Hindsight 20/18: Model UN
Jun 2, 2018 • Procrastinating Matt Wang • ~ 30 minute read • 3674 words
Model UN is one of the most interesting experiences I’ve undergone in my high school “career”. On one hand, I think it’s one of the largest growth experiences that I’ve undergone - I’ve learned a lot about the world, I’ve learned about how to solve problems, and I’ve definitely learned people skills. On the other hand, it’s been one of the most gruelling experiences that I’ve undergone - it has sucked the soul out of what I do, and I’ve never felt truly happy doing Model UN (and even winning, which seems… problematic). Let’s take a journey as to why.
What is Model UN, and what IS Model UN?
The most important distinction I want to make is between what MUN is in theory, and what it is in practice.
In theory, Model United Nations is a roleplaying exercise where delegates (high school students) pretend to be countries in mock United Nations committees. They discuss pertinent issues from the viewpoint of their country, and the committee as a whole looks to solve the existing issues. Examples of common Model UN topics/committees include the World Health Organization (WHO) and global health, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the various international refugee crises, or the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and stopping (or starting) international conflicts. Often times, Model UN actually goes outside of the bounds of the UN: in other global organizations such as INTERPOL or the G20, or roleplaying a wide range of organizations in different time periods, such as the government of China, the Peace of Westphalia, or the board of the NFL. Model UN has two different components to it: “formal debate”, where delegates stand up one by one and address the committee in a formal speech, and “caucases”, where delegates converse with other delegates without moderation. In order to be good at Model UN, you need to be good at both of these formats: you need to be well-researched, an articulate speaker, quick on your feet, and a sociable person.
I think that there are two key things about Model UN that make it such an enticing idea: the breadth of topics, and the roleplaying/perspectives. I think that Model UN engages in discussions that are hard to have in any other activity because of these two aspects. Compare it to high school debate: due to its (mostly) impromptu nature and its focus on principles, it’s tough to have debates that exactly mirror what happens in real life. Model UN requires delegates to do an immense amount of research (though whether or not they do it is another story), and because of that, we can have debates about certain clauses of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea or debate which type of military needs more funding from NATO. Furthermore, high school debate often hinges on societal utilitarianism - rarely are there debates that are from the perspective of an individual country or an organisation, while that type of debate is commonplace in Model UN. While I’m a pretty classical utilitarian, debating other perspectives is not only fun and intellectually stimulating but is also a window into why certain things happen in the world we live in. Researching Myanmar’s history helped me better understand why the country is so ethnically divided right now, and why the genocide (yes, I called it that) is happening.
Unfortunately, high school Model UN tends to fall short of what it could be. Part of its faults are inherent to any student activity: it’s hard to get kids to care about anything, it’s hard to get funding for anything related to students, and high quality events are hard to run. However, in these areas, I think Model UN is actually significantly better than many of its competitors (such as debate or robotics). Model UN is popular: it’s the largest club in my school, and events like SSUNS (held by McGill) or HMUN (held by Harvard) attract thousands of students from around the world, while debate tournaments and robotics competitions usually cap out at 100-200 kids. Some of that comes from the nature of each event, but some of it is surely interest from teenagers. MUN is very well funded: students are happy to pay hefty delegate fees, and organizing committees are usually heavily backed by their parent university and have large corporate (and occasionally NGO) sponsorships. And, events usually are high quality: the venues are the best that a lump of money can buy, they attract distinguished university professors and government officials, and have lots of attractions and off-competition events that help delegates learn more about the UN or develop their personal skills.
So, what’s the catch? What makes Model UN bad? I think it’s precisely the fact that it’s so popular and commercialised, that the events tend to be a spectacle instead of focused on international affairs. To me, Model UN suffers the same problems that DECA has, and because of that it is unable to reach those goals.
Firstly, why do I think the popularity serves it poorly? I think it’s parallel to the tale of many local restaurants. They get featured in BlogTO, hundreds of new customers overwhelm the staff and stretch thin its resources, so to serve all of these diners the restaurant has to degrade some of its quality. The same thing happens in Model UN: when you have 400 kids in one room (as is becoming more common at big conferences like BMUN and HMUN), it’s hard to listen to every single kid and engage with the ideas that they propose. Organisers have to cut corners, not because they don’t like doing MUN, but because it wouldn’t be feasible to run a committee without doing so.
In addition, the popularity leads to a lot of kids doing MUN who don’t care as much and/or are only doing it for “the résumé”. I don’t have an issue with people who are bad at Model UN or are trying it for the first time - as long as someone is genuinely trying, they can reap the benefits of MUN and simultaneously raise the level of debate. However, at the risk of sounding too pretentious, people who aren’t actively engaged in Model UN both directly and indirectly ruin the activity.
Directly, it means that the quality of debate in-committee declines, as delegates are less-researched, don’t debate from the perspective that they’re representing, and vote for the loudest or most charismatic speaker (something I’ll touch on later). An extreme case of this was my experience at BMUN 2016’s UN Security Council. For context, BMUN (held at UC Berkeley) is one of the most competitive and prestigious MUN conferences in North America, and the UNSC is supposed to be one of the more competitive committees within an already competitive conference. The main topic of debate was the South China Sea, but our China delegate instead ditched the committee and went to watch movies and smoke weed. Without having China in the debate, most of our committee was useless - and it made our experience worse as delegates.
Indirectly, it lowers the standard that conferences are held at. Since the common denominator gets lower and lower every year at big MUN conferences, the topics that we end up debating are less diverse and lose complexity. As SSUNS has gotten bigger and bigger, the topics have swayed more towards “generalist issues” such as helping the environment or world health programs. These are no means bad things to discuss, but they don’t offer much to debate either - these committees tend to have universal consensus, especially because delegates aren’t invested enough to debate the nuances between carbon taxes or cap-and-trade. Committees that exist due to pop culture appeal (such as Game of Thrones, Pokemon or Lord of the Rings committees) become more and more popular, and while they can be allegories for real world issues (e.g. mandatory Muggle studies in the Harry Potter universe), they tend to be ineffective and focused on fandom. At the risk of sounding even more pretentious, both of these types of committees take resources away from debates that are truly in the spirit of Model UN. Security Councils are less popular and don’t engage in risqué topics; historical committees are dwindling; committees that explore current affairs like the Myanmar Constitutional Assembly (one of my favourite committees I’ve ever been) are half-full.
But wait, there’s more! Similar to DECA, Model UN falls folly to over-commercialisation and the bad kind of résumé building. I’ve noticed that events at conferences are trending more towards “meet recruiters at McKinsey and Deloitte” and less of “meet an expert on the Rwandan genocide” or “tour the ICAO and meet UN officials”. While these things aren’t inherently bad, they tend to detract from the actual activity of Model UN, and attract people who don’t actually care about MUN and just want to work at McKinsey. Furthermore, to attract corporate sponsors, conferences can’t run super risqué committee ideas or take hard stances on policies. A friend who organises an unnamed university conference told me that their sponsors threatened to pull out if they ran a Hamas committee (which is definitely risqué, but also explores very interesting issues). That same conference chose not to run a committee on the Armenian genocide (or rather, whether or not it was a genocide) because “the issue was too controversial” and “would reflect poorly on the conference”. While I understand why these things happen (and why corporate sponsors are so important), it’s very frustrating to be stuck with the same “safe” committee choices and not be able to explore all these different perspectives (one of the reasons why I thought MUN was so awesome).
And the award goes to…
However, I think that Model UN’s largest flaw (and one that’s structurally integrated into how the activity functions) is the award system. By itself, it damages the spirit of the activity, but it also fosters the other problems that I talked about and many more.
For this to make sense, I first need to explain how Model UN is adjudicated. Again, there is a separation of principle and practice. In principle, awards should go to delegates that “embody the spirit of the UN”, have the best arguments that are grounded in solid facts, and act in the role of their country. These are very hard principles to judge: how can you quantify the “spirit of the UN”, and what is the “best argument”? Model UN isn’t the only activity that suffers this problem (high school debate arguably is even harder to adjudicate), but these faults get further compounded by the lack of adjudication structure. In Model UN, the vast majority of conferences don’t have standardized adjudication materials: there are no definitions, no clear criteria, and no rubric. As such, a lot of the adjudication tends to be subjective, and certain factors are weighed significantly more than others: how eloquent of a speaker someone is (regardless of their content), how often someone speaks (regardless of their content), how much the judge agrees with the opinions of the delegate, and particularly in high school adjudicated conferences, how attractive the delegate is.
Contrast this with high school debate: almost all debate formats (e.g. British Parliamentary, Worlds Style, Australs) have clear style guides that outline what makes a good speaker. When these debaters are judged, there are specific things that judges must make their decision on, such as role fulfillment (something that is very clearly defined in debate styles), how specific and nuanced arguments are, or how each team engaged with other teams in the round. While there is still room for subjectivity, there is significantly less - and because of that, I think debate better rewards individuals who actually meet the criteria that it sets out.
As a result, Model UN rewards the wrong kind of delegate. Or, at least, a different kind of delegate. Because of its flimsy adjudication, the kind of people that tend to win at Model UN are people who speak well, are sociable, and are good at ad-libbing (being attractive is definitely a plus), even if they don’t know what they’re talking about. I’ve done MUN for four years, and I’ve consistently seen this to be true: even in “high level” high school MUN (an oxymoron), I’ve seen delegates who haven’t read their background guide win committees off of their charisma and their ability to say that “naval combat is critical in Baghdad”, a city that is not remotely close to the ocean or any large bodies of water. I’ve helped members of my own team win committees, by explaining to them what their committee was and that Georgia really is a country on the train ride to the conference. I’ve literally heard someone say, “give that girl the gavel, she’s SO HOT”. That’s problematic.
There’s another problem with awards in MUN: unlike debate, there’s no seeding or bracketing, so it’s unlikely that any single committee has a high skill level. Rather, a typical committee has an 40/40/20 split, where 40% of delegates do not care at all, 40% of delegates care but are not good (and therefore not a threat), and only 20% or less of the delegates are competent enough to win an award. Therefore, winning a MUN competition, while sounding flashy, is significantly easier than winning a debate tournament (where good debaters are bracketed into facing other debaters and have to go through outrounds). All of this feeds into the previous issues: undercompetitive committees lead to low quality debates and sketchy adjudication.
Look, I’m guilty of feeding into this system too. Compared to my other extracurriculars, I’ve had a pretty successful career in MUN (I’ve awarded at every conference I’ve been to and I’ve won my last four in a row), and it’s not because I know the most about international affairs and have a true passion for Model UN - it’s because I’ve learned how to game the system. Sure, I put effort into the arguments that I make (they’re pretty simple anyways, so it’s not a lot of effort), but instead of putting my primary focus on beating out the 20% that is my competition, I find the 40% who are bad at Model UN, and give them genuine help and encouraging remarks: simple stuff like saying that their plan is great, or giving them a fact they need for an argument, or having a custom handshake with them. In return, they almost always back me up in formal debate (even if their country isn’t supposed to), and they almost always vote for my resolutions. Is this ethical? I have no idea, even though I tell myself that it’s fine because I’m helping people. But it definitely helps me win, and it helps me win more than knowing the regions of Syria well or memorizing parts of Rwanda’s constitution.
So, what’s the consequence of these awards? Well, for starters, it makes the activity significantly more popular than other alternatives: since it’s easier (and flashier) to win in Model UN, why would you do debating or mock trial? It also selects for a certain kinds of people: it actively shuns politics nerds (due to the nature of the award system), and instead attracts résumé padders and sociable people who are good at bullshitting. And, these delegates lower the quality of debate - so, to respond, the conferences adjust themselves and further themselves from the spirit of MUN. That makes it even harder to win at MUN if you’re a delegate who aligns with its spirit - creating a semi-vicious cycle.
But, even though I think that MUN (as an activity) has major, major flaws, it still has a lion’s share of benefits - just those benefits are not the ones I identified earlier.
The biggest lesson that I’ve learned is completely unrelated to international relations or Model UN. How MUN doles out awards is very similar to how a lot of things in real life actually function, opposed to how they should. Being qualified for a job is important, but “sounding smart” and being sociable is easily as important, if not more. MUN has taught me how important these “soft skills” are, and it’s developed them for me too. “Compromising” without compromising has proven to be a very useful skill in life, as has using flowery language to “sell” an idea. Spotting the people in the room who care and those who don’t has made me a significantly better presenter. Being nice to people that I strongly dislike has become easy as cake. Spotting people who are being overconfident in their knowledge and/or are lying has been invaluable, especially when hiring. And, being helpful to people who need help is actually a good thing to do, though now I try to do it without ulterior motives.
With that though, I’ve come to respect people with soft skills more. I don’t mean to say that those who succeed in MUN due to their sociability are bad people or are not intelligent (though some definitely need some work in that department) - in fact, I’ve come to respect that ability to the same degree as someone who’s a computer science whiz. Interfacing with people is infinitely harder than any API, reading and interpreting people is more confusing than any dataset, and being naturally likable is just… something that I don’t think you can teach. MUN has opened my eyes to just how smart those people are.
MUN has also taught me to look beyond accomplishments as a metric of skill. I’ve met tons of people who have a long résumé of Model UN achievements that know jack shit about international relations. Likewise, I’ve met some of the smartest political minds who have never won a debate tournament or MUN conference. When I was hiring for Robotics Camp, I focused more on having a conversation with each candidate and identifying the level of knowledge they had in each skill, rather than taking their achievements at face value. And I’ve kept that cynicism in the back of my mind every time I meet someone from TKS.
And, while MUN hasn’t been perfect in reaching its goals, I still have learned a lot about the world we live in and how countries interact with each other. I’ve learned more about the UN, more about lots of countries, more about lots of conflicts. Most importantly though, I think that MUN has flipped my perspective on what’s a “boring” topic. When I was younger, I’d always skip the sections of newspapers that weren’t directly relevant to me - who cares about Myanmar or Rwanda or Colombia, they’re so far away! But after doing hours and hours of research and essay-writing on these far away lands, I grew a personal attachment to each of these topics. I realised that every country is important (how cliché) - that each conflict has thousands if not millions of people who’s lives are irreversibly changed, and that each of those lives is one just like mine. Now, I tear through all of the Economist, not only to check in on Colombian elections because I researched so much on the FARC and the ELN and peace talks, but also to learn more about the problems that people face in the world that I’ve never met nor researched (no matter how cliché that sounds).
On a more personal note, I also learned about prioritizing commitments. While I learned a lot from MUN, I certainly didn’t enjoy the activity as much as I loved debating or coding. When I was younger, I just planned to do 13 clubs all throughout high school, but clearly, that wasn’t feasible. And when I realised that MUN was such a heavy commitment that it’d impede on my ability to debate and to code, I learned to be honest with my faculty advisor and honest about my commitments. While I didn’t do it quickly enough, I’m proud that I learned to set boundaries for myself, and to be fair to a club that has done its best to support me.
As with any kind of activity, I also made lots of friends - people in my club at school, random people that I met at conferences, or bonding with people over how much I hated aspects of Model UN. Still, something about the nature of Model UN (how it blurs the line between the human being and the delegate) made it harder to have long lasting friendships through MUN, compared to debate. Regardless, I made quite a few good friends (and many more acquaintances) through MUN. I also had the pleasure of having a great faculty advisor - one who was equally intelligent and passionate about MUN and about his students. Thank you Mr. Griem!
Wow, this entire post was super cynical. And I’m aware how pretentious, gatekeep-y, and “salty” I sound, but I promise, I’m not like this in real life. MUN just has me very vindictive, and gets me in a #mood.
Looking back, it’s very hard for me to say whether or not I would’ve done Model UN all over again. It’s hard for me to want to change most things about my past, since I’m not sure what kind of person I’d be now (i.e. I’d probably be more of a dick). Model UN was a huge timesink, and that’s time that I could’ve spent studying more or doing more coding to get into Stanford or UC Berkeley.
But, I have an inkling that the soft skills that I learned through Model UN are going to be more important as I get older and meet more people. Only time can tell if I’m right, and I’m not even sure that time wants to tell me. But, there’s only one way I’ll find out - by moving forward.
Wow, this was long! You can tell why I didn’t publish this article without giving it some thought. And, there’s a lot more to come. Until next time!