I imagine a world in which the “international community” provides universal education for all girls. Or where countries that deploy children as soldiers cease to do so as a result of moral suasion. Or where the global scourge of malaria is stopped with the passing of a unanimous resolution. Indeed, where there is no problem or crisis, no matter how seemingly intractable, that cannot be solved over the course of a lively weekend in a hotel ballroom. Welcome to the world of Model United Nations.
From the age of 14 to 18, I was an enthusiastic member of my high school’s Model United Nations (MUN) team. A lackluster athlete, I applied myself to MUN with the passion that most of my peers devoted to sports, rising to vice president by the time I was a senior. During that period, I attended at least three national conferences every year and devoted countless hours to the club. There was little I looked forward to more than an upcoming Model U.N. conference, a feeling shared by thousands of high school students across the country.
According to the United Nations, student simulations of international diplomacy began even before the world body itself was founded at the 1945 San Francisco Conference. Indeed, American high schools were mimicking the League of Nations, the U.N.’s doomed predecessor, in the 1920s. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that MUN clubs—informally sponsored by the United Nations Association of the United States, a nonprofit group devoted to evangelizing Americans in the virtues of the U.N.—became widespread. What’s more, Model U.N. isn’t just an extracurricular activity for teenagers; it is a veritable “movement,” worldwide in scope, like those calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons or protection of the whales. Though decentralized, it propounds an ideology that has shaped the worldviews of the millions who have taken part over the past half-century.
Today, most MUN conferences in the United States are organized by university undergraduates, who play the roles of U.N. officials, while the gatherings’ intended beneficiaries—high school students—adopt the parts of delegates from the U.N.’s 193 member states. More than 90,000 high school and college students participate in over 100 American MUN conferences every year. Globally, the U.N. reports that 400,000 students take part annually in some 400 MUN conferences in 35 countries. Conferences run the gamut from AMUN, the Arkansas Model United Nations, hosted by the University of Central Arkansas, to ZABMUN, held at Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology in Karachi.
On the surface, it’s hard to quarrel with earnest high school kids’ convening for weekends of geopolitical role-playing. Much like the institution whose bureaucracy it aims to simulate, MUN appears at worst harmless. “Our goal is about how the world could be if everyone got along, had fun, and used their imagination,” a student can be heard saying from the dais of a Montessori MUN Conference, in a video posted on the conference’s homepage. Where’s the danger in teaching teenagers regard for multilateralism, peace, and humanitarianism, the stated values of the U.N. Charter? In addition to the worthy ideals MUN is intended to impart, advocates say, MUN informs students about the structure and functions of international organizations and helps them develop skills like debating, public speaking, and negotiation.
If MUN were actually a straightforward simulation of the world body—warts and all—there would be no reasonable objection to the program. Yet Model U.N.’s do-gooder ideology obscures the real U.N.’s institutional limitations. By 12th grade, students ought to be capable of grasping that, while the General Assembly looks like a legislature, only some of its members practice the rule of law, much less hold free elections. Like the U.N. itself, which preaches democracy and self-determination while giving free rein to regimes that respect neither, MUN never asks its participants to wrestle with the contradiction that is a world body devoted to law, peace, and international comity made up of members representing the full spectrum from democracy to tyranny, only some of which actually feel bound by treaties they sign.