Dictators’ Drinks at the Pub. A Role Play on the Strategic Use of Power and Violence

Dictators’ Drinks at the Pub. A Role Play on the Strategic Use of Power and Violence

by Tim Williams, Universität der Bundeswehr München

Why do some leaders use violence as part of their political repertoire of action while others do not? This question is important for political scientists and scholars of peace and conflict, and yet the strategic value of violence is often hard to discuss with students in non-normative terms. So how can students learn to think about violence strategically?

To provide such a learning opportunity for the students in my class on violence and power in Southeast Asia, I developed a role play called ‘Dictators’ Drinks at the Pub.’  This role play allows political science students to develop an understanding of the strategic uses of state violence, experiencing how violence can be pragmatically and politically useful but also which institutional and other factors constrain it. By creating a space that is highly informal and following careful preparation, the exercise calls on students within their roles as political leaders to give advice to other leaders of autocratic or semi-democratic states. The students thus engage with the other actors at eye level, seeking to think through how they may, for example, solve a major issue such as a mounting protest movements. Students have prepared carefully their own cases regarding what agency they have and how their options may be constrained, but it soon becomes clear to them that these constraints on action vary strongly across cases, with different opportunities arising for different types of violence in the different contexts. This context-sensitivity regarding the practicality and strategic use of violence is a key outcome of this exercise.

By drawing on real-world cases, participants deepen their empirical case knowledge and foster comparative analysis, while at the same time engaging conceptually with various aspects of how much violence is permissible within differing regime settings, what constraints and opportunities there may be on such action and how their own agency can unfold (or not). A positive addition – common to most role plays – is that the collaborative atmosphere and the convivial setting strengthens in-class group cohesion and facilitates in-depth and long-term engagement with the issues.

It is important, of course, that this exercise be sensitively guided and embedded in broader discussions and preparations in order to not endorse violence itself, but maintain discussions at a level of strategic use from the subjective perspective of individual actors.

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