The Foreign Service Journal, March 2023
THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | MARCH 2023 13 LETTERS-PLUS Gaming at State: Needed but Not New BY FREDERIC B. HILL RESPONSE TO NOVEMBER 2022 SPEAKING OUT, “ WHY THE STATE DEPARTMENT NEEDS AN OFFICE OF DIPLOMATIC GAMING” Frederic B. Hill was a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun in Europe and Africa, then foreign affairs director for Senator Charles “Mac” Mathias (R-Md.) in 1985-1986. He then headed State’s Office of Special Programs in charge of gaming exercises on national security and global issues. He is the author or editor of five books on Maine shipbuilding history, maritime adven- tures, and American politics. He is co-editor of a forthcoming biography of Sen. Mathias. I would like to endorse, with some reservations, Robert Domaingue’s November 2022 Speaking Out, “Why the State Department Needs an Office of Diplomatic Gaming. ” I had the privilege of helping to establish and then for two decades lead the Office of Special Programs that conducted a wide array of high-level policy planning exercises (aka gaming) for the State Department from 1986 to 2006. I would like to add my voice to the call for the reestablishment of an office of gaming, which I believe the department needs for a number of reasons. I will address four points: our Office of Special Programs mission and the value of diplomatic games, war games, or, as we called them, policy planning exercises; our approach and selection of challenges and subjects; a brief account of successes and shortcomings; and how to organize such an office at rock-bottom cost. 1. Mission/value. Such exercises or games strengthen the State Department’s role in foreign policy decision-making and encourage senior officers, mid-level desk officers, and intelligence analysts to look ahead more boldly and creatively at potential and unfolding challenges. An office for gaming located in the depart- ment, and not relying on the Pentagon, the war colleges, and intelligence agen- cies, will allow State to focus on its pri- orities and goals, and enhance analysis and policy formation. It would improve diplomacy. By engaging a wide range of partici- pants from the interagency, academic experts, and retired officers with extraor- dinary experience, a gaming office at State would deepen interagency coopera- tion that becomes extremely valuable when crises develop. 2. Selection of challenges and sub- jects. Special Programs had a bare-bones budget and limited staff, so we had to be very select in the foreign policy issues we chose to examine. By far most of our games were devoted to national security issues—ranging from the growth of nuclear arsenals to transitions in foreign governments to developing conflicts and peacekeeping operations. We also conducted exercises on global, environmental, and economic issues, including the potential for conflict and cooperation on water resources, energy, and health matters. 3. Successes and shortcomings. Due partly to creative, extensively researched, and challenging scenarios, our exercises frequently tackled and identified critical challenges and forces that became reality months and even years later. These included exer- cises that highlighted: • a transition to majority rule in South Africa years before it happened; • Mikhail Gorbachev’s withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan months before that decision; • issues on the South China Sea long before China’s major construction of military bases on many islets; • Iran and North Korea’s expanding nuclear programs; • the potential for conflict—and coop- eration—over water resources (the Nile, Euphrates, Mekong); • the outlook for success or failure of Gorbachev’s “draft union treaty”— highlighting internal political and economic tensions that, weeks later, led to turmoil and eventually the col- lapse of the USSR; and • possible outcomes of an invasion of Iraq six months before that was undertaken. While most participants opposed an invasion, our recommendations urged a broad, international coalition if it went forward and included an underlined assertion: “Do not disband” the Iraqi army. Our office organized hundreds of roundtable discussions on critical issues and was often called on to pull together senior-level discussions (e.g., North Korean nuclear developments, post 9/11 planning, Middle East crises).
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