MUN and Debate: A Tale of Two Activities

by Justinas on February 4, 2013

Debate and Model United Nations often go hand in hand.

When you read this, I may just be trying to prove a panel of international judges just why we should keep the retirement age as it is, why the doctors and not the parents should be allowed to take decisions about children’s health, why sovereign debt default is not a legitimate economic policy for sovereign countries or any other motion currently on the agenda of the World Schools Debating Championship.

Debating has been a huge part of my life ever since I started it in 7th grade, while MUN has entered my world only a year and a half ago. Still, I cannot prioritize one over another, as to me, both are parts of a greater whole. In my opinion, doing MUN is crucial if one wants to succeed in debating, and debating is crucial if one wants to succeed in MUN. And both are absolutely necessary if one wants to succeed in his/her life of a diplomat, politician, economist, or just a knowledgeable person in general.

For all of those deciding how to improve in MUN, what extracurricular activities to choose, and why, here I list 4 ways of how MUN and debates correlate and help one grow.

1. Philosophy meets real-politik

One of the key differences between debating (or at least how it is done in most of the world) and MUN is that the former is an academic exchange of ideas, while the latter is a simulation of a certain political body or organization (disregard Harry Potter committees). Although in debate people do speak as if they were aiming to get their plan passed through an unidentified legislative body, there is little procedural knowledge one must have. Rather, it is all about broad, well-rounded knowledge of political (economic, social) principles (see clause 2) and concepts. In order to win in debate, one needs to prove how his/her arguments are superior to their opponents on an intellectual level (whether the arguments presented are logical, grounded in fundamental principles, etc.). Thus, winning in debate is inseparable from the ability to prove that one occupies the just position.

To win in MUN, however, one needs to take a very different approach: rather than grounding his/her arguments in philosophical thought, a good delegate will use its knowledge of how certain political bodies work, what they can do, what funds they could divert to a certain cause, and what the actual effects of the policy be. Whether it is right or wrong on a philosophical level is quite subjective (just think of a never ending USA/Russia squabble about what – human rights or national sovereignty – should be held in the highest regard). It is about achieving the goal, whatever the goal might be – moral justice has a little role to play here.

Naturally, a person that is exposed to both debating and MUN is able to get a taste of both theoretical/philosophical AND real-politik approaches to policymaking. While of course it is not necessary for a person to take part in both of those activities, it is highly encouraged for each MUNer to learn the basic philosophy behind the modern policymaking, and for those doing debate, to learn just how actually do the principles learnt play out in the real world.

2. Principles, principles, principles

As you probably have already understood from my first point, debating is all about principles. By that I mean such concepts as pre-political (inalienable/basic) rights, such theories as the social contract, compensation, prohibition, the role of the state and so on. A classic debate motion, reading ‘This House would legalize marijuana’ would focus on such principles as person’s right to chose what to do with his body, J.S. Mill’s harm principle, and such. The opposition would bring up such ideas as the role of the government to protect the health of the person (quoting John Locke, possibly) or the increased threat of negative externalities (such as more drugs being accessible by children).

While it most certainly does not apply to all MUN topics of discussion, a strong philosophical position is crucial in many debates. And although ‘political philosophy in MUN’ usually boils down to protecting certain human rights on one hand and protecting the concept of national sovereignty of the other (those usually involved in UNSC simulations can relate…), it is useful to know how to defend even such basic principles. One can easily be China without explaining why exactly national sovereignty matters to him/her as a delegate, but a philosophical/theoretical grounding of such a stance would solidify his/her position of a committee leader.

3. Strategy, strategy, strategy

Both debate and MUN require a great amount of knowledge. In MUN, you have to be an expert of the issues, topics, and possible crises relevant to your committee. In debating, you may need to know just about everything, as the topics given range from legalizing prostitution to sovereign debt default. It is also reasonable to expect your fellow MUN delegates or debaters to be just as well versed in the issues of importance.

The MUN superstar or a great debater all of us aspire to be then has to have something more than knowledge and a nice suit. Taking your performance to the next level can be done significantly easier if you employ prudent strategy – if you stress the right points at a right time that is.

In MUN, one usually achieves that through acquisition of strong partners or by providing enough laxness for the plan to be appealing to the masses while still being effective. Having your resolution backed by the key countries of each region of the world (the Mid-East, the Latin America bloc, etc.) is always great, for example.

What is even more important pertaining to the content of resolutions one writes is their end-results. If one wants to write a resolution that is seen as an acceptable option, one always needs to ask himself/herself: W hat is the resolution driving at? How can I unite the whole international community behind me? Even the most reluctant delegates cannot object to a plan that proposes helping the starving children out.

Similarly in debate, one places certain burdens of proof on himself/herself and his/her opponents. Those are needed so that judges could assess the debate and clearly see which speaker/team was actually talking about the core issues of the debate and whether they were properly proven/defended. A smart debater will always make the smaller points in his case to aim at a bigger picture, the key values one defends. So, instead of arguing for legalizing soft drugs, one must employ a strategy to defend the individual right to choose, as it is far more convincing and important point in any debate.

We again see how MUN and debating converges. Much like debaters should learn to include diplomatic flexibility into their arguments, MUN delegates would benefit from considering what their burdens of proof each time they set to write a passing resolution. No matter which activity you are busy with, experience from both will help you stand out in your field even more.

4. Style, manner, delivery

The last, but no less important, entry in this article is about how MUN and debating help with one’s public speaking skills. To stand out in a large committee, one has to deliver the best speech each and every time he/she gets the floor. In smaller committees, delegates must turn into AK-47s of rhetoric, blasting one strong example, clever joke, or heart-wrenching call to action after another.

While a delegate can remedy himself after an unsuccessful speech by delivering a multitude of brilliant ones, a debater only has one speech to give to begin with. It, however, must flourish with convincing examples, inspirational quotes, witty remarks and so on. No debater can excel in the activity by delivering robotic speeches one after another, thus public speaking skills naturally form

And while MUN delegates are naturally more inclined to give speeches that are similar in their nature to rally calls, whereas debate speeches are much not so active in this regard, both naturally put a person giving the speech into a position where there is only one choice – speak so, that all would want to listen. Having nowhere to go but up, that is what debaters and delegates do.

I hope that those patient enough to read through the whole article found at least several ideas worth your attention. I only urge you to employ what you learn from MUN or debate in real life – the world needs more of both.

  • Nadine

    Thanks for this, Justinas.

  • JinYoung Kim

    This was a great article! I’m looking through best delegate for articles, but as a debater, it is one of the best articles I have looked at. Thanks!

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