take at West Point.
Which is something unique to West Point, correct?
While most public universities require their students to take one of several government courses, every graduate of West Point is required to take the same American politics course. We don't waive cadets out of it no matter how high their AP [Advanced Placement] scores. We teach them about the founding political institutions, political behavior, and public policy. What really makes the course special is that we spend a whole block teaching cadets about civil-military relations, which makes it unique—and we take pride in that.
What kind of knowledge and skills are you trying to teach cadets, as both college students and future military officers?
As college students, we want to give the cadets some sense of history as they study politics and government because political decisions and institutions largely rely on the context of the day. We have to understand the policy history to understand how we got to where we are today. It's important to make sure that the cadets understand the founding fathers, as well as their intent for the American government to have tension between and within the different branches. As students, we want them to be able to think critically, think deeply, and apply original analysis to some of the most complex political questions of our day. As future officers, we certainly want them to have critical thinking and analysis skills, but what we really want them to understand is how the federal government and bureaucracy works—especially with regard to defense, national security, and foreign policy. We want them to understand appropriate civil-military relations and appropriate political-military behavior.
Obviously not every cadet at West Point is a political science major. How do you go about making international affairs and foreign policy interesting for cadets of any academic major?
I often tell my cadets, "Life is a series of decision points and transitions and if you never have an opportunity to sit in a class again and study American politics or U.S. foreign policy, then you've got to take it seriously right now. Because, very shortly in your career, you'll find yourself in life and death situations as a young lieutenant and the decisions you make will have outsize diplomatic implications." If this is the only course they're going to take on American politics and the only lesson they have on U.S. foreign policy, then they have to make it count. So, we try to inspire them with the gravity of what they're about to undertake. This education is going to directly inform what they do. I also tease them and say that while some of them might be chemistry or physics majors, in all reality, their first military boss will be far more interested in their knowledge of defense policy and national security than physics or chemistry.
Does West Point regularly use simulations as part of its curriculum?
We have an elective course on conflict and negotiation for majors in American politics, international relations, and economics, and it's a course that any of our social science majors can take. But in terms of the core course for all cadets, in the past, we have used variations of a congressional simulation exercise. We ask cadets to play actors in particular political institutions with vested interests in the legislative outcome of a bill we present them.
So what attracted you to Model Diplomacy?
As a scholar of public policy, I think our congressional simulation drives home the point that the legislative process is complex and sticky—not everybody gets what they want because politics is inherently a game of winners and losers. But what I don't like about those sorts of simulations is that they create a structured environment to the policymaking process, when, in reality, the policymaking process is inherently unstructured and complex. In trying to communicate this to undergraduates, I was looking for a simulation exercise that would provide the cadets the opportunity to wrestle with an unstructured and complex policy environment.
What's the value of simulation programs and other blended learning exercises, both as a student and as a future officer?
Drawing from my own experience as a platoon leader in Iraq, I often attended town council meetings in this little town of Al Hak, Iraq, where I negotiated and bartered with the local politicians that were sort of the local powerbrokers in town. We had two tribes in that area and I likened them to the Hatfields and the McCoys—a rough history of bad blood and feuds. By virtue of being the only U.S. military presence in the area, we couldn't afford that on our watch. So, we were negotiating conflict in real time as twenty-three-year-old officers on the ground. That's why it's very important as future military officers that they go through these simulation exercises, that they negotiate conflict, and that they come to complex decisions given trying circumstances.
As students, what we want them to understand are the vested interests of the various institutional players involved in the policymaking process. With Model Diplomacy, what I found interesting was that the cadets had to understand what the vested interests were for each bureaucracy that was part of the National Security Council (NSC). Was the secretary of state first and foremost pushing diplomatic options? Was the national security advisor the honest broker? Was the attorney general concerned with the implications of military action with regard to international law, treaties, and alliances? They have to understand the roles that they're playing so they can see how it all comes together. All the while, the national security advisor is hopefully providing clear feedback to the president. The president is the one who has to wade through all that. It's interesting to see students presented with a multitude of interests and a ton of information all at once—they get a sense of how unstructured and complex the policymaking process really is, especially in the midst of crisis, when a decision must be made.
So, the scenario you chose was crisis-driven.
I chose the Russia and NATO in the Baltics case. I thought it was timely and relevant. There's certainly no greater example of the potential for great power war than something between the United States and Russia. The case also highlights the friction between American public opinion and treaty obligations. Would the United States be willing to go to war to defend Estonia? If the alliance is going to stand, then we have to be willing to defend NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization]. Academics understood that, but the public writ large doesn't have the same level of understanding or appreciation for the implications of what an incursion into Estonia would mean. What I love about the Baltics is that they are in a region where the United States has less vested interest than other areas around the world. It begs the question about whether we are willing to spill blood and treasure to defend the Baltics against Russian aggression. And if not, why not? But if so, why? And that's certainly negotiable within the context of the simulation. How do the cadets think about articulating that to the American people? What actions are the cadets willing to take within the scope of the simulation to counter Russian aggression in the Baltics?
In that particular case, it's about communicating to Russia, but also to the American people ...
Exactly. That's what's so important about the study of American politics and foreign policy. As a policy scholar, you have to understand the audience cost and the domestic consequences of your actions. Where international relations scholars treat states as unitary actors, the policy scholars are always really interested in the interinstitutional food fights that affect these really important decisions.
Were you trying to teach the cadets something through this case specifically? What did you end up teaching them through the simulation?
I was hoping they would gain a greater understanding of the situation in Russia and the Baltics. Between the history, the context, and the very realistic scenario that CFR has put together, the cadets come to the simulation with a real background on the issue that transcends the classroom discussion. The other simulations that we've done in the past just don't translate outside the classroom. But with this simulation, they can pick up The New York Times the next day, read something about Russia or NATO, and everything they just learned about in Model Diplomacy is still applicable. I was really blown away by what the cadets were able to walk away with just by using the preparatory resources that Model Diplomacy provides. They are digesting years of history, foreign relations, and policy decisions that are still relevant today. I tell them that if they go home over the summer and have a conversation with friends and family about U.S. foreign policy or U.S. relations with Russia—given this particular scenario—they should be able to articulate that the U.S.-Russian relationship is defined along these three different lines of effort and that aggression in the Baltics would mean these five different things. If they can clearly articulate a very complex situation in that sort of manner, then we have done our job in terms of teaching them, giving them the tools as students to go out and have these more important conversations.
In terms of learning outcomes, I was really focused on them having an understanding of the policymaking process as nonlinear, iterative, and sometimes disjointed. What I thought was great about the simulation was that the cadets had to really understand that to be the best policymaker, you have to be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty.
As a former military officer myself, when I first encountered Model Diplomacy, I wished that I had had the opportunity to play these high-level policy roles. That way, when I saw directives trickle down into the interagency environment, I would have had a better appreciation for where they came from, why they were made, and what interests were involved.
I tell my students that policy decisions are muddled—often the result of satisficing or limited successive comparisons. There's not necessarily some grand strategy in place that is guiding every decision. It's that policymakers get on a path-dependent course and one decision begets another begets another. Before you know it, you've committed one hundred thousand troops in Vietnam because of the Gulf of Tonkin.
It's certainly useful to be able to connect real-life outcomes to the bureaucratic momentum that starts at a table somewhere, not unlike what you simulate in Model Diplomacy.
That's exactly right, and what's great is to see how the cadets digest political capital and credibility in the small group setting. For instance, if the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff offers policy options rather than military options, then that chairman would lose credibility because the president and the national security advisor should be reminding the chairman (really just a cadet) that policy options are not their purview, military options are. If the treasury secretary offers diplomatic solutions—that's not really how the policy process works at the NSC. So you get to see how that credibility and political capital plays out. Before you know it, there are a couple of voices at the table that are louder and more credible than others and you see who the president is listening to the most. That's an important lesson you can't necessarily teach with a textbook.
Do you see other potential applications for Model Diplomacy in the military and government?
I would hope the folks at the war colleges take a hard look at this because I think it could be a great tool for them. They take courses in national security and strategy and they try to understand the national security decision-making process. The command and general staff colleges within the military could probably get a tremendous amount out of this program as well. The students there are all rising field-grade officers. So, a Model Diplomacy–type simulation exercise could really bring the policymaking process to life for them before they take leadership positions on high-level military staffs.
Do you plan to use Model Diplomacy again in the future?
We are going to run another simulation this summer during the American politics summer school class. Also, we spend each summer in a new instructor orientation prepping the next cohort of incoming faculty to prepare them for the fall. So, we are going to run simulations with both the new instructors and the summer school students. If we get the same sort of learning outcomes that we had in my class in the spring, I will be looking to adopt it course-wide in the fall.
Running simulations with instructors is a really interesting idea. I think that drives home the point that, regardless of knowledge or experience, we are never finished learning or building our skills.
Well, what's great about Model Diplomacy is that it's so comprehensive that it works relative to the skills of the players involved. Players with a graduate-level education are just going to bring that expertise to bear on this very well-thought-out, well-articulated scenario. The same will be true for undergraduates. The policy history provided is so good, the decisions are so complex, and the set-up is so unstructured that I think graduate students and faculty could really benefit from going through this once or twice themselves.
Are you going to use different cases or use Russia and NATO in the Baltics again?
I might give them an option and see what seems the most interesting to them. The international context in the next couple of months also might shift so that another scenario seems more appropriate. If we do end up running this in the fall course-wide, I have to decide if instructors should have their own choice among the many cases that CFR offers or whether, as a course, we should run one scenario so that we all have a common sense for specific learning outcomes. We are still thinking through the pedagogy and implementation.
Do you have any other recommendations for instructors who are thinking about using Model Diplomacy?
I think the technology can be intimidating at first, but as soon as you bear down and dig into it, it's actually very liberating in many ways. The material is all there. The videos bring the material to life, especially for students who are both visual and auditory learners. And for students who don't have much background in the institutions that make national security policy, they get that background on top of the scenario specifics. Instructors and faculty who are considering it have to be willing to potentially assign a lot of reading to their students for the simulation to work well. It's very evident who's prepared and who's not based on who did the reading beforehand. But just like any real-life NSC meeting, if a principal isn't prepared, his or her voice will not be heard at the table. The principal is only as strong as the staff work that supports them. On the flip side, you can have the best staff work in the world, but if you're unwilling or unable to dig into the memos and briefings, then you won't be prepared.
What other tools do you use with your students to tie knowledge about foreign policy to their future professional success?
We teach a lesson specifically on U.S. foreign policy, but we also take time out to help cadets understand what's happening abroad. Most instructors start class with a few minutes to discuss current affairs and they try to give the cadets a preview of what they ought to be thinking about with regard to foreign policy and national security. Because all the cadets are going to be taking an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, they tend to be more interested in foreign policy and international affairs—that goes for the cadets majoring in chemistry and physics just as much as those majoring in American politics and international relations.
Finally, how do you think the teaching of international relations and foreign policy will change with new education technology and new blended learning methods?
I hope it helps bring the practice of foreign policy to life for students, especially those who aspire to go into national security and foreign policy. But I also hope it bridges the divide between theory and practice—not just for students, but for scholars as well. In academia, scholars are often removed from the day-to-day grind of making these very hard decisions and many of them have only studied, researched, and written about foreign policy. I hope new technology and teaching methods, like Model Diplomacy, brings the two worlds—theory and practice—closer together than what we've seen in the past.
The views expressed in this article are those of Captain Archuleta and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.