Trouble brewing in Brynania

by Lucas Wisenthal, BA'03

Political science professor Rex Brynen (Photo: Kathryn Deuel)

Every spring, a delicate series of inter-national peacebuilding negotiations takes place at McGill. The players include a government, a rebel army, the United Nations, the World Bank and the European Union, among others. Over the course of a week, these parties go to great lengths, spying on one another through elaborate networks of students and even taking hostages, to secure their political and economic interests and quell the civil unrest that threatens the fictional nation in which they have a stake, Brynania.

All this manoeuvring and skull-duggery goes on in “Peacebuilding and Post-Conflict Reconstruction,” a popular course taught each spring by political science professor Rex Brynen, an expert on conflict-affected states.

For more than a decade, Brynen has organized this simulated negotiation process to school students in the intricacies of peace talks. “The first time I taught it, it was maybe 20 to 25 students, so the simulation lasted a few days,” Brynen says. “Now, it’s more than 100 students and it lasts a week and it’s huge.”

Brynen’s interest in peacebuilding dates back to his days as an under-graduate at the University of Victoria. “I decided to write my honours paper on the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and that got me into the Middle East, and that got me into looking at insurgency and counter-insurgency and war and peace processes,” he says. “I wrote my PhD thesis, at the University of Calgary, on the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Lebanon and the Israeli invasion in 1982, and so I’ve been working on those kinds of conflicts ever since.”

He carries that experience  —  which includes involvement in second-track negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian officials, as well as a stint as a special advisor on the peace process to Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs  —  into his work at McGill. Brynania, he says, was designed to immerse his students in the material they tackle in class. “It’s very hard when you’re reading textbooks and attending lectures, where you talk about how things probably should be done, to get a sense of why well-meaning, rational people don’t always do things that way, or why peace processes fall apart.”

The students learn about the real-world pitfalls of peace talks quickly. As the exercise unfolds, they are in near-constant contact, while Brynen, sequestered in his basement, monitors their exchanges. “The simulation easily generates 10 to 15 thousand emails during that week, all of which I have to read,” he says, though he has instituted a 9 pm cut-off for communications. He must also adjudicate the disputes that unfailingly arise. “Usually, I attribute a set of odds to an outcome and then generate a random number so that I’m not actually deciding.” And each morning, he publishes an online newspaper, modeled after the New York Times, recapping the previous day’s major events.

Brynen’s course has earned plenty of praise over the years. Last year, the International Studies Association awarded him the Deborah Gerner Innovative Teaching Award in recognition of his imaginative approach to classroom simulations. Linda El Halabi, a third-year political science and East Asian studies major who acted as Brynania’s authoritarian president, called the exercise “a thrilling, exhausting and rewarding” experience. “The simulation made me aware of how difficult peace negotiations really are,” she says. “I have so much respect for people who do this for a living. It’s a high-risk job, and it takes impressive interpersonal skills.”

The exercise leaves no participant unaffected. “Students wake up having had dreams they’re in Brynania,” Brynen says. “I’ve had people wake up in the middle of the night and rush out of bed to go to meetings that don’t exist. They don’t get post-traumatic stress syndrome, but they do get simulated post-traumatic stress syndrome.”