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Diplomacy 101

On the sixth floor of the Marriot Marquis in Manhattan, hundreds of college students in business attire swarm the meeting rooms and hallways, carrying placards identifying them as Sri Lanka or Togo or Namibia or any one of the other 190 member states of the United Nations. Sitting on the floor outside one of the meeting rooms, a group is gathered around a woman with a laptop who’s drafting a resolution. Across the landing, China holds an impromptu strategy session. Near the escalator, Vietnam and Malaysia are deep in conversation.

It’s the annual New York National Model United Nations (NMUN) simulation, where 5,100 delegates from 44 countries come together for five days to tackle critical issues ranging from the illicit weapons trade in Africa to human trafficking. Richard Reitano, a Vassar political science professor, has served as faculty advisor to students participating in the National Model UN since 1967, originally as advisor to the Dutchess Community College delegation and, since 1995, to a joint Vassar-Dutchess delegation known as the Hudson River Group (HRG).

Over the years, HRG has represented China, the United Kingdom, France, Cuba, Canada, Germany, South Africa, Brazil, and the United States. Representing Italy this year, HRG delegates sit on 12 Model UN committees, engaging in intense debate and negotiating solutions to real-world problems confronting the global community. Asked to sum up the experience in five words or less, Kreshnik Deliu, an HRG delegate from Kosovo, says, “Life changing.”

A big part of what’s powerful about the NMUN experience is the rigorous preparation in advance of the conference. “Knowledge is power,” says Reitano. “That’s our motto.” The students have to become experts on the policies and positions of the country they’re going to represent. Further, each student (or sometimes a pair of students) is assigned to a particular UN committee and is responsible for mastering their country’s position on three topics—complicated topics, like “the humanitarian and socioeconomic impact of Israeli settlements on Palestinian quality of life.” But it’s more than an intellectual exercise. The students also have to become actors, in a sense. “They have to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes,” says Reitano. “That’s not so hard when you’re representing Canada. Everybody loves Canada. But China is harder, Cuba is harder. And you’ve got to play it straight. You’ve got to defend your country.”

The Hudson River Group
The Hudson River Group

In addition to Reitano, five teaching assistants who’ve been through the course themselves work intensively with the delegates to prepare them for the simulation, critiquing their position papers, drilling them on procedural issues, coaching them on public speaking. “Your success at the Model UN depends in large part on your knowledge of your country and of UN procedures,” says teaching assistant Arushi Raina. “During the simulation, it’s pretty free. No one is telling you what to do or what to propose. You, as a delegate, can come forward with your ideas, and you have a chance to really be creative and think about what’s going to solve the issue you’re dealing with. But you have to write resolutions that look exactly like actual resolutions and that go into as much detail or even more.”

During the five-day simulation, the teaching assistants take the back seat and watch as the delegates they’ve trained plunge into the fray. Everything is happening in the committees—formal speeches (“Delegate, you are recognized for 60 seconds.”), motions (“Poland moves to adjourn the meeting until 3:00pm.”), informal caucusing.

“Caucusing is probably my favorite part of the whole process,” says Raina. “That’s where you’re working to get support for your position and you’re having informal conversations with other people in the room, friendly-ish conversations, but they’re totally geared to getting XYZ done.” Her cell phone vibrates—one of her delegates on the Human Rights Council, texts her: “I’m dying in here.” She hurries off to give him moral support.

Seth Warner, also a teaching assistant, watches from the balcony as one of his delegates caucuses with Sweden. “One of the things I learned as a delegate is the importance of building investment in your proposal,” he says. “If you want to successfully propose an idea, you need to take the initiative to ask others for their thoughts and then incorporate them in a way that not only builds support but also adds substance to your proposal.”

At the end of the day—10:30pm—HRG gathers for a debriefing session. The delegates tell their stories—an ally withdrew support for a resolution at the last minute, Italy was pressured to give ground on an environmental proposition. The teaching assistants give advice and encouragement. As the session winds down, head TA Matthew Murray has the last word: “Try to get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow’s going to be a long day.”

The final day of the conference is held at the actual UN, with the closing ceremony in the Great Hall, a room designed by a collaboration of 11 architects from member countries. Above the dais is the UN emblem—a map of the world, flanked by olive wreaths, the symbol of peace. The processes by which diplomacy moves forward are complicated and sometimes chaotic, but the vision embodied in this hall—193 nations gathered to promote peace and the common good—is poignant and inspiring. The Hudson River Group earns the Honorable Delegation designation, and several members of the group are recognized for the excellence of their position papers.

Reitano, who also serves on the Board of Trustees of NMUN, retired from his other teaching responsibilities years ago but continues to lead the HRG. “The reason is simple,” he says. “It changes lives.” He recounts the story of one student who had been told by his high school guidance counselor that he wasn’t “college material”—he’s now in diplomatic service as a consul general. “I’ve kept in touch with many of them. They don’t all become diplomats, of course. They’ve become lawyers and politicians and teachers, and, most important, engaged citizens of the world.”

–Julia Van Develder

Images © Vassar College / Ben Rutkowski ’09

Posted Wednesday, April 25, 2012