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Memorial Day has unique meaning for everyone, including those in the military and diplomatic corps who have dedicated their careers — their lives, even — to working toward a world where diplomacy supersedes the need for armed conflict. That ethos was apparent as some retired and active-duty military and Foreign Service officers, among others, helped lead a United States Army War College International Strategic Crisis Negotiation Exercise (ISCNE) with about 60 Carleton College students last weekend.

The ISCNE, according to the War College's Center for Strategic Leadership, "uses experiential learning to educate participants in the process of crisis negotiation at the international/strategic level."

Intended to test students' leadership styles, negotiation skills and communication abilities in reaching their assigned nation's objectives, the exercise splits students into country teams within the framework of a U.N. conference trying to thaw a frozen conflict — in this case, competing claims in the South China Sea, an example particularly timely since it was a key concern (much to China's ire) at last weekend's G-7 Summit.

Student teams representing the U.S., China, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and India initiated alliances both bilateral and multilateral, mostly in response to Chinese maritime aggression. Like the enduring real-world crisis, the simulation resisted easy solutions, despite country teams working deep into Friday night and throughout Saturday.

The ISCNE helps students "understand the tools of national power," including military, diplomatic and economic leverage, said Jon Olson, a retired U.S. Navy Commander who teaches a Carleton course called Statecraft and the Tools of National Power.

Olson, along with political science professor Greg Marfleet, helped organize the Carleton exercise, which included two mentors per country (including me, on the Vietnam team). Olson said finding diplomatic solutions "is a very difficult thing, even for career professionals who have been doing this for 20 or 30 years; it's still a struggle to figure out a way through."

Scarlett Dewyngaert, a Carleton student on the Vietnam team, concurred. "It is more difficult than I imagined," she said. "I definitely have a newfound appreciation for [diplomacy]. I don't know how, when the stakes are actually high, they come to agreement."

In fact, "in the real world, sometimes diplomacy doesn't work," said Olson, who added: "That's OK, because sometimes even the status quo, while not ideal, [is acceptable] as long as hostilities are not involved."

The diplomatic difficulty is part of the point of the exercise, said Col. Chad Jagmin, director of the War College's Department of Strategic Wargaming. The effort "at the strategic level is about deterrence, de-escalation and building stability. Only in very small cases — which become very large events that are enduring in our minds — do we have to go to war, and so a lot of thought is in how to prevent war." Jagmin, who was deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, said that among the Army War College's missions is to educate strategic leaders "how to repel aggression and win the nation's wars as a last resort," but "the majority of effort is how to work with partners and establish relationships, interoperability" and coalitions that signal repercussions for aggression.

Accordingly, the Army War College doesn't just include officers from other service branches, but from forces from 70 countries as well (something I observed during a weeklong National Security Seminar at the War College in 2013).

By extension, the ISCNEs held on campuses reflect international diversity, too, from students like Mustafa Abbashar, who came to Northfield via New York, Cairo and Nairobi (his father, who works for the U.N., and his mother are Sudanese). And yet during the ISCNE, "I was a delegate representing Vietnam" trying to decide "at what point do I explain to someone my stances, what I'd like to see? Should I hold off, or should I open with my side?" asked Abbashar, rhetorically.

In other words, "the last three feet," said Olson, channeling the definition of diplomacy from his co-teachers Ross Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador, and Tom Hanson, a former Foreign Service officer who is now diplomat-in-residence at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

"It's all about building those personal relationships," continued Olson. "And from a bigger strategic perspective, what the United States military has done globally as part of our national security is to build those relationships with other nations, especially other militaries. And as we share education, share training, share knowledge, share meals out in the jungle while we're all getting bitten by mosquitoes, you're building trust.

"And in a time of crisis, you can surge forces, you can surge ships and aircraft and everything else," but "you cannot surge trust in a crisis; that has to be built over a long period of time so that when you are asking other people to do things that are very dangerous, they trust you."

Building civilian-military trust is essential, too, said Jagmin, who believes that "the military has quite an amount of respect from the public, but maybe not understanding."

The ISCNE events, he said, help build that trust and understanding, often with students who will serve their nations in some way.

Except for an ISCNE held in conjunction with Texas A&M's cadet program, Carleton was the first undergraduate university chosen by the War College. Most are held at graduate-level public-policy schools like the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School, and in fact that's where several Carleton students who were allowed to take part in recent years shone, which in turn encouraged the inclusion of Carleton, whose undergrads "were very similar to graduate students because it seems they've spent a good amount of time researching the scenario," said Jagmin.

For their part, Dewyngaert called it "a really enriching experience." And Abbashar said, "I feel very privileged to have the Army War College come here to Northfield, Minnesota, and distinguish us as an institution that is most deserving of this educational experience."

The Carleton students will likely distinguish themselves in whatever endeavor they eventually pursue. The ISCNE experience may even inspire some to also work to prevent conflicts — a calling more urgent than ever.

"There's a price to be paid when you put diplomacy and economic development in the back seat behind a foreign policy that's led by military power," said Olson. "You have to be really thoughtful about the art and science of statecraft, and when and where you apply those tools of national power and the military."

Indeed, the objective should always be diplomatic, not military, solutions, so as to not add to the toll of heroes honored on Memorial Day.