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Civics for a Global Era


You’ve likely seen a version of the classic late-night trope, in which a camera crew stops a passerby — ideally, a college graduate — to ask a basic geography question. When the unwitting soul is unable to locate Canada on a world map, the laugh track begins to roll.

Of course, this method is far from being statistically sound, yet it gets at the heart of something far less funny: the fact that Americans — even those possessing a college degree — are often woefully lacking the knowledge, skills, and perspective needed to navigate today’s interconnected world.


A 2016 survey commissioned by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a non-partisan think tank focused on U.S. foreign policy, and the National Geographic Society found that college-educated Americans fall far short of being informed global citizens.

Only 14 percent of respondents knew, for example, that the United States is bound by treaty to protect Turkey from military aggression. And only 29 percent could locate Indonesia — the world’s fourth most populous country — on a map. (It’s not just college students: in a follow-up poll conducted this year, American adults didn’t fare much better.) Despite these disheartening results, CFR managed to locate a silver lining: those they surveyed said they wanted to know more about the world and how it works.

The Council has served for nearly one hundred years as a resource for those immersed in traditional foreign policy debate -- government officials, business executives, journalists, and self-selected students and instructors of international relations -- in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries. The survey findings led CFR to reach beyond this traditional audience of experts to provide resources for non-specialist students and citizens. After discovering a marketplace virtually devoid of authoritative, accessible content to explain international relations and foreign policy, CFR was inspired to use its formidable expertise to take aim at building up a critical 21st century competency: global literacy. It also led CFR’s President Richard Haass to write a primer, The World: A Brief Introduction, to be published by Penguin Books in May 2020.

Richard Haass, President
Richard Haass, President

In American classrooms, civics education is largely focused on understanding the domestic rights and responsibilities of citizenship. But Richard Haass argues that definition is too narrow for a world defined by globalization.

“While I’m heartened to see civics education rising to the top of the conversation and hopefully poised for a real renaissance around the country, we need to use this opportunity to redefine what it means to be living in a world where ideas, supply chains, carbon emissions, viruses, and terrorism know no borders,” says Haass.

Debuting in 2016, Model Diplomacy is the first of CFR’s original digital products aimed at building the knowledge, skills, and perspective that form the core of global literacy. The website invites instructors to use its extensive case studies to run classroom simulations geared at illuminating what it’s like to be a foreign policy decision maker. The free resource, designed to be a one-stop shop for instructors, features in-depth research briefs and scenarios created in consultation with CFR’s policy and regional experts, built-in messaging options for communicating with students, quizzes to assess knowledge — even bells and whistles like simulation timers and name placards templates.

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“Our goal was to create a product that has everything an instructor might need to teach about the essential institutions, issues, and processes involved in foreign policymaking. And for the product to be as flexible as possible so instructors felt empowered to run a Model Diplomacy simulation over the course of a semester, a week, or even a single class period. That’s what we did and students are now participating in Model Diplomacy simulations across America and the world,” says CFR’s vice president of education, Caroline Netchvolodoff.

The diverse library of case studies that address issues taken up by the National Security Council (NSC) and United Nations Security Council (UNSC) makes the free digital product appropriate for use by instructors of a wide range subjects. From international relations to public health, economics, earth science, and more, Model Diplomacy allows instructors to integrate experiential learning about the world into their classroom.

The Council’s holistic approach seems to be paying dividends. To date, Model Diplomacy’s 17 case studies and accompanying teaching notes have been used in all 50 states and more than 120 countries. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point requires cadets to complete a Model Diplomacy simulation before graduation. It’s even proven adaptable outside traditional classrooms. Usage data shows Model Diplomacy simulations have been run at international organizations and in departments of the U.S. government.


It is back in the classroom, though, where Model Diplomacy wins the highest marks. The role-playing deeply engages students, says Allison Stanger, professor of international relations and economics at Middlebury College. “Students give extra effort to be sure they know those roles well and know the concepts and the issues and are prepared to argue and win,” she says. It helps, she adds, that the cases focus on breaking issues and so “speak to students right here and now.”

Oghenetoja Okoh, an assistant professor of history at the University of Akron, says it can be difficult to capture students’ attention. But she has been able to enthuse students in her African history courses by impressing on them that the simulations really do reflect “how people with history backgrounds in African history and/or other social science backgrounds might actually enter the world of work.”

The realism of the material is particularly impressive, says William H. McRaven, former University of Texas System chancellor and retired U.S. Navy four-star admiral, now a Professor of National Security at University of Texas at Austin. McRaven, whose Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice (1996) is a key text on that craft, says Model Diplomacy’s simulations “give students the tools to think about the problem in a way that you probably wouldn’t get in a book.”

Consistently, instructors say that because simulations require participants to moderate discussions and reach compromises in complex negotiation, they develop students’ skills in writing, public speaking, analytical reasoning, and critical thinking — the very skills at the heart of a good liberal arts education.

At the same time Model Diplomacy was rolling out in schools across the country, CFR was creating and testing an additional product to engage even more people – not just those in formal classroom settings - around issues of global civics and literacy. That process led to the development of World101.

Currently, the website features two units, Global Era Issues and Regions of the World. The former explains the fundamentals of core global issues such as climate change, global health, immigration, and international trade, while the latter uses lenses such as economics, history, and geopolitics to explain the trends that define each of the world’s regions. The content is written with young people in mind, employing an informal tone and visually driven content, including animated videos and data visualizations. Ultimately, the content will cover six units of study: Global Era Issues, Regions of the World, How the World Works (and Doesn’t Work), Modern Historical Context, Tools and Approaches of Foreign Policy, and The Making of Foreign Policy.

“World101 strikes a balance between being informative and engaging,” says Netchvolodoff. “We know these topics can feel impenetrable so we take care to connect World101 content to people’s everyday lives . . . and demonstrate how the issues and topics covered matter.”

Early signs indicate that World101 will be as well received as Model Diplomacy. Officials at AASCU — the American Association of State Colleges and Universities — clearly believe so. In the fall of 2019, the group kicked off a one-year partnership with CFR, over the course of which ten campuses around the country will use World101 content in a variety of academic settings.

“The Council has created something truly special with World101,” says Felice Nudleman, executive director of the AASCU’s American Democracy Project, an initiative focused on public higher education’s role in preparing the next generation of informed, engaged citizens. “Not only does the content address a growing need for high quality civics materials, CFR’s reputation as a nonpartisan thought leader allows them to lead the charge in this critical space.”

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