Dr John C Hulsman, leading geopolitical analyst, joined us at the Flame Conference 2015 in Amsterdam to run a Washington-inspired war game which looked at the 'Politics of European Energy'. Delegates were broken up into groups and assigned the guises of various nations and organisations to adopt before being given a briefing on the current situation. Below, John details how these war games played out at the conference, and how recent global policy has appeared to echo some of the outcomes produced by Flame delegates.

John HulsmanAs is true of my two idols, T.E. Lawrence and Winston Churchill, I share a passion for working in the bathtub. One of the great perks of being my own boss at my political risk firm is to head for home every Friday morning, lock the door, turn the water to scalding, and read as much of The Economist as I can manage in 90 minutes. Much as I truly love the rest of my week, this time spent submerged is just about the only vice left to me.

And this last week, I must admit to a rueful grin in the bath. For—just days on from our ‘Politics of European Energy’ War Game—the real world was quite amazingly catching up in policy terms with what we’d been doing in Amsterdam.

First, the EU at long last illustrated that it was prepared to take on Gazprom, publishing its list of objections to the Russian energy giant’s trading practices, especially concerning Eastern Europe. It was universally agreed that this only happened because Brussels feels the balance of power in terms of energy politics between Europe and Russia is shifting in Europe’s favour, given that in the medium-term it will have other sources of supply, ranging from Qatari gas to access to the American shale revolution. Our European teams had been acutely aware of this political shift, having proposed much the same gambit in our game, with the real world following along.

Second, the Obama administration signalled it was prepared to break the political logjam surrounding US efforts to export first gas (and later oil) to allies throughout the world; to finally use the Shale Revolution as a long-term diplomatic weapon. Again, this is real life mirroring where we were late in the day during our simulation. Beyond the white House hoping to link Japan and Asia to its putative future gas exports, its second target area concerned Eastern Europe, much as it did in our game.

Third, of course the Kremlin did not choose to stand still while all these other policy events were occurring. In line with our very creative Russian team, Moscow formally unleashed the prospects of the Turkish stream pipeline, following its traditional strategy of divide and conquer in Europe, hoping to economically link pro-Russian European countries such as Greece, Serbia, Hungary, and Austria ever-closer to Russia, through the new proposed pipeline. Yet again, we got there first.

In my many years of both devising and playing war games, there are three basic--and unscientific--yardsticks to gauge whether a game ‘works.’ First is there the buzz of conversation within teams, leaving me with little to do but listen to the creative strategies being devised; in other words, do those players take ownership of the game? Second, are creative policy outputs generated by players ones that might actually occur in the real world? Third, and most crucially, do some of these outputs later actually happen, meaning that the game (and its players) correctly reflected the situations we were digging into? As for our game, almost immediately I’m delighted to be able to answer ‘yes’ to all three questions.

In fact, never in my experience has life mirrored what a game came up with so quickly. Thanks for that, and the chance to get to play my war game with you all!


What did you think of the Washington-inspired war games at the Flame Conference 2015? Tell us in the comments below.