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Simulating a World in Crisis

 

On May 13th, some 40 BFS students, parents and faculty paid $10 each to gather in the Upper School cafeteria for the first BFS Model UN fundraising dinner.  The appropriately named International Night featured a pot luck dinner prepared by the fifteen current Model UN students and their families. The evening was organized by team member Amanda B. ’18 and her family.

Upper School History teacher and Model UN adviser Vlad Malukoff was effusive in his praise for the financial and social success of the event.  “We had food from Poland, Italy, China, Spain, Korea, Nigeria, Vietnam, Guyana, Tibet,  Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Germany, Jewish Eastern Europe and Haiti,” he said, rolling off the countries and cultures with ease.

Amanda’s family also arranged for a stellar guest speaker, former US State Department official Jonathan  Brecht.  Born and raised in New York City, Brecht spent his career in the US Foreign Service. He studied Arabic and Middle East affairs, and worked for the State Department’s Near East Asian Bureau in Saudi Arabia and Washington.  He was involved in high level decision-making as it related to Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, oil policies and pricing, terrorism, the influence of religion on regional politics and Palestinian-Israeli relations among other, often contradictory, areas of US foreign policy.

“It’s a great way to bring the community together and learn about the world in a real way,” said Vlad of Mr. Brecht’s presentation. “Our media is dominated by either the liberal-interventionist worldview or the neo-con worldview. Jonathan stressed that we need more of a realist perspective which is not even represented in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post or New York Times.

Upper School Librarian Larry Williams was one of several staff who attended the event.  “Vlad and the Model UN know how to party,” he said.  “The real beauty of the evening was how the food brought everyone together. Suddenly, there were no divisions.  We were just one big happy family, laughing and joking.  It really united us as a community.  There’s something about sharing food that is a great unifier.”

The international dinner was a bit of an experiment but the club is already planning a repeat during the upcoming fall semester on the heels of its popularity.

For those not in the know, “Model UN is a simulation of the United Nations where students represent countries in committees of the General Assembly or in specialized committees that tackle current, past, and future world or national issues,” said BFS sophomore Amanda B., who helped organize the fundraiser. “The delegates debate on the topic or topics presented to their committee prior to the start of the conference and aim to employ skills of diplomacy and international relations, but also of research, public speaking, and debating to act as the nation or person they represent.”  In the real world of course, a delegate’s role would be to represent the millions of citizens of her home country.

This year, club members attended the Columbia Model UN Conference and Exposition held at Columbia University, and the North American Invitational Model UN at Georgetown University.  “At Columbia, I represented Canada in the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2020, a futuristic committee that dealt with the refugee crisis and the growing Islamophobia,” said Amanda, now in her second year in the club.

“There are a few different types of committees based upon the UN classifications,” explained sophomore Sophia L. ’18, also in her second year.  “General Assembly and Specialized Agencies, which are both similar to their UN counterparts and operate on similar rules and procedures,  and Crisis, which is a fast paced and interactive committee centered around one governmental body, which can be anything from historical cabinets to the UN security council.”

At Georgetown, Amanda and fellow club member Claudius A. ’17, a BFS junior, represented  El Salvador in the Special Political and Decolonization Committee (SPECPOL). “We grappled with challenges of being a South American country debating the legitimacy of Russian claims when resolving disputes regarding Ukraine and Crimea,” she said.

At Columbia,  Sophia portrayed  Nagasaki Takasuke, “a political adviser to a Japanese clan,” she explained, “for a simulation that was set in feudal 12th century Japan.”  At Georgetown she became  China’s Education Minister Yuan Guiren.

Model UN is similar to a debate or forensics team but it takes place within a specific context. “It literally simulates what occurs in the real UN,” explained Vlad.  “All of the two-person committees and the General Assembly correspond to what goes on there. The issues they discuss are all exactly the kinds of things that are brought up in the UN.”

Well, that’s not entirely true. “What they do to spice it up,” he said, “is make some of the committees historical for crisis simulations like the Cuban Missile Crisis, or contemporary issues outside of politics like NFL team owners, which have nothing to do with the UN but they allow for organized debate.” Other crisis simulations included the likes of the Dutch East India Company, Apple, Google, the UN Commission on the Status of Women and the UN Economic Commission for Africa among many others.

“Ultimately, you get whatever you put in from Model UN,” said Amanda.  “To do well, it’s important to understand the basics about your country or person…When researching, it’s important to understand how your nation or person acts and the decisions they might make, as a big part of Model UN is maintaining and acting upon the opinions and values of the nation or person you represent.”

Preparations usually begin weeks prior to the event, including the writing of position papers. ” A position paper essentially outlines the history of a topic, your nation or person’s policy regarding said topic, and the ideas you propose to find a solution to the issue.” Complex as it sounds, she insists the research is the easy part.  Her advice to rookies: “It’s best, if you’re new to Model UN, to go and experience first-hand even if you’re not prepared. The best preparation is to understand how committee works and the goal.”

“A one page position paper states your positions and beliefs,” said Sophia.  “Most people go beyond that and generally it’s important to at least know who your character is and what kind of power you have, because you can use your power to effect the committee.”

Sometimes, topics do derail and go afield of real events.  “I’ve come to realize that it’s understanding the nature of politics and the time period which allows you to adapt in the likely case that things veer from the path of history,  and what you do in committee matters much more than the preparations you’ve made.”  She has learned to come prepared but to be adaptable.  “I’ve done just as well with a few Google searches as someone who has binders full of information.”

“It’s very intense,” added Vlad.  “In the end they also have to write resolutions.” As in the real world, Model UN meets contain plenty of behind-the-scenes shenanigans and alliance-building. “There are people who will co-opt your ideas and make them their own and put them into their own resolutions,” he said“There’s an ability to use other people, which,” he pointed out, “is a part I’m not too crazy about, but even that is like the real world. There are people who are unprepared but they get you to vote for them by buttering you up. Last year, a team from one school was censured for writing their resolutions in advance of arriving at the meet.”

The intense Model UN meets are but the culmination of months of studious preparation starting in September. The club meets weekly at lunch.  Junior Emmitt S. ’17 has been involved with Model UN since ninth grade and became team co-captain this year along with classmate Miles N. ’17.

At Columbia, Emmett assumed the role of Vasif Talibov, Chairman of the Supreme Majlis of the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic in the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict Crisis Committee.  At Georgetown he represented A.B. Krongard, Executive Director of the C.I.A during the War on Terror.  “My committee at Columbia gave me a great opportunity to widen my knowledge of transCaucasian multilateral relations,” he said, “a topic
that I will be writing my Extended Essay on for I.B., and my Georgetown committee allowed me to experience one of the most influential events of the early 21st century from the perspective of a member of the executive branch.”

Emmett and Miles are filling huge shoes left by alums Abraham Axler ’14 and Ben Waldman ’14.   Abraham, now a Presidential Scholar at the University of Virginia, has already made a designated gift to BFS for students who excel at Model UN.  The Samuel Pemberton Award for Diplomatic Excellence is a cash award to any student who wins Best Delegate, Outstanding Delegate and Honorable Mention.  This year’s winners included Emmit S. for Best Delegate at Columbia and Outstanding Delegate at Georgetown, Sophia L. for Outstanding Delegate at both events, and newcomer Claudius A. for receiving an Honorable Mention at Columbia.

“Vlad has been a wonderful adviser, mentor, and coach,” said Amanda.  “He’s very knowledgeable about almost any topic. I often talk with him during conferences to get advice…He really wants students to get the most out of the activity, putting value and hard work before winning. He wants to see every student commit and try, even if they don’t win. Sometimes, when I am stressed out at a conference because I feel an overwhelming pressure to win, he reminds me that I get what I put into the experience and that if I don’t win it’s not the end of the world.”

Sophia points out that the BFS club’s situation might be a bit different from other schools’ teams as advisers Vlad and Upper School History teacher Jon SPDegraff never participated in Model UN themselves.  “Faculty advisers in Model UN, at least for our club, aren’t really comparable to coaches or mentors,” she said.  “Our club is very independent in that way, because none of our advisors have any first-hand experience with it, it’s up to the leaders of the club to train any newcomers and explain the rules.  I think that’s really what makes going on trips so fun.  It’s not like a school trip because no one is forcing you to be there or pushing you to do well.  It has to come from you.”

Is all this passion in any way career-related for her? “Prior to joining, I had an interest in current events, mostly international. Model UN motivated me to pursue my interests,” she said.  “Last summer I took a course on Leadership and Global Engagement at Brown University.”  This year at BFS she opted for the Islamic History elective. “That continued to feed my interest. As of now, I’m looking towards a double major in International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies,” she said, but she’s intent on keeping her options open for now.

Sophia, too, is keeping her options open.  “I’m interested in history, and especially foreign relations and the ways in which countries and people interacted with each other, but while fun, Model UN is just a simulation,” she pointed out, “and is often really historically inaccurate.  “That being said, I’ve learned a lot about foreign policy and current events, things that people should know but often don’t.”

Miles points out that being on the team has led him to at least consider new possibilities. “It’s an opportunity to learn and grow and become a more well-rounded person, and become more exposed to this captivating global community,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed meeting people, making new friends and engaging in sophisticated debate. In the future I’ll definitely want to do some work around the United Nations…I want to do work maybe with international relations and diplomacy.”

Emmitt agrees. “I came into Model UN with a basic interest in politics and international affairs that I believe most people in the club share,” said Emmitt. After participating for the last two years, the activity has had a profound impact on my view of the future after BFS.”