(May 15, 2013)
The international system is in rut and the archaic Westphalian global system of nation-to-nation dialogue is eroding. Some kind of confused transition for greater short-term self-interest, sporadic technology attempts, and neo-realism appears intent to tear the world apart. It is a time when a nation’s use of diplomacy is either sparing or heavy handed. Cooperation is seen is a lost cause without hope. Militancy is on the rise and war is just over the horizon, which will leave millions dead.
Now, imagine yourself sitting across from an official of another country. Instead of having the standard boring discussion set in the ambiance of the embassy’s 19th century architecture, using protocols only done within the highly ornate and exceedingly structured embassy surroundings, diplomats enter a virtual world of international relations using avatars from thousands of miles away.
Prior to any agreements, dignitaries and envoys act out and run through their options together with open simulations, ensuring themselves the most peaceful outcomes and stable relations. Rival nations compete through the use of war games with their own strategists and military attachés as national players.
Nations evaluate the results of virtual diplomacy and virtual war with a sophisticated team of experts and artificial intelligence arbiters. Peace is achieved. The winners gain fame in annual competitions, prize money or real territory is exchanged—no human beings needlessly lose their lives in the process of international relations.
Such a future diplomatic model would be the new international norm among modern states in settling global level disputes. It also provides for greater transparency to the public and access to an official virtual portal that allows the constant contact with the nation’s opposite number.
Of course, modern states will still be prepared to fight real wars too, or offer humanitarian aid and assist in stability operations. The key difference is the constant virtual arena in which to vet out human error before it occurs and to encourage cooperation wherever possible.
Diplomacy gaming may never reach the fully perfected model presented above but it may just be worth trying.
From Here to There
Psychological and sociological research conclusively shows that the more one cooperates with others, the easier cooperation becomes and the more likely it is to continue. A virtual diplomacy exchange and gaming platform offers the greatest potential in revolutionary diplomatic affairs. The possibility of constant, open-ended collaboration between states, non-government experts and civilians in all facets of life shows a world coming together and not flying apart. The more humans interact in benign ways, the more they will do so in the future.
Current attempts at virtual diplomacy have little government backing and are limited in scope. They are directed mainly at public diplomacy (PD), not official state-to-state channels. Some governments have attempted to change diplomatic conditions through virtual PD campaigns and the use of social media. But, crucially, the public does not decide to go to war, even in a democracy. Few countries have a public referendum on war-making. The power in most cases rests with a nation’s leaders and a few top aides and there is no direct way to bypass them.
PD efforts are a step in the right direction, if handled properly, but the infrastructure is not in place to maximize its potential. Today, despite decades of rapid technological advancement and remarkably sophisticated communications equipment, governments must continue to speak and cooperate with each other through face-to-face interactions under a neglected and outdated exchange framework.
These in-person interactions are bound to change as technology advances life-like full size digital video conferencing technologies and higher bandwidth. Nations will also have the option to employ a greater use of science and diplomacy in both their leisure and their profession.
Strategic ludology will not replace personal networking or PD but it can enhance it. The classic strategy board game “Diplomacy” was reputedly a favorite of Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon. It may well have shaped their thinking and the analysis that led to opening ties with China.
More serious efforts in digital formats offer an even greater advantage to decision makers and strategists. “PeaceMaker,” is such a game built around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, focuses on ending long-term conflicts through a pre-set optimum outcome for both parties. The thinking behind these games is hardly fanciful—strategic thinking is real no matter what the situation, and major developments in international relations have come from much humbler beginnings.
“PeaceMaker” is hardly alone. “Statecraft” is a bold scholastic simulation with fictional scenarios offering students a taste of the complexities of international relations. The purpose is to pursue goals in a world with limited resources using real-world methods and available options.
These sorts of games provide venues for simplified but often realistic decision-making about diplomacy and governmental management. They could well be the start of a global virtual diplomacy. If nation’s can justify spending so much money on militaries and war gaming, why not on revolutionary diplomacy and diplomacy gaming for the active professionals?
The next generation of civil government simulations will almost certainly provide a more comprehensive experience that includes modeling beyond basic international relations theories. Players will experience the value of mutually beneficial governing systems on their own, without any built-in assumptions, and develop cooperative practices not merely because the game wants them to, but because they are genuinely the most effective.
There have already been a few digital efforts to move beyond today’s Westphalian model of embassy exchange. One of them, “Diplomacy Island,” makes good use of avatars and the virtual physical world. Unfortunately, it lacks a true sophistication of diplomacy gaming—foregoing realistic features such as military attaches and NGOs—and only attracting the interest of a few small countries.
“Statecraft” is a fantastic concept but is geared toward students and limited as a model for practical use. The real world needs a simulated environment in which to play out real time, as well as the long-term, hypothetical environment. Under such conditions, every decision and every strategy could be tested for best results with a multitude of experts and high computational power. Nations would use professionals and artificial intelligence engines to assess possibilities and make clear decisions. They would, in short, practice a new science of diplomacy and statecraft based on active models rather than a reliance on patchwork information, probabilities or real-time trial and error approaches.
To accomplish this next step, governments need to run their own virtual portals in addition to any overarching international frameworks that will emerge in the private sector. Powerful states have yet to pursue this kind of enhanced interaction on any massive global scale. But the potential is there for a revolutionary leap.
Key Components to a Solid 21st Century Diplomacy Foundation
A major revolution in diplomatic affairs is needed to channel belligerence and disputes from reality into cyberspace. Once there, those disputes can be analyzed electronically without bloodshed, giving the actors time to pursue collaboration and consensus. The most productive, least harmful decisions would then be translated into real-world policy.
It is critical to start a global diplomacy movement powerful enough that includes: simulated team-building activities, diplomacy crowd-sourcing (using the public to help identify best options through simulations), cooperation drills, virtual military competitions, and greater governmental transparency.
Most basic exercises would include collaborative gaming international norms. Strategic games will offer newer, more professional, adaptations of modern benign diplomatic models. They will incorporate the best of what gaming, networking, diplomacy, sociology, history and political science have to offer.
In the most optimistic scenario, highly serious, realistic, games would be played by diplomats who would learn greater respect for other nations and for global political integrity. They would find shorter routes to understanding and cooperation between nations and peoples because as this virtual world of diplomacy grows and develops, each nation learns to see more clearly from a multinational and an international perspective beyond their borders.
A powerful group of states would design and finance the system at first until others join. One tier would be developed for highest level leadership exchange; one layer for civilian diplomats; one for military attachés, and one for civilian populations and NGOs of countries around the world. These layers would be like digital reality conventions much to the appreciation of technologists and sci-fi fans—and much to the benefit and the efficiency of foreign relations.
Eventually digital human avatars could walk the virtual worlds, with diplomats using brain-computer interfaces to connect them with other leaders in common quests or even switching states and running the other’s virtual country for a while.
Augmented reality and heads-up glasses displays will allow people to maintain a continued presence in both worlds or whenever desirable, anywhere in the world. Diplomacy gaming would act as the catalyst and standard that brings nation-states together and the therapeutic framework would set in place the new norms of transplanting the troubles of life into cyber life.
Culture exchange and increased understanding would benefit tremendously. A digital diplomacy revolution would allow host nations to teach and share new gaming and simulations with guest countries, for example. A host state would invite a guest state into a digital diplomacy gaming session and the two would work through a number of issues that the host state has designed. One scenario is a natural disaster taking place in real life of the host nation. The guest country must decide how best to help the host using real-time satellite imagery, city cameras, and other means—much of the real world data would be shared and downloaded into the simulation and the leaders and guest officials would then decide how best to utilize resources, what is requested, where to place them, coordinate with their respective cities and units and so forth.
Moreover, digital diplomacy and problem-solving need not be restricted to crises or to government officials. NGOs, universities, students and other youth might participate in problem-solving to aid their governments and publish their findings in solving disputes through these methods—which would be taken more seriously then they are now—and open international events in the virtual diplomatic world might prove innovative and enlightening among both researchers and practitioners in the field.
Military attachés would likely need their own exclusive virtual world and these networks would need to be able to access diplomatic networks when necessary. Military strategy and national war gaming will, for the foreseeable future, be done within the confines of each respective nation. Limited joint war games and crowd-sourcing, however, is already growing. The defense establishment is also becoming a diplomatic face for nations and they are much better at gaming than the civil diplomatic corps.
Nevertheless, this new framework will open up the chance for military experts to engage in scenarios with their foreign counterparts and allies in new ways not available at the present. This will improve their understanding of foreign thinking, morale, tactics, etc.
A key purpose of such simulations would be dissuading rogue actors from pursuing aggressive military policies as a digital deterrence. Virtual war-game demonstrations could easily become an international first response to any military build-up or aggression. With the proper development, it could replace provocation, sanctions, containment and coercive diplomacy as the standard first response.
Each side would battle it out with zero casualties and learn to play from on different teams. If successful, diplomacy gaming and cooperative war gaming might one day detour large-scale state belligerence through constant close contact with hostiles and continual virtual engagement.
Eventually, the idea would be to get militaries to hold digital, simulated war competitions every year in some international or regional exercise that draw them closer to friendship than enemies and work the angle from a diplomatic context.
An artificial intelligence framework would connect all of the games and parties together. The AI could be an unbiased arbiter that offers various options at many stages throughout these games. Best decisions and best practices would be learned within days or months of intensive participation, rather than the years or decades they often require—and at far greater cost—in a real-world environment. The AI’s adds an extra layer of analysis in addition to the experts of each state.
The publics would eventually be allowed to observe many of the diplomacy gaming activities and open sessions. Public participation would be educational and provide a positive way for societies to interact. The public might eventually have their own world integrated into the international structure of governments as societies become more and more integrated through trade, sports, and common interests.
An ever-evolving public opinion of each nation would also be listed in real time, as would the “global citizen” aggregate views of what the observers prefer to happen in on-going conflicts.
Bilateral and multilateral tournaments for entertainment would also be modeled on the World Cup or the Olympics. Each nation would send the best gamers of their state represent them in competitions. Unlike in international sports competitions, this digital convention would not always be one nation’s team against another’s but there would be mix-ups and varied unexpected scenarios where nations would have to join forces, set up alliances and task forces, or operate in a virtual UN as delegates and achieve better transnational outcomes.
The science and art of diplomacy would be fully incorporated and calculated into 21st century international relations. This maximizes political consensus and harmony without the use of threats and violence. It permits the maximum range of optimal outcomes. Nations would “learn” to be more cooperative, just as they would also “learn” which options are best.
A goal among states would be that over time societies would become more educated into making mutually beneficial choices as a result of an on-going science, art and series of cooperation gaming practices. Ethics, research and best practices would all be shared in a virtual library among nations and eventually generate new agreed upon norms, treaties and laws.
Challenges and Benefits: Cheating and Abuse
There is no doubt that international actors would attempt to cheat and abuse the new system. Cheating, when it is discovered, would be handled as it is in the Olympics, through disqualification and disgrace. Most nations would be inclined to play fair, if only out of concern for a loss of international legitimacy. This would apply to military attachés or popular public digital contests.
The purpose is not the series of games itself, but the psychology of positive interactions and the redirection of anger from the real world directed into the virtual world. This is done over time through various trials of a serious cooperative diplomacy gaming and the new cyber world. Most gaming would be fundamentally not state-to-state competitive, which would eliminate the incentive to cheat against each other.
Abuses are sure to arise. Resistance to the idea is the biggest obstacle in the beginning. Such reactions to such an international framework would be expected and anticipated. However, if the most powerful states establish this global design, it will be difficult for other international actors to not desire a say in the new power dimension. Surely they will jump on the official bandwagon when they see it as operational benefits, cheaper costs and greater efficiency than the old diplomacy system.
Nations will seek to gain the greatest advantage from new trends in international political behavior. Any breaches in mutual benefits through the subtle or unsubtle detriment of their allies would be overcome by preventive measures within the developing infrastructure and ever-closer digital contact over time. In other words, the success of the new diplomacy system deployment depends on the time, money, and innovation that is dedicated to it by the most powerful players and the open global audience and not the few rebels that are not able to see past zero sum nationalistic gains.
States from Europe, Canada, the US, Australia, Brazil, India and South Africa are likely to be over-enthusasts if the system was not dominated or controlled but allowed to function as an optimizer of international relations. Others like Russia and China are likely to be late converts but they might be included in the founding as well.
Cyber Terrorism and Digital Reality
Individual cyber-terrorists, anarchists, and state-sponsored cyber-attackers pose an increasing threat to real life critical infrastructure. Rebels will defy this new diplomatic system as much as they do today’s system. Cybersecurity will take the place of physical security as many nations’ top military priority.
The threat of digital attacks may undermine many governments’ willingness to establish this massive virtual diplomacy network. But if nations can trust their monetary systems in cyberspace, why not their diplomacy?
Aggressive hacking of the global diplomatic network might actually bring states closer together as it becomes more imperative to cooperate and solve problems jointly. Remember, not every obstacle has to be a negative one. Gamming diplomacy is also a philosophical mind-set and a larger outlook perspective, interpreting all potential obstacles to diplomacy cooperation as opportunities.
Who should run the Virtual Diplomatic Games between nations?
As more embassies close down and more military bases spring up, a better question might be: Who is running any diplomacy in the “real world”?
The U.S., the European Union or the G8 could maintain an international forum for virtual diplomacy—or a new group could do so. There are many states that if combined in willpower have the collective power potential to provide a permanent digital environment and virtual representatives.
The Current State of Diplomacy
Diplomacy is in a state of crisis. Embassy closures and a lack of diplomatic will and imagination are threatening a fragile international order. Funding and innovation to better relations are lacking. Leaders rely more on the use of force than on the use of dialogue. When diplomacy is pursued, it is often coercive and unconstructive.
When one factors in the profits to be made in design, maintenance, and advertisements by businesses, or the charitable connections and contributions connecting people to crises—human rights and public empowerment—diplomats making fake war or finding new friends in key leadership positions of other nations—there literally is another world to waiting to be created and shaped. The alternative is letting the pieces fall where they may and to continue playing the usual game of “Risk” until it becomes the game of “Sorry.”
Brett Daniel Shehadey is an analyst, writer, and commentator. His areas of interest include: strategy, political theory, foreign affairs, intelligence and security. He holds an M.A. in Strategic Intelligence from American Military University and a B.A in Political Science from UCLA.
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