WASHINGTON, D.C.; Feb. 5, 2005—You don't have to like the United Nations to participate in Model United Nations, Elizabeth Gilson tells me. She and her fellow Miss Porter's School delegate, Camilla Rohrmann, are dining at the self-serve deli in the bowels of the Hilton Washington Hotel.
"I don't really believe in the U.N.," Liz confides, "I don't know how effective it is." Camilla begs to differ, though she admits a personal interest: Her father works for UNICEF in Palestinian communities.
Chris Bergtholdt, a delegate from Hampton Roads Academy in Virginia, ponders the same question, choosing his words with the elaborate care of a real diplomat: "You may agree or disagree with the U.N.," he says. "I kind of like the body, I don't think it's as effective as it should be, but this is a good opportunity to see how it works, why it isn't working the way it should be working, and to allow people to formulate ideas to change it."
Apparently lots of high-school students and their teachers agree. I'm told that, after a dip in attendance traceable to post-Sept. 11 worries about air travel, interest in MUN returned, and it remains strong despite the arguable irrelevance of the real United Nations during the Iraq war or the unraveling embarrassment of the oil-for-food scandal.
By the luck of the draw, Elizabeth and Camilla are representing Iraq in their committee (the Social, Cultural and Humanitarian Committee of the General Assembly). Such ripped-from-the-headlines portfolios are always difficult; the pair will have to stay abreast of developments in that occupied or liberated land. (If the Washington Post reports that Iraq's Sunnis are having second thoughts about the newly elected government, Elizabeth and Camilla have to take it into account.) But when they're in doubt about what position the real Iraqi government might take, the two "Iraqis" have a fortuitous fallback: They can check to see what the U.S. government thinks about the issue at hand.
Chris, the procedural whiz who serves as minister of agriculture and land affairs in the mock South African Cabinet I have been sitting in on, has also been assigned to a country with a zig-zagging policy on at least one issue: AIDS. But Chris and his colleagues are up to date on the latest twists and turns of South African policy, not to mention the sobering statistics about HIV infection in that country, the problem with high tariffs on imported pharmaceuticals, and the cultural sources of resistance to the ABC policy pioneered by Uganda—A for abstain, B for be faithful, C for condoms.
Chris, a stocky, smooth-talking boy with gravitas beyond his years, is an MUN publicist's dream delegate. "I'd like to get into politics," he tells me. "I went last year to this conference; I was invited by our old moderator who was looking at people in leadership positions and people who spoke well. I loved last year's conference so much that I did the summer program in international relations at Georgetown. That was a lot of fun. I've decided that I want to major in international relations." He is candid about his hopes for recognition: "I really would like to get an award. It would look good on my Georgetown application. But I'm not about to let that get in the way of my opinion." Make that the opinion of the minister of agriculture.
Chris is a savvy student not just of African demographics but of the way MUN modalities differ from one conference to another. He notes that Nick Hall, his cabinet colleague from Belfast, was thrown a bit by the Georgetown MUN's format, which allows for "unmoderated caucuses" in which formal recognition of speakers is dispensed with. "He didn't like it because people are yelling over other people," Chris recalls, adding with a certain Yankee pride: "It got pretty fast last night."
Listening to a prodigy like Chris, it is tempting to think that MUNers are born this way, tabling motions as they emerge from the womb. But most delegates are willing to credit their adult "moderators" for some of their success. Still, grown-up guidance can be a mixed blessing. That becomes clear Saturday night when I sit in on a moderators' meeting at which Grace Chang and Shaun Thompson, the unflappable Georgetown students who keep the MUN up and running, ask the delegates' adult mentors if they have anything on their minds.
Boy, do they! Some of the concerns raised at the meeting are perfectly reasonable, like a question about the surprise "crisis meetings" to which some MUNers will be summoned in the middle of the night. Will be there escorts for kids staying at the spillover hotel across the street? (Yes, if a moderator insists.) There is also a civil debate (and, in good MUN fashion, a vote!) over how much hilarity should ensue at the final committee sessions, where by tradition the kids loosen up by voting on joke resolutions. (These tend to be goofy and harmless: Resolved: That the United Nations congratulate the Patriots on their awesome Super Bowl victory.) But not all of the moderators' comments are moderate.
The problem? Violations of the delegate dress code. It isn't just that some kids are pulling their shirts up over their heads in an apparent simulation of a turban or burnoose, an intercultural faux pas. Those short skirts some of the girls are wearing don't comport with the prescribed "Western business attire," and neither do the chinos some of the preppier boys wear along with their blue blazers and rep ties. They don't wear chinos at the real U.N.! Some moderators seem to be afraid that not every delegate who says, "I kind of like the body" will be referring to the one that convenes in New York.
Grace and Shaun promise to talk to the chairs about the moderators' complaints, and the meeting adjourns. Tomorrow the delegates will get a break—a midmorning banquet with musical entertainment. If, that is, they survive those midnight crisis meetings—and the demarches from the fashion police.