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Child’s Play

The fairy-tale world of Model United Nations

Aug 19, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 46 • By JAMES KIRCHICK
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Indeed, evidence of the organization’s fecklessness is ever new—consider the violence in Syria two years into a civil war that has taken nearly 100,000 lives, despite daily cries for restraint by U.N. bodies and officials. Yet, year after year, students flock to MUN conferences; the growing global popularity of the program is in inverse relationship to the mounting evidence of U.N. impotence. “Cambodia encourages member states to pressure these uncooperative parties into signing treaties,” I wrote in an airy position paper for the Peacekeeping Committee. “How?” asked my long-suffering civics teacher in red pen. It was a good question—the kind of question that, if asked regularly of students, might turn MUN into a forum for useful learning. Most faculty advisers, however, having already embraced the U.N. gospel, steer clear of such awkward challenges to adolescent thinking. 

According to the MUN mantra, no problem is beyond the world body’s reach. A 2009 Washington Post story about an elementary school MUN team quoted a 9-year-old who spoke about “the global effort of total elimination of racism and racial discrimination,” as if racism were something the U.N. had it in its power to eliminate—and as if racism weren’t the official policy of numerous member states. Yet the sentiment was not merely the naïve wish of a fourth grader. The U.N. actually has an entire bureaucracy devoted to the “Elimination of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance,” which has hosted two international conferences. The United States and its allies walked out of both in protest of the egregiously anti-Semitic nature of the proceedings. Reading my own MUN position papers of a decade ago, I see the starry-eyed musings of a teenage idealist. But I was only mimicking what I read in actual U.N. resolutions. 

A decade has passed since I attended my last Model U.N. conference as a student participant. So to refresh my memory, I paid a visit to a recent Ivy League Model United Nations Conference—aka ILMUNC, one of the country’s premier MUN conferences, which I myself attended while in high school—organized by students at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia every year since 1984.  


I arrived at the Sheraton Philadelphia City Center shortly before the opening ceremonies. As over 2,000 high school students (the boys in ill-fitting suits, the girls nearly all wearing pantyhose) swarmed about, I was reminded of the main motivation (aside from a precocious interest in world affairs) for most kids’ participation in Model U.N.: It’s a great way to spend a long weekend. Essentially a four-day slumber party with your friends in a major city hundreds of miles from home, MUN gives you a school-sponsored opportunity to crash at a swanky hotel, mingle with members of the opposite sex (ILMUNC even set up its own rose-gram system for amorous delegates), and eat out three times a day, all with minimal adult supervision. And don’t forget the Delegate Dance on Saturday night, a staple of every MUN conference. Even in their monkey business—passing silly notes to one another, slinking off at night to drink alcohol, and generally behaving as teenagers—the Model U.N.ers faithfully mimic the grown-up version. They unwittingly resemble the international diplomatic corps and high-priced hangers-on who descend upon Manhattan to carouse at overpriced restaurants, splurge on 5th Avenue, and neglect to pay parking tickets. Late in my weekend at ILMUNC, I encountered a bleary-eyed teacher who had sat awake in the hallway outside her students’ rooms until 2 a.m. “If they’re going to do anything bad, they’re going to have to leave their room to do it,” she muttered. 

What could possibly possess the collegians running the conferences to undertake months of onerous preparation in order to spend a weekend overseeing a bunch of rowdy, overambitious, acne-afflicted high school students? Their motivation became clearer after I visited the conference “control room,” the nerve center of ILMUNC operations, where various under secretaries general and deputy secretaries general noshed on potato chips and Red Bull. “My last conference, I just BS’d it,” one Penn student confessed to a younger colleague. “NAIMUN sucks so badly,” said another, referring to the North American International Model United Nations, a rival intercollegiate conference hosted by Georgetown University undergraduates. 

As I partook of the free food, Penn students buzzed in and out, communicating on Secret Service-style earpiece walkie-talkies. Over the course of the weekend, I would watch these collegiate Tracy Flicks officiously roam the hallways enforcing curfew. And in committee meetings, I would see them bang their gavels above the din as they doled out speaking slots. In the mold of the U.N. bureaucrats they’re impersonating, many of the college students who run MUN do it for the power trip. Of course, ego inflation and carnality are not mutually exclusive. The guidebook for the ILMUNC Secretariat lists reasons not to consume alcohol during the conference. Reason #9 is, “Because you don’t want to hook up with a [sic] high schoolers at the conference. Right? Right?” Reason #1 is a joke that, in my experience, is uttered in some form at every MUN conference: “Because any pickup line involving Djibouti is totally unacceptable, drunk or not.”

The opening ceremony about to begin, I ventured into the hotel’s massive main ballroom. The delegates and their faculty advisers were assembled in row after long row of chairs, the Secretariat, made up of Penn students, facing them from behind a long desk on the dais. The whole set-up had the feel of a Chinese Communist party congress. Flipping through the glossy delegate guide, featuring Philadelphia restaurants alongside the conference schedule, I came across a full-page advertisement for a “Model U.N. Summer Program” run by Julian Krinsky Camps & Programs, long a popular organizer of tennis and golf camps. Lately, Krinsky has started running “leadership” programs (“great for building your résumé”) for upper-middle-class high school students frantic about getting into the college of their choice. For the most go-getting, Model U.N. is an excellent résumé builder, demonstrating interest in world affairs and extracurricular achievement, not to mention the opportunity to win awards, in the form of honorary gavels dispensed by committee chairmen at the end of the conference. 

Another person hoping to profit off these ambitions is Ryan Villanueva, a recent Yale graduate who left his lucrative job with Goldman Sachs in 2010 to start “Best Delegate,” described on its website as “an education company that helps students and teachers worldwide succeed at Model United Nations and beyond.” Best Delegate runs seminars, summer camps, and other “institutional services” for high schools hoping to win more prizes on the Model U.N. circuit. To help schools and students achieve this, Best Delegate offers private Model U.N. classes for groups or individuals, on everything from the rules of procedure to “How to Win Awards.” And if the tuition is prohibitive, the book How to Win Awards in Model United Nations can be purchased for just $19.99.

The sort of student whose parents will pay money to increase his chances of winning an award in Model U.N. doesn’t just spend an inordinate amount of time preparing for each conference; he obsesses. In my day, one high school notorious for its cutthroat MUN team would provide each of its delegates a binder featuring the name and official seal of his country. And there were always a few delegates fitted out with formal stationery, entire pads headed “A Message from the Permanent Representative of St. Kitts and Nevis to the United Nations” (below which would inevitably be written, in chicken scratch handwriting, some insight such as “Pakistan is being such a douchebag”). Especially patriotic delegates sported flag pins.

Shortly after gaveling the opening ceremony to order, a member of the Secretariat reminded the delegates that they were to be dressed in “Western business attire” throughout the weekend. The decree was a rare departure from political correctness; such colonialist dress codes, after all, do not apply at the U.N. itself, where one expects to see Africans in dashikis and Iranian delegates sans ties. Delivering the keynote address was Peter Yeo, a vice president of the United Nations Foundation, a nongovernmental organization founded with a grant from Ted Turner that advocates for greater American deference to the U.N. “For the next four days,” Yeo intoned, “you are real diplomats, dealing with real problems, coming up with real solutions.” The U.N., he said, is “promoting America’s national interest.” Lest there be any doubt about the political agenda he was trying to convey, Yeo boasted that, under the Clinton administration, in which he had served as a deputy assistant secretary of state, the United States paid its U.N. dues “in full and without conditions,” whereas by the end of the Bush administration, Washington was again in arrears. Fortunately, under President Obama, America has fully paid its debts, a statement that earned massive applause. At the end of his speech, Yeo received a standing ovation, and the secretary general presented him with an ILMUNC T-shirt. 

The secretary general banged the gavel marking the official start to the conference. The students giddily dispersed throughout the Sheraton, where every conference room and banquet hall had been commandeered by a U.N. agency. I chose to attend the Disarmament and International Security Committee, or DISEC in MUN shorthand, the very first committee I ever served on as a freshman delegate to the Rutgers Model United Nations way back in 1998. 

About 150 students filled the room. The first order of business was the roll call, a process briefly rescued from its tediousness when the delegate from Niger, a French exchange student, interjected a “point of order” to insist that the chair pronounce the name of the former French colony correctly (it’s Nee-jayr, not Nigh-jer). Following the roll, the delegates had to decide which of two topics the committee would discuss first, the illicit arms trade or nuclear-free zones. That these subjects were almost identical to the ones I debated 10 years ago—and a brief perusal of the ILMUNC delegate guide revealed the same about practically all the topics—is a small but telling indication of U.N. futility. 

“Decorum!” the committee chair shouted over the chattering mass, banging her gavel on a conference table draped in pleated ballroom tablecloth. This is the favorite command of the MUN conference chairman and the word by which authority is exerted over the delegates. When the chair asked which countries would like to speak, nearly every hand shot up, each holding a placard bearing the name of a U.N. member state. The chair surveyed the floor and started reading off countries, while one of her vice chairmen frantically wrote them down on a dry erase board. 

What followed was a series of 30-second speeches in which each delegate explained why one or the other of the topics was more pressing for the “international community” while also bearing some relation to his own country’s national interest. Determining the national interest of one’s country, however, was a highly subjective endeavor, reflecting the delegate’s personal preferences rather than any informed assessment of real-world policies, allegiances, and so on. After the delegate from Lebanon expressed support for discussing the illicit arms trade as opposed to nuclear-free zones, the representative from Finland rose to speak, and, pointing his finger at his Lebanese counterpart, declared, “How can a person in the Middle East even sleep at night knowing they may be the victim of a nuclear attack?” 

Bored, I took the elevator to the top floor, where the conference was hosting a wine and cheese reception for faculty advisers. Many knew each other from the Model U.N. circuit, and the grizzled veterans traded war stories. A recent Brown University MUN, one teacher told me, had featured a Security Council simulation of the Cuban Missile Crisis. “When Sunday came around, they had nuked each other,” he chuckled. A youngish math teacher at the New York City Lab School for Collaborative Studies admitted that some of his students joined the club to buff their “transcripts for college.” Others, however, “love the work. They want to make the world a better place. They actually have aspirations of being delegates to the U.N.” I asked him if he thought Model U.N. offered students a reasonable picture of international relations. He admitted that it’s “unrealistic that they pass all these resolutions,” and recalled an “inexperienced Italian delegate who didn’t realize she was part of NATO.” He also noticed that some delegates, “newbies” primarily, “don’t adhere” to their country’s stated policies. All in all, though, he thought MUN a positive endeavor. “It’s a learning experience.” 

Other advisers were more skeptical. I met one, a recent Ivy League graduate teaching at a tony New England private school, for a drink at the Sheraton bar. “Most of the kids do it to get into college,” he explained, telling me that he had just come from a committee room where he’d watched one of his students doodling a cat. The previous year, his school had had the honor of representing Kazakhstan, and the students, predictably, “wanted to be Borat.” (Cultural stereotyping is a regular occurrence at Model U.N.; a high school friend interviewed for this piece recalled how, representing Greece before the International Atomic Energy Agency, he and his partner had donned hotel bed sheets as togas and produced a Top 10 list of Greek achievements that included “Chest hair is the best hair,” “Michael Dukakis,” and “Stamos!”) While my private school interlocutor conceded that the “conferences are like circuses,” he insisted there is an upside, which is that “the kids are learning about modern history.” Current events, maybe. But he conceded it lends itself to simplistic solutions. “I believe we solved malaria in four hours,” he said of a recent MUN experience. “We sent out nets and antibiotics.”

The next morning, I paid a visit to the Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural Committee (SOCHUM), typically the largest at any Model U.N. By this time, the delegates were already writing resolutions. Competing groups draft formulaic documents offering solutions to the problems at hand and, through a process of diplomatic horse-trading and adolescent spitefulness, attempt to win the support of their fellow delegates. One high school friend recalled trying to form a “Bloc of the Attractive” to lure in wayward countries. “Sure, you could get resolutions drafted if you were smart and knew what you were talking about,” he wrote me. “Or you could get a couple of hot girls to help draw attention to your cause/resolution/alliance.” Whatever tactics they employ, delegates must follow official U.N. format and lingo. So, for instance, a group of nations “affirming”—or, better yet, “solemnly affirming”—the existence of water scarcity may be “fully alarmed” at the extent of the crisis and, “having examined” the issue, “deplore” its prevalence and “reaffirm” the committee’s commitment to preventing such shortages in the future.  

Often, the coalitions formed in support of resolutions bear little resemblance to actual geopolitical alliances. At ILMUNC, for instance, the delegates to SOCHUM were dealing with the grammatically challenged problem of “Poverty Reduction in Women.” A motley crew including Italy, Kuwait, and Ethiopia put forth a resolution that encouraged “women to occupy positions of political power,” a nice sentiment. The resolution called for the creation of “U.N.-supported community all-in-one centers” (paid for by?) that would teach women “skills .  .  . not limited to embroidery, basket-weaving, carpet weaving, handicraft painting, processing raw materials into commercial goods.” These centers would also provide “sexual education” and “family planning.” Somehow, this resolution was sponsored by Sudan, Armenia, the Palestinian Authority, North Korea, and, what the hell, South Korea. 

“People don’t act as their countries,” a sophomore from a New York-area high school representing China complained to me during a break in his committee, UNICEF. They were discussing the plight of child soldiers, he said, and all of the countries on the committee rose up to decry it, in spite of the fact that “in real life half of these countries use kids in war.” The willingness to ignore a nation’s actual record, of course, could be seen as a taste of reality, a dose of the disingenuousness of the U.N. enterprise itself. At the actual U.N, insincerity is king, and nations frequently denounce the very abuses they regularly perpetrate. Sitting in the back row of a small conference room hosting UNICEF, I listened as the delegate from the Russian Federation thundered on about how “the United States is one of two countries that have not signed the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child,” a pleasant-sounding document that must be pointless considering all of the authoritarian, child soldier-employing, basket-case regimes that have signed it. In a moment of perhaps unintended honesty, the delegate representing the United States channeled Obama administration thinking when he responded, “We are a very bureaucratic government and it’s taking a long time, but we do want to ratify it.” 

Concerned that the high drama of global politics is not sufficient to capture the interest of high schoolers, some MUN clubs are resorting to a desperate tactic: using scenarios based not on world events but on pop culture entertainment. A recent article in the New York Times discussed the prevalence of “crisis committees,” fanciful simulations where students represent, say, gangsters in a Prohibition mafia war or characters from Harry Potter. While crisis or “historical” committees existed in my MUN salad days (I fondly recall representing the Soviet Union during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus), they usually dealt with actual events in which the U.N. played some role, not popular television series or films. The Times put a positive gloss on the phenomenon, attributing the shift in focus to the perception that “governments are no longer the only ones shaping the global order, while social-media tools provide individuals with wider platforms from which to mobilize.” Another possibility is that a growing historical amnesia and mosquito-like attention spans are at fault.

Even in my day, the seeming intractability of the world’s problems was no obstacle to their resolution at Model U.N. Rather than expose students to the rude fact that some challenges are, at best, slowly ameliorated, MUN has always encouraged fantasy remedies. I recall a delegate to UNICEF stating that “local celebrities,” and “not just Brad Pitt and Angelina” (the latter of whom is an official U.N. goodwill ambassador), should hold seminars in villages teaching the rural poor about water purification. Another delegate, asked how some vast new program should be funded, replied that “in undeveloped countries where money is extremely scarce, morality is enough to provide incentives.” 

Another tried and true solution for any Model U.N. delegate is simply to call for the establishment of a new agency, committee, or working group to “address” a problem. A resolution I picked up from the Commission on Sustainable Development, for instance, opened with the nonsensical clause “Aware that the parameter of human activity is nature’s capacity,” before calling for the establishment of a “panel of experts” to “mediate between conflicting countries and regions as they assess, adjust, and improve their water practices.” And if all else fails, a delegate can always insert the word “microfinance” into a position paper, speech, or resolution. This system of small-scale, low-interest loans pioneered in Bangladesh in the 1980s is the sacrosanct panacea of Model U.N.ers worldwide, regardless of its suitability. Want to forge ethnic harmony in the Balkans? Microfinance! End the dispute over the Falkland Islands? Microfinance! Finally achieve that two-state solution? Microfinance! 

As easy as it is to mock the students’ silly solutions, it would be wrong to blame them. I did occasionally hear well-reasoned arguments; for instance, the delegate from Bulgaria professed skepticism of his colleagues’ attempt to curb the illicit small-arms trade by registering every gun produced on earth: “This is the illicit arms trade,” he pointed out. “There’s a reason it’s illicit.” Yet most of what I heard at ILMUNC and throughout my own years of Model U.N. was meaningless, hopelessly earnest, and comically overwrought verbiage. What the students can’t be blamed for is that their teachers tolerate this—and that those traits reflect the U.N. itself.

“The Model U.N. phenomenon has really clouded the minds of two or more generations of young people,” Charles Hill tells me. “It just gets bigger and bigger and bigger.” A former executive aide to secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, Hill held senior diplomatic postings in Israel and Taiwan during a long career in the Foreign Service. He’s also intimately familiar with the inner workings of the U.N., having served as a special adviser to former secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali. In retirement, Hill settled down at Yale University, where he serves as a diplomat-in-residence (and I was his student). 

What harm does MUN do students? “It creates in their minds the idea that international affairs are easy,” Hill says. “We solved the Arab-Israeli conflict last Saturday afternoon, and why can’t other people do it? It must be because they’re stupid or nefarious or in the pockets of some faction or lobbyists.” Model U.N., Hill says, “has given young people in America a completely distorted idea of what the United Nations is.” 

To illustrate, he cites a Yale senior who once visited him during office hours. This individual, who Hill stresses is “very knowledgeable and mature” and has “high prospects for a terrific job in the U.S. government,” started to talk about “the U.N. sending troops somewhere.” The only problem, Hill explained, is that the U.N. cannot “send” troops anywhere. “This guy had done Model U.N. since sophomore year in high school and was simply conditioned to think of something that looks like near-world governance.” He had been persuaded of the supposedly all-encompassing, mollifying powers of the U.N., and was thus “misled,” Hill says. “It took 20 minutes to go through how the Security Council actually works, with Chapter 7” of the U.N. Charter, the article allowing the council to authorize a member state to take military action, a far cry from the U.N. deploying its own (nonexistent) army. Hill tells me that he frequently has such encounters with MUN veterans. “They look at me stunned.” 

Despite its fairy-tale depiction of foreign relations, encouragement of mediocre thinking, and indoctrination of students in the gospel of world government, Model U.N. continues to grow apace, with new clubs sprouting up across the country and around the world. Greater than a mere extracurricular activity, it is a reflection of our post-national, consensus-obsessed, and credential-crazed culture. The problem with Model U.N. is not that it teaches kids about international cooperation, but that it misleads them about how the world actually works. Some students who participate in MUN grow up to see beyond its inanities and clichés, nonetheless valuing the public speaking and debating skills it helped them acquire. For me, MUN was an excellent channel for an early interest in international affairs and a nerdy habit of reading the Economist

Yet as I entered college and began to see international relations in a more sophisticated light, I also recognized the false pieties of the U.N. Unfortunately, many of the students who participate in MUN become zealously committed to the United Nations, forever viewing it as the arbiter of international politics, and one whose pronouncements have greater legitimacy than the prerogatives of democratic governments. Model U.N. offers more than esoteric debates and weekend fun. It propounds a jejune and deceptively comforting worldview—instead of doing the serious work of education, which is readying the young to put away childish things.

James Kirchick is a Berlin-based fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative and a columnist for the New York Daily News, Ha’aretz, and Tablet.

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