Opinion: No means no- Why diplomacy is killing Model UN

by Natalia Daza on March 31, 2016

This guest opinion article was written by Sam Povey, a student at London School of Economics, who has been doing Model UN for the past six years. 


Diplomacy. The ancient art of negotiation, tactful communication, and often underhanded intrigue is the defining characteristic of Model UN. When some uniformed troglodyte asks me, “what even is the difference between Model UN and debate?” my first response is diplomacy.

Quite rightly, diplomacy has become the watchword of many MUN conferences. WorldMUN even formally recognises its role through its single-tiered “Diplomacy Award”. It has come to define carefully crafted speeches, strained unmods,  negotiations and frantic drafting. The spirit for diplomacy also serves as a useful counterbalance to brash power-dels, determined to conquer the world, one gavel at a time.

But chairs and secretariats have begun to interpret diplomacy in an odd way. Increasingly, diplomacy has been conflated with being “nice”. It’s as if John Ikenberry eschewed academia and began running Model UN conferences. Delegates are recognised not for pushing country policy, but for building consensus. Points are given not for deft rebuttal, but inclusive and hollow speech making. And awards are beginning to be assigned not to the “best” delegate, but the nicest.

Why is it a problem? Anyone who has seen a fight over limited Panel of Authors spots will surely agree that encouraging delegates to be civil toward one another is a noble aim. And what more effective way of doing so than to design awards to reward diplomacy? Indeed, it is an immutable truth of committee that where awards go, delegates follow.

But beware the law of unintended consequences. Here’s an example: the “consensus speech” The next time you’re in a committee, listen carefully, and I guarantee you’ll hear it. “The topic we face today is grave and urgent”, the delegate begins, attempting to affect an air of mundipomacygravitas. “We must not be divided, the international community must unite” they continue, as the time ticks towards 60 seconds. “The delegate urges my fellow delegate to work to achieve . . . consensus”. Vomit. The consensus speech is vapid, self-serving and colossal waste of committee, and yet delegates insist on using it.

Speeches like these seem harmless enough, but they kill debate. A high level of debate requires point and counter-point, to-and-fro. The consensus speech not only takes time away from delegate who want to defend their ideas or attack another’s policy, but discourages delegates from even doing so in the first place. Debate exists to advance and refine good ideas and kill off bad ones; consensus speeches slow the essential process of creative destruction that leads to sensible and substantive draft resolutions. In the most extreme cases, I have encountered delegates who seem to think that their ideas should be added to a DR for inclusivity’s sake alone. Sorry, Chad, but we’re not adding your grassroots campaign to our DR on the latest massacre in Syria. We’re not being undiplomatic, your idea is simply bad. Inclusivity is an important part of diplomacy, but it should not be confused with attempts to build consensus where there isn’t and shouldn’t be any.

Of course, that isn’t to say that delegate shouldn’t strive consensus. Where consensus is realistically achievable, it should be pursued with vigour. Indeed, consensus (or something approaching it) is often possible. But sometimes consensus is simply unrealistic. The Member States of the UN have many genuine and intractable differences between them, and it is the role of delegates at MUN to grapple with those differences. But that requires an accurate representation of the often conflicting interests of nations, and that itself requires knowing when consensus or even agreement is not within “country policy”. Being diplomatic isn’t about saying “yes” all of the time, it’s about knowing when (and when not) to say “no”.

Furthermore, I would argue that rewarding this sort of “diplomacy” doesn’t actually make delegates kinder to one another at all. Awards are always decided by what the chairs sees, and when chairs award kindness, inclusivity and consensus, that is what delegates will show them. But all this does is push the arguments, fights and backstabbing into unmods. While rewarding “diplomacy” might discourage intimidating power dels, it provides a huge boost for would-be Machiavellians. Undermining blocs, negotiating secretive mergers and duping delegates out of Panel of Authors spots all take place outside the view of the chair. Unless these underhanded tactics are so egregious that they are reported, chairs remain blissfully unaware; all that is left is to make some consensus speeches and thank everyone for their contributions on Panel of Authors and you’re virtually guaranteed Distinguished Delegate.

So, what is to be done? Firstly, single tiered awards system used at conferences such as WorldMUN are right way to go. Multi-tiered awards make Model UN too much about winning and make it difficult to facilitate meaningful and honest collaboration between delegates. Single tiered awards remove many of the incentives to backstab others and impose oneself on a committee, whilst still providing a dose of competitive spirit to push delegates the extra mile. Secondly, secretariats and chairs should rethink what diplomacy means. My suggestions would include the ability to defend country policy consistently, even if that means being uncooperative; the insight to recognise when to make a concession and when to draw a red line; and the decisiveness to be forceful and push forward when other equivocate. Finally, whatever awards system secretariats decide is best, they should communicate it clearly to delegates. Having an awards policy (even a vague one) improves transparency, keeps award decisions consistent across committees and helps a conference define its unique “feel”.

Oh, and any delegate who makes the “consensus speech” should be condemned by the UNSC.


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