Reforming the UN Over a Weekend

How Model United Nations Educates Future Leaders by Making Diplomacy Tangible

Last weekend I had the privilege to preside over a simulation of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) at Oslo International Model United Nations, the first and (so far) only international MUN conference in Norway.

On the plane back I caught myself reflecting on the idea of MUN. While each conference has its unique characteristics (not to mention social events), a number of similarities stand out. Together, they portray what a model UN really is about: educating participating students on current international politics, fostering a new generation of leaders and maybe, just maybe, inspiring real-world diplomacy in the process.

For those new to the principles of a model UN: students (commonly ages 18-26) simulate a session of an international organization which usually involves a number of UN bodies, committees and sometimes NATO, EU and other regional bodies. Participants take up the role of representative of their assigned country, with the aim of simulating real-world diplomacy as accurately as possible. Initially a concept devised at Harvard University in 1927, MUNs are now held worldwide at every educational level and continue to grow in numbers.

In the Netherlands there are an estimated 12 conferences held each year, of which three in The Hague alone, varying in size from 150 to over 3500 participants. Additionally, the quality level of debate is important, with most MUNs accommodating both beginners and experts in different committees. One of the leading conferences in Europe, EuroMUN, is held annually in the Netherlands.

Up for discussion at the OsloMUN UNSC simulation were ‘Women, Peace & Security’ and ‘Western Sahara – The Last Colony’. The latter was put on the agenda first by the delegates, and after a day of sessions the Council adopted a resolution calling for a national dialogue on the sovereignty issues between the Kingdom of Morocco and the POLISARIO front (are you taking notes, Turtle Bay?). Unfortunately, the students were not too keen on discussing ‘Women, Peace & Security’, however interesting and relevant it may be. We, as chairs, thus decided to stage a crisis.

We instantly developed a plausible scenario whereby the UNSC was triggered to discuss Council reform, and let the delegates respond to developments as they were presented to them. This procedure is oftentimes used for advanced simulations and it challenges students in their political knowledge as well as negotiating skills. In this scenario, the top ten troop contributors to the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations threatened to withdraw their peacekeepers unless the UNSC was, broadly, going to actively pursue reform. This of course would cause serious problems for current peacekeeping operations. This motivated the students to go beyond prepared remarks and suddenly the students, many of whom were first-timers, began passionately discussing the need for and ways of Security Council reform.

This was MUN in its essence, where students experience the principles and processes of diplomacy so that one day these future leaders can harness this inspiration and put it to good use.

Rapid globalization has made it so much easier for students to travel abroad, which is reflected in the vast diversity of delegates at these conferences. Whether you debate the depletion of ocean resources or the illicit trade in small arms; the lessons drawn from attending Model UN and engaging in active debates with fellow global citizens is a lifetime experience that, hopefully, contributes to better mutual understanding and thus a more peaceful and prosperous future.

Rest assured, like at the real UN, MUNs are not a peaceful utopia where problems are solved in the blink of an eye. On the contrary, students learn exactly why these issues are so difficult to tackle. Additionally, they are quick to grasp the roughest sides of diplomacy and the tough skills used for persuading fellow delegates. Interestingly, it seems the more experienced delegates are, the clearer this shows.

Realism is as much part of MUNs as of real-life politics and to some extent, it reflects the latter too, geographically. American-styled MUNs are said to be more focused on winning a competition than their European counterparts where compromise is key.

And while a Model UN does not, and should not, promote backstabbing, knowing about the reasons for and use of tough negotiating tactics is as relevant as knowing how to find the best peaceful outcome. In the world of diplomacy Machiavelli and Hegel go hand in hand.

To overcome gridlock, diplomacy is in need of both. As Dr. Madeleine Albright so eloquently put it last year: “I am an idealist on the inside, and a realist on the outside”. For the new generation of leaders, this is the inspiration that hopefully one day contributes to achieving sustainable peace.

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