Diplomatic Opportunity

By Zachary Block '99 / July / August 2003
June 22nd, 2007
On Friday, May 2, the United Nations Security Council suspended business for the day. There was no debate on who would lead reconstruction in Iraq or when the country could begin exporting oil. Instead, diplomats from each of the council’s fifteen member states and representatives from six other countries headed discreetly to campus. The occasion was a retreat hosted by the Watson Insti-tute for International Studies on the best way to write targeted sanctions. (Most of the diplomats traveled to Providence on Amtrak’s Acela train, which Watson officials jokingly dubbed the “sanctions express.”)

The event was the culmination of a trio of sanctions conferences or-ganized by Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden, which joined together to cosponsor the May retreat. It was in November 2002, during a lunch with diplomats and U.N. officials at the close of the Swedish conference, that Watson director Thomas Biersteker suggested a training program to consolidate the insights that had emerged during the conferences. “Five countries came up to me and said they were interested and would like to see some proposals,” Biersteker recalls.

The day-and-a-half-long Brown retreat centered around an exercise Bierstecker describes as “playing model U.N. with the U.N.” The diplomats were split into teams and charged with crafting sanctions against a fictional island nation that had invaded a neighboring state. Undergraduates and graduate students served as reporters and researchers, and the teams reunited after a few hours to compare their work.

One delegate, Bierstecker says, remarked that she’d learned things that she planned to use in sanctions meetings at the U.N. the following week. Another participant said he felt empowered to author original sanctions, which are normally drafted by the Security Council’s five permanent members and faxed around for comment. Biersteker hopes the retreat was useful enough to become an annual event.

While the envoys managed to leave New York behind, they couldn’t completely escape the real world. Mirroring the tension that has roiled the U.N. over the past year, the French and American representatives could not agree at the conference whether or not sanctions should automatically expire after a certain period of time. “All we did was replay what’s happening in reality,” Biersteker says with a laugh. The rivalry even played out on the culinary front, where France prevailed with the choice of a French bistro for the meeting’s only dinner. But all was not lost for the Americans: the diplomats drank California wine with their meal.

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July / August 2003