The Venezuelan economy has tanked, President Nicolás Maduro has fled the capital, and a trio of would-be successors are laying claim to the presidency. A Molotov cocktail thrown into that already delicate situation is news that a shipload of weapons is heading to the country from China.
If you were the president of the United States, what would you do?
That was the hypothetical scenario that students in Dr. Jacob Wobig’s upper-level U.S. Foreign Policy class confronted around the table in the Executive Dining Room of the LaVerne Banquet Hall on Thursday. It’s the first time in four years that Wobig has run the tabletop exercise in person. The back-and-forth gives students a feel for the pressure world leaders are under when the stakes rise.
“This has been a really good exercise — very anxiety inducing, but I feel good now,” says Anna Carpenter, a junior political science major from Charlotte who, as director of national security, facilitated the meeting.
To get ready for the exercise, students spent a couple of weeks learning about Venezuela, researching the roles they would play on Thursday and writing memos detailing the stance they would take. Before the sit-down, the students had an opportunity to examine the memos their peers wrote, and in their next class they’ll conduct a debrief.
They came well prepared on Thursday. The utility of economic sanctions, boots on the ground (in Venezuela or nearby countries) and increased diplomatic efforts were all discussed.
“We’re gaining government experience,” says Eric Reeves, a senior political science major from Fort Washington, Maryland, “getting a better firsthand understanding of how these decisions are reached, how the discussions within the White House are conducted, and just how important having these conversations is in developing foreign policy.”
“It presents a real-world scenario,” Carpenter says. “As political science majors, this is a situation a bunch of us are working toward in the future.”
The students may have been nervous, especially during the first 30 minutes, when the representatives of each department (Joint Chiefs of Staff, Department of Energy, United Nations, etc.) gave their opening remarks, but they warmed up quickly when the floor was opened to debate. The secretary of state warned against putting boots on the ground, while the Department of Defense’s position was to show strength.
“It kind of mirrored what we had read about in the textbook, how the secretary of state and the Department of Defense always kind of duke it out,” Carpenter says.
In the end, the student serving as president, Gabrielle DeSimone of Indian Land, S.C., opted for a combination of removing economic sanctions from Venezuela, fortifying patrols in the Caribbean and adding troops along the Colombian border to monitor the situation.
“Nice job, guys,” Wobig said after DeSimone had taken it all in and delivered her decision. “Remember how we read that different presidents have different styles. This is very much the Ronald Reagan style, where he would let Casper Weinberger and Jim Baker duke it out for a while, and in the end he would make a decision. That’s very different from President Obama, who interrogated every single person as they presented.”
Emiyah Watkins, a senior political science major from Gastonia, admits to being nervous initially, but once the discussion heated up, she wished she was in a position to contribute more.
“I was attorney general, so my job was to make sure that the policy options being presented were legal and didn’t go against humanitarian law or international law,” she says. “So I didn’t get to necessarily put my insight in as far as policies I wanted to put forth.”
That’s going to change in a few weeks. On Dec. 6, the same group of students will meet for a second bite at the diplomatic apple, rerunning the exercise with a different scenario and with the various roles being reshuffled. The project will also serve as the final exam for the class.
Wobig expects to see even more confidence from his students the second time around.
“Yeah, you can study something, but until you’ve actually tried to step into the shoes of the decision-maker, you don’t understand the time pressures,” Wobig says. “It helps students overcome the shyness of putting yourself out there in a situation where you need to try to present some expertise. That’s not something that you can learn in theory. Practice is the way you develop those skills, and this is an ideal sort of practice situation, where the stakes are relatively low, you have a supportive environment, but we otherwise try to create a realistic situation to prepare them for the challenges that they’ll face in the future.”
Learn more about studying political science at Wingate by visiting Wingate.edu.