Adult Impersonators at the Model U.N., and the Perils of “Exceeding Your Brief”

WASHINGTON, D.C.; Feb. 4, 2005—Nick Hall, a blond teenage boy with a Northern Irish accent, would never be mistaken for Naledi Pandor, the dark-skinned woman who serves as minister of education in the government of South Africa. But over burgers in a Washington, D.C., restaurant, Nick is explaining to me how he will imitate—maybe “channel” is the better word—Minister Pandor at the 42nd North American Invitational Model United Nations this weekend.

“I have studied up her Cabinet stands and things like that,” explains Nick, an MUN veteran from the Methodist College school in Belfast. The mock South African Cabinet that Nick has been assigned to is one of 35 “simulations” planned for the weekend by the Georgetown students who are sponsoring NAIMUN XLII.

In preparing, Nick has also researched the positions of Minister Pandor’s colleagues, who will be represented at the Cabinet meeting by other teen diplomats. Or as Nick puts it: “I made a list of all the Cabinet members that have made really stupid decisions, so I am going to attack them when we join the committee.” The agenda for the committee will include race relations and AIDS—a word that Nick’s accent charmingly endows with two syllables.

Nick and I are joined at dinner by seven of his teammates from Methodist College and his teacher, John Foster. Most of the 2,400-plus delegates who will hold forth in multiple Security Councils and General Assemblies this weekend will not have traveled as far as the students from “Methody,” as their school is called, but there will be teams from all over North America and a few other foreign schools. And the Georgetown event is only one such extravaganza. Last month Yale offered an MUN for high-schoolers. In March, the national high-school MUN will be held in New York City. In October, John Foster and Methody will host an MUN for high-school students from Ireland, Britain, and overseas.

During the Cold War, James Merrill wrote a poem in which he scathingly referred to world leaders as “adult impersonators.” These kids, of course, really are impersonating adults, and some of them affect a middle-aged world-weariness that can be unsettling. (In a later session, one teenage delegate says the plight of AIDS orphans “horrifies me as the father of a son.”) But they’re also in training. High-school MUN is a breeding ground for college MUN, and college MUN, especially at a place like Georgetown, with its School of Foreign Service, is often an apprenticeship for real-life diplomacy or some other public office. MUN isn’t just a fantasy camp for would-be diplomats; it’s a farm team. The skills prized at MUN are the same ones in demand at the real United Nations: Good delegates are eloquent, have a solid command of the facts, and recognize that a delegate should not “exceed his brief”—make concessions that only the president or prime minister can actually authorize. For MUNers, this means paying close attention to position papers issued (and posted on the Internet) by their countries.

The next night, when the conference opens at the Hilton Washington, the MUNers gather in the International Ballroom, where they will be officially welcomed and then addressed by a surprise guest speaker, former CIA Director George Tenet. Despite the required “Western business attire,” a lot of the kids present wouldn’t be out of place at the local mall; they hug and “Hey!” each other and exult about how “awesome” it is to be in D.C. But the ranks of regular kids are heavily salted with those who in their ungainliness, obesity, or sartorial eccentricity (I see some bow-tied Tucker Carlson wannabes) give credence to the stereotype that MUNers are geeks. These specimens remind me of the brainiacs who frequented debate tournaments in my high-school days, except that the “quote boxes” of that era—file drawers stuffed with factoids on index cards—have been replaced by laptops, the new repositories of killer statistics.

The laptops are everywhere, which points up another similarity to the debate tournaments of my youth: Most of the assembled MUNers are well-off. Most are white, too, though there is a significant admixture of Asian-Americans. The delegates may hoist placards marked “South Africa,” Nigeria,” and “Cameroon,” but there are few black faces. Participating in NAIMUN is expensive: There is a $70 per-student registration fee plus hotel and transportation costs for out of town delegations. And the list of participating schools is heavy with the high-achieving private and Catholic schools from which Georgetown’s college-level MUNers are drawn. (To be fair, some of the revenue from NAIMUN will underwrite a free MUN for D.C. schools to be held later.)

When George Tenet rises to address the delegates, he is surprisingly avuncular. Like Whitney Houston, he believes that children are our future, and he presents the delegates with a litany of challenges facing their generation.

Then Tenet opens himself to questions, asking the students to identify themselves (even though he knows everything about them, har har). He is hit with a few rhetorical grenades about Iraq, Sept. 11, and U.S. policy toward Islam. Most of the questioners are respectful, and a couple of them are obnoxiously long-winded, but Tenet doesn’t patronize his audience. When Deborah Patton, one of the Belfast delegates, politely asks him to reconcile his endorsement of international consensus with his assertion that the United States must play a leadership role, Tenet—with the certitude that must have endeared him to George W.—responds: “If we don’t step forward and lead, rarely does anyone else.”

After Tenet’s speech, the delegates get down to work, reporting to simulations ranging from multiple General Assemblies and Security Councils to the U.S. president’s National Security Council to meetings of the International Criminal Court and the British, South African, and Indian Cabinets.

I join Nick Hall in the South African Cabinet, where he and his colleagues set about dealing with AIDS and racial tension. Primed by position papers and their own research, the Cabinet ministers eventually undertake a discussion of those two topics as knowledgeable as some I’ve heard at the newspaper editorial board meetings I have sat through. But, good parliamentarians that they are, the delegates begin with process, not policy, debating at length whether AIDS or racial tensions should be placed first on their agenda. Nick Hall enters the skirmish with this sensible sound bite: “We cannot educate people on racial tensions if they’re suffering from AIDS.”

When the Cabinet recesses, the ministers return to their rooms. Curfew is at midnight.