Daniel W. Drezner

Sex, violence and model UN

Earlier this year I remember reading a Wall Street Journal profile of Yale professor Charles Hill in which he said something rather extraordinary:  "Model U.N. is very deleterious. It has been educating now two or more generations of high school and college students about a U.N. that isn’t really the U.N. Now when people talk ...

Earlier this year I remember reading a Wall Street Journal profile of Yale professor Charles Hill in which he said something rather extraordinary: 

"Model U.N. is very deleterious. It has been educating now two or more generations of high school and college students about a U.N. that isn’t really the U.N. Now when people talk about the U.N. they talk about something that doesn’t exist. They talk about it as though it’s a kind of untethered international governing body," [Hill] says. "So you’ve got 4,000 high-school students coming in for a weekend at Yale" and "you give them 45 minutes for a little problem like Iran’s nuclear program, and they solve it! And they wonder why, if we solved it this morning before lunch, why can’t you solve it?"

Now, I did Model UN in high school to be close to a girl I had a massive crush on and found it pretty anodyne.  What I remember is that the delegate from St. Kitts and Nevis had the most influence because he seemed the least afraid of speaking publicly.  I noted that this seemed to not correspond to the actual distribution of influence in the world.  Certainly, at my meetings, no great agreements were reached.  So Hill’s concern struck me at the time as, frankly, a little bizarre. 

Then, this weekend, I read Anjli Parrin’s New York Times story about the current state of Model UN… and it ain’t like your daddy’s Model UN.  The good parts version: 

This is not F.D.R.’s Model United Nations, that rigid simulation of General Assembly protocol and decorum. Conferences like this one in Philadelphia, hosted by the club at Penn, have turned MUN, as it’s called, into a full-fledged sport, with all the competitiveness and rowdiness that suggests. Today, there are official sponsors, a ranking of schools and, much to the chagrin of traditionalists, non-U.N. role play….

In classic MUN, students represent the positions and values of assigned countries, adhering to official protocols when speaking, negotiating and drafting resolutions. Consensus is important, and the process of arriving at innovative solutions to global problems the goal. That is still the prevailing model. But a new breed of Model U.N., popular among student-run clubs at elite universities, has a distinctly different philosophy. Their “crisis committees” focus on a single historical event (the 1929 Atlantic City conference of crime bosses, for example) and fantasy recreations (“Star Wars,” “Harry Potter”). Participants battle it out in four-day conferences in hopes of winning a coveted gavel, awarded to the strongest member on each committee, and schools with the most “best delegates” top the new rankings….

In Europe and Africa, where [Amandla Ooko-Ambaka] first became involved with Model U.N., she said the focus is more on the academic element of debating. After two years on the traveling team at Yale, she became frustrated with all the politicking and petty tactics. “Not only did I have to put together a good position paper and know one or two things about my topic,” she said, “but I had to worry about someone stealing my USB stick,” where delegates often store their work.

Parvathy Murukurthy, a senior at the University of Chicago and member of the college circuit’s first all-star team, isn’t pointing fingers but says that “entire sections of my resolution have been duplicated into other people’s resolution.” Delegates say backstabbing is less common in crisis committees because they’re smaller (about 20 people while a General Assembly re-creation might have 300), with more chance to distinguish oneself.

Underscoring just how extreme the competition has become, many students refer to a phenomenon known as the “golden gavel,” in which a delegate sleeps with the chairperson in the hopes of winning. Two students told me they are convinced they lost an award this way. Others I spoke with had only heard rumors — but, they added quickly, not involving regular competitors.

One thing is clear. Chairpersons, who are appointed by their clubs, are all-powerful. They run their committee, and often research and write up each character’s portfolio of powers. “Essentially, the chair decides what’s what,” Mr. Venice said, “and the chair decides what’s what without really any guidance. I can’t think of another sport where that would fly, to be honest.”

So… to sum up:  the current incarnation of model U.N. has unequal distributions of power, competition for status, and accusations of skullduggery and sexual impropriety.  I dunno, Professor Hill: this sounds like a pretty decent simulation of modern international politics.   [Aaaaand… the premise for a semi-sequel to Pitch Perfect!–ed.]

So, in honor of Samantha Power’s confirmation as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, let me salute this generation of Model UNers:  may you continue to flummox your elders!!

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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