A peek into the ‘Contemporary Diplomacy’ class

Today we met for a special session of the Contemporary Diplomacy class, with Professor John Hirsch. Professor Hirsch is a former US ambassador with 32 years of experience in the US Foreign Service. He now works for IPI (the International Peace Institute). He is an inspiration and a valuable resource as I prepare for a career in diplomacy myself.

As part of the class, students are required to participate in a mock negotiation on the Malian crisis and security of the Sahel. Parts were assigned in advance, and students did readings on the topic. Professor Hirsch also brought a number of important speakers to class, such as Youssef Mahmoud, special representative of the UN SG for the United Nations Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad (MINURCAT). Everyone was divided into groups, either of the main stakeholders (the government of Mali, the Platform movement and the Coordination movement) or of the international actors in the College of Mediators (the EU, represented by France, the UN, the African Union and Algeria). I was given the difficult task of running the negotiation as the Foreign Minister of Algeria. I was also responsible with keeping track of group assignments, preparing introductory and concluding remarks, taking notes during the negotiation, timing the proceedings and making note cards with the groups’ names, so people would know where to sit during the negotiation.

The entire debate was scheduled to take three hours, and the professor and TA simply assisted, without intervening, to allow us to create as realistic a representation as possible (only advising where needed). I personally greatly enjoyed the negotiation, where participants split into thematic groups (Governance, Justice and Reconciliation, Security and Defense, and Development) and debated the practical aspects of post-Bamako peace agreement implementation. Contentious issues negotiated in the Development group, for example, were language and religion, with the Malian government insisting on French as the unifying, official language in education. The representatives of the Platform and Coordination movements were insisting on a dual system where local languages/dialects (of Arabic) would be permitted to coexist. While the central government was demanding that public education remain secular while allowing for private education to be religious, as per the movements’ wishes.

[Photo courtesy of Adriana Popa | My notes from the Contemporary Diplomacy debate.]
[Photo courtesy of Adriana Popa | My notes from the Contemporary Diplomacy debate.]

Similarly, a heated debate ensued in the Governance negotiations on the topic of representation, as well as consensus-driven approval for ministerial appointments. Representatives from the North (the Platform and Coordination movements) feared insufficient representation and silencing by the Southern majority. However, under the auspices of a conciliatory Malian government, and with international input from mediators, a mutually suitable compromise was reached in both areas.

The mock debate was a great synthesis of the interdisciplinary knowledge we have acquired at SIPA, as the implementation drew on everything from politics and security to economics and culture/history. It was also a great experience for those of us who have participated in similar exercises before, and/or who are considering a career in diplomacy or in the international civil service.

Components like these are great values of SIPA classes, where instructors with real-life practitioner experience in international affairs and peers with a variety of professional and academic backgrounds make classroom learning as close as possible to reality. To be able to simulate a high-level negotiation on one of the most pressing regional crises of our time—in the presence of a former US diplomat—with colleagues hailing from some of the countries involved in the actual negotiation, is a class experience I will cherish forever as part of my SIPA time.