When I walked through the doors of the U.S. Department of State on the first day of my internship, it felt surreal—I could hardly believe I would finally see how the wheels of diplomacy turned. Although I had Model UN experience, I had always been under the impression that those simulations were far removed from real-life diplomacy, and I was eager to see how foreign policy was actually made.
In Model UN, delegates are assigned a country and a set of topics, and are asked to serve as that country’s representative to the UN. Delegates conduct research on the assigned country’s positions on issues ranging from human rights and migration to nuclear disarmament. They then use this research to craft resolutions not unlike those passed by the United Nations General Assembly. These Model UN conferences begin with delegates making short speeches on their positions and end with countries voting for resolutions that can often seem idealistic and far-fetched.
I wasn’t sure how exactly multilateral diplomacy worked, but before my State Department internship, I was almost certain that it didn’t work like a Model UN conference.
Yet during my summer in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation (ISN), I was surprised to experience first-hand a remarkable level of similarities between real-world diplomacy and the simulations of Model UN. In July, ISN Assistant Secretary Ford kicked off a plenary meeting of a new initiative focused on addressing the thorny issue of disarmament. This initiative, “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament,” (CEND), brought together more than 40 countries to have thought-provoking and earnest discussions on how global security conditions can be improved to allow for real progress in disarmament.
I worked with the teams which organized this event and was able to participate as an observer. I listened as countries with disparate views from around the world put aside their differences to discuss a way forward. The tone of the discussions was cooperative rather than acrimonious. It was a surprisingly similar experience to the world of Model UN that I had earlier dismissed as naive.
At times, Model UN conferences would end without any document gaining a majority vote. To me, this lack of disagreement always seemed like a failure—but I was wrong. Although the CEND plenary did not produce a final document, I had the clear sense that something significant and tangible had been accomplished. That the five nuclear weapon states recognized by the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) sat down with non-NPT countries and had a substantive and productive discussion regarding disarmament was itself an accomplishment. This was real diplomacy in action: building a foundation for future conversations and progress.
In my conversations with seasoned diplomats involved with these kinds of conferences, I realized that the success of a particular diplomatic initiative isn’t always based on a final statement or a resolution, but rather on the discussions and relationships that are born from the person-to-person interactions. These relationships enable future efforts to build upon the foundation laid at previous conferences. Diplomacy does not always yield immediate and tangible results, but it remains an essential component of national security.
Through my time at the State Department, I witnessed first-hand how diplomacy can be a powerful tool to build relationships and advance American interests. I’ve developed a more nuanced view of the conduct of foreign policy—both in real life and in the simulations of Model UN. Although Model UN may never be able to fully capture the many ways and means of diplomacy as an instrument of power, it nevertheless does an admirable job of showing how successful diplomacy enables the personal relationships and dialogue that are indispensable to promoting our nation’s security and a more peaceful, prosperous world.
About the Author: Caleb Yip served in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation.