With hostilities bubbling up again in the South Caucasus, Georgia and Azerbaijan have asked the United Nations to step in because of concerns over Russia's forces mobilizing on the border.
Diplomats from the South Caucasus countries have joined their counterparts from Russia, the United States, Turkey, and the European Union, under the auspices of the U.N., to find a way to defuse the situation. Just as they are making progress, a bomb goes off in Georgia. The Russians claim Georgia is responsible; Georgians insist it's the start of a Russian attack.
Can the gathered officials come up with a solution before matters spiral out of control?
The 15 Washington and Lee students in the politics class Diplomacy in Practice: Security Issues in the South Caucasus played out the scenario on Thursday under the watchful eye of their professor, retired ambassador Kenneth S. Yalowitz, diplomat in residence at W&L during the Spring Term.
Yalowitz designed the simulation based on an actual crisis in which he played a key role a decade ago, when he was serving as the U.S. ambassador to Georgia.
"Simulations are designed to study something that may happen and could have serious consequences," Yalowitz said. "This could."
Throughout the four-week Spring Term course, the students have been immersed in the politics of the South Caucasus. They've taken on the role of junior foreign-service officers charged with writing memos to the U.S. secretary of state on various issues about the region, which has played, and continues to play, a major role in the area.
"What we've been trying to do is take a critical area of the world, the South Caucasus, and understand its impact and importance to US interests," said Yalowitz, who also was formerly U.S. ambassador to Belarus during his 36 years as a career diplomat and a member of the Senior Foreign Service. "These countries — Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia — have become much more important to the United States since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
"There is oil in the Caspian Sea, and pipelines carry oil and gas from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey. So energy is an important interest in that part of the world. In addition, with the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, the South Caucasus countries have been a very important part of the northern distribution network as an alternate supply route rather than relying entirely on Pakistan. So this is clearly a part of the world to which we need to be paying attention."
Beyond the specific area of focus, Yalowitz intends for the course to provide a marriage of the academic world with the world of diplomatic service. He believes it will be valuable for these two worlds to come closer.
After retiring from the Foreign Service in 2001, Yalowitz spent nine years at Dartmouth College, where he was an adjunct professor of government and directed the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding. With a foot in both worlds, he has high regard for both.
But, he admits, academics and diplomats don't always understand or talk with one another very well. This is where he hopes classes such as the one he's teaching at W&L might one day make a difference.
"Academics have strong insights, strong case studies. But oftentimes, they've not served in a policy-making situation and don't understand that in a crisis, models are not followed, things happen in a very crazy way, and you have to balance a lot of competing interests," he said. "But the academics have a strong advantage of having the time and necessary background to study a situation, to do the data work, to do the analysis and to look beyond what look like very unrelated activities and pull it all together."
Academics, Yalowitz said, have a discipline of thinking that can be very useful to diplomats who are trying to deal with the crisis step by step. "That's why I think bringing the two together is very useful, even for students who may not be going into a diplomatic career," he said. "It's still going to be useful for them to learn to write short, very well-organized memos in which they can make a point and defend it."
The Spring Term residency is Yalowitz's second at W&L during the 2011-12 academic year. He served as a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow for a week in October 2011.
Tori Bell, a sophomore Mena, Ark., first met the ambassador when he visited her Global Politics class back in the fall. She was so interested in hearing about his experiences abroad that she requested to meet with him individually. As soon as she learned he would be teaching in the Spring Term, she emailed him to request a spot in the class.
“Having Ambassador Yalowitz lead class discussion has added an additional dimension to this course,” Bell said. “He provides first-hand accounts of conversations with regional leaders and has an original, unique perspective on the region that would not be given by another individual in the same classroom setting. It makes the content of the course much more interesting, real-life, and comprehensive.”
Dominika Kruszewska, a senior politics and German language major from Poland, agrees.
"I think what the ambassador tells us from his personal experience about the political and business elites as well as the populations of the countries has made a place that could otherwise seem so distant and so unknown much more familiar and much more exciting," said Kruszewska. "We have been doing a lot of reading from different sources for the class, which has provided us with a variety of perspectives and a rich theoretical background. But the ambassador's stories are my favorite part, because they make all of those events and people come to life."
For Wilson Hallett, a first-year student from Charlotte, the ambassador's anecdotes have made the class one of the most interesting he's ever taken.
"To have a former ambassador to Georgia teaching your class is pretty phenomenal," Hallett said. He has no notes during class and stands in front of the podium the entire three hours. I don't think he has ever not been able to answer a question in class.
"However, his class is not solely lecture based. He keeps the class engaged by asking questions about the readings and spurring debates about various diplomatic policies in the Caucasus. Occasionally, he will digress for a few minutes and provide an anecdote from his time either as ambassador in Georgia or Belarus, or serving in the embassy in the Soviet Union when it collapsed," Hallett added. "His stories usually involve the some sort of KGB run-in or outlandish encounters with the various presidents and heads of states of the different countries."
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs