Economics Network CHEER Virtual Edition

Volume 10, Issue 2, 1996


Project ICONS: Simulating International Political Economy Via the Internet

Bruce Stanley
Huron University USA in London

Computer-facilitated simulations have been an interesting but rarely utilised option for teaching international political economy over the last 30 years. For a good review of the development of the field, see Garson (1994). However, over the last decade, with the gradual issue expansion and new degree of sophistication of Project ICONS [International Communication and Negotiation Simulation] at the University of Maryland, faculty now have access to a wonderful tool for helping students grasp the complexities of IPE. By becoming "active participants in the learning process by [taking on] the role of the decision makers", students can now become deeply involved in simulating international trade, aid and debt negotiations via the Internet.

International relations majors at Huron University USA in London participated Spring 1996 in the largest and most complicated international negotiation simulation ICONS has ever run. Over 30 teams from universities around the world, including the University of the Andes, Wasada University in Tokyo, the University of Melbourne and Stanford in California, participated in the five-week simulation. Huron IR students fielded two "country teams", Egypt and Vietnam. The UK was simulated by the University of Oulu in Finland.

The logistics are straight forward. During the five weeks, two types of negotiations occur: daily e-mail exchanges of messages; and periodical real-time conferences focused around particular issue areas. Both bilateral and multilateral negotiations are part of the simulation. Students daily download e-mail messages from other teams collected on the ICONS computer at the University of Maryland. After consultations, country team members then upload directed bilateral or multilateral responses to other country teams. This spring, each Huron team sent over 250 messages, and received over 3,000.

In addition, during the five weeks, four thematic two-session conferences occur, during which a specified sub-set of country teams "convene" in real-time to negotiate agreements around a particular issue area. This spring, the Egypt team participated in discussions on DEBT AND DEVELOPMENT; INTERNATIONAL TRADE; ARMS; HEALTH; and HUMAN RIGHTS. The "Debt and Development Conference", for example, involved ten country teams coming together twice during the five weeks for an hour and a half session to debate agenda items on debt servicing options and sustainable development. The "International Trade Conference" focused on issues of regionalism and its impact on global trade, the role of trade in promoting global economic development, and the issues of GSP and trade/environmental linkages. Vietnam participated in conferences on REFUGEES; ENVIRONMENT; APEC; INTERNATIONAL TRADE; and DRUGS.

Students on the Egypt team, for example, divided up at the beginning of the semester into four "ministries": defence, economics, social welfare and political. They used the policy planning period of seven weeks prior to the start of the simulation to develop an extensive "ministry" document, outlining their key national interests, goals, policies and diplomatic techniques crucial to Egypt. They specified in detail particular policies and the multiple tactics and targets they hoped to pursue once the simulation began.

Once the five-week simulation did start, the teams attempted to implement, through bilateral and multilateral negotiations, their policy preferences. Students quickly found that their division into traditional ministries was not useful, since each conference had important IPE connections that cut across their "specialities." Political issues overlapped with economic ones, and economic issues came up across the simulation. Since they were more knowledgeable and thus confident, those students who had taken IPE courses ended up becoming the core members of each country team. They were able to use their knowledge of the international monetary, trade and debt issues to good advantage, helping others to more quickly see the linkages and policy options.

The students also found that policy planning and policy implementation required different skills and approaches. It is great to have a well-thought out set of policies you wish to pursue; the problem is finding the hook or tactic to make it happen. This was particularly true for countries like Egypt and Vietnam. As in real international economic negotiations, smaller countries had difficulty being heard in the simulation; difficulty in getting their issues and proposals on the agenda. Countries like the United States and Japan tended to talk among themselves or to impose their own perspectives, leaving the LDCs to contemplate powerlessness in IPE.

The Vietnam team found that their discussions of both environmental, drug and refugee issues revolved to a large degree around issues of preferential trade, FDI, regional economic associations like APEC and ASEAN, and developmental aid. Debates about global solutions to deforestation quickly moved to discussions about national and regional policies for controlling both exporters and the transhipment of forestry products. The debate on interdiction of drugs evolved into proposals for human resource training in police work, alternative crops, technical assistance and preferential trade agreements. The refugee negotiations involved suggestions for job training, housing construction for returnees, and work permits in host countries.

The simulation is student-led, meaning that the role of faculty in the ICONS program is twofold: facilitator of the logistics and process; and consultant on the underlying issues, sources of information, and themes. The students run the simulation after initial instruction, and they make the decisions on policy and responses. Faculty serve to keep the simulation on track and to offer advice.

In addition to learning about IPE negotiations and policy development, students benefit in other ways. First, they quickly acquire information about particular countries, regions and international institutions that they did not know before. Simulating a particular country allows contact with embassies and guest speakers who can discuss alternative economic development policies. They also become more comfortable with the Internet and computer processes. Finally, in the debriefing, faculty can focus student attention on group dynamics and the bureaucratic politics of public policy development.

The only computer equipment that is required is a computer terminal or PC with Internet access. The network connection can be made with any communications software. Instructors do not need extensive computer expertise to run the simulation; the procedures are simple and straight forward. ICONS fees for participation are $500 for one team.

Project ICONS usually has a range of offerings each semester. Fall 1996, they will be running three simulations. The first is another five-week international negotiation, covering a range of issues in the international system. This simulation is global in scope, focusing on issues such as arms control, the Middle East, human rights, international trade, LDC economic development, environment, international drug trafficking, and world health. This offering would be appropriate for a course in IPE.

The other two are shorter and more focused. One is centred around negotiations over nuclear non-proliferation, while the other looks at international security issues inside Europe. Although there are clearly political economic issues involved in both, the economic content of these two simulations will be less than would be the case on other issues. Last spring, ICONS offered a short program on EU economic negotiations.

Students get so few chances to test their ideas in a real world context prior to graduation. The link between micro theory and macro national, regional and international economic policy is complex and often lost in traditional "chalk and talk" formats. Project ICONS challenges students to articulate their concepts of IPE in foreign policy terms, in detail on multiple levels, and then to experience the difficulties in getting those policies implemented. It is a sobering experience for both students and faculty alike.

For further information on Project ICONS, contact either Beth Blake at:

tel: 001-301-405-4171
fax: 001-301-314-9690
mail: Project ICONS
University of Maryland
College Park, Maryland

or: Dr. Bruce Stanley
International Relations Program
Huron University USA in London



Garson G. D. (1994) Social Science Computer Simulation: Its History, Design and Future in Social Science Computer Review 12:1 (Spring 1994) pp. 55-82.

Wilkenfeld J. and Kaufman J. (1993) Political Science: Network Simulation in International Politics. Social Science Computer Review 11:4 (Winter 1993) pp. 464-476.

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