Picture the South China Sea, east of Vietnam and west of the Philippines, dotted with made-in-China products. Those would be pseudo-islands—artificial islands or pumped-up natural islands, complete with military airstrips, seaports, and bases. Shots are fired, a vessel is sunk, and sailors are lost, near the ominously labeled Fiery Cross Reef. The picture becomes unstable.
The imagined incident sparked the January Winter Forum. Over three days, ninety students broke the routine of their break, walked by a flag-bedecked corridor in the Fuqua School of Business, and attended to the business of saving the world.
At a Chinese-themed dinner, the students threw around expressions like “the Thucydides Trap” (referring to a rising power nudging a declining power to war). Many of them, like sophomore Yuuta Kendall, were trying out a career. He’s an Air Force cadet who’s majoring in computer science and minoring in East Asian studies and who wants to be an Air Force intelligence officer. Other students were building on their globally flavored Duke doings. Senior Tierney Pretzer, a public policy and global health double-major, has studied in, done civic- engagement projects in, or traveled through Kenya, France, Vietnam, South Africa, Argentina, and Chile. Then there were category- defying students, like senior Eidan Jacob, who said he was intrigued by artificial islands—in the South China Sea and elsewhere. A statistics major, he also liked the idea of an exercise in working with imperfect information.
The students were split into teams representing information- absorbing government agencies—the National Security Council, the CIA and NSA, the departments of Defense and State. It was a whack-a-mole crisis environment, one made all the more chaotic by the Twitter-happy fingers of an ever-posturing president. Bruce Jentleson, a public policy and political science professor, offered a policymaking credo: “Hope is not a strategy.”
Equipping the students with some real-world knowledge was a mission for Tim Nichols, with Marine Corps experience in intelligence and a teaching role at the Sanford School. He talked about China’s claim over large zones extending from what are, essentially, rocks in the sea. An outside expert, the U.S. Army’s deputy commanding general in the Pacific, Charles A. Flynn, defined what actions in the South China Sea would provoke a U.S. response—red lines not to be crossed. And how plausible, in real life, is a confrontation at sea? “This is not crazy as an exercise,” he said. “It’s possible. Very possible.”
Back at the State Department, Jentleson and colleague Tana Johnson discussed possibilities around policymaking. Referring to a New York Times headline, “U.S. Intelligence Failed to Foresee North Korea’s Nuclear Strides,” they said planners often rely on apparent facts on the ground that are incomplete, inaccurate, or intended to mislead. The students—just like their professional counterparts—had ongoing challenges around not only the facts or non-facts but also around the group dynamics. (“You sound like my neo-conservative uncle” was the sort of comment that sometimes was shouted out.)
Eventually they would agree on a narrative, with the starting point of a U.S. vessel sinking a Chinese ship as it was poised to make a first strike. From there they had to figure out the path to de-escalating without having the U.S. look weak. Then they had to react to cascading crises. There were threatening actions from the Philippines and South Korea. Protests at the U.S. embassy in China. A North Korean missile test. Hints from Japan that it might abandon the U.S. nuclear umbrella in favor of arming itself. Threats from ISIS. And a couple of cyberattacks, one with the fatal consequences of actual fire and fury. What carrots-and-sticks combination would end the precipitating crisis agreeably?
A student’s comment that “I didn’t see this coming”—“ this” referring to news flash after news flash—could have characterized the whole exercise. One student said she hadn’t checked her inbox so adamantly since awaiting word from Duke’s admissions office. And if there was one big lesson, it had to do with communication: As they became more avid about sharing and soliciting information, the students from State reveled in an e-mail from another team—a smiley-face emoticon and the message “Thanks for all your hard work.”