By Anastasya Lloyd-Damnjanovic
From containing a global epidemic to mediating border disputes, hundreds of young Argentineans are tackling thorny international problems as participants in the Buenos Aires Model United Nations (Model UN). And though their mediations may be pretend, the issues they debate are very real.
In Model UN, secondary- and college-age students step into the shoes of UN delegates. Acting as diplomats from UN member countries, participants research issues and formulate negotiating positions based on the real interests of the countries they represent. Participants who represent the United States sometimes find their roles particularly challenging, as the United States is involved in nearly every issue that comes before the international body and is a member of the UN Security Council.
“It amazed me the number of responsibilities all over the world the [United States] has at the same time,” said 19-year-old Model UN delegate Lucas Fernández.
Fortunately, young delegates representing the United States in Argentina have a reliable resource to guide them: the diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires.
After several Argentine Model UN delegates reached out to learn more about U.S. foreign policy, the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires decided to develop a program to help Model UN delegates represent the United States. In 1997, the U.S. Embassy partnered with nongovernmental organization Asociación Conciencia (Spanish for “Awareness Association”) to connect with local Model UN groups.
Fifteen years later, the embassy’s Model UN program is still going strong. Each year, more than 350 students from 60 schools across Argentina visit the embassy or attend digital sessions to prepare for Model UN conferences. Students come from schools both near and far, public and private, with ages ranging from 14 to 20 years.
Though Asociación Conciencia helps get the word out about the embassy’s program, many groups learn of it from past participants. “I was surprised by the support we received [from the U.S. Embassy] and the willingness to help us find information,” said 19-year-old program alumna Gimena Ayala.
A Day in the Life of a Diplomat
Most Model UN preparation sessions at the U.S. Embassy last a full day. Students are invited to the embassy’s Information Resource Center (IRC), where they have access to thousands of publications and other materials on U.S. foreign policy — and to embassy staff and diplomats.
The IRC’s Model UN liaison greets them upon arrival and IRC staff lead students in discussions of issues that their upcoming Model UN conferences will address. Topics range from nuclear disarmament and financial crises to climate change and humanitarian aid. The goal is not to simply tell Model UN delegates how to represent U.S. foreign policy, but to teach them how to research, analyze and develop foreign policy on their own. Political and economic officers at the embassy sometimes brief students on real issues they are working on, and even the U.S. ambassador has been known to join in.
“The approach is to help them locate and evaluate information, distinguish opinion from policy through comparison of different information sources, identify appropriate official sources and analyze specific documents to find policy positions,” IRC Coordinator Graciela Spedalieri explains.
But the program isn’t all work. Delegates also get a taste of daily life at the embassy, chatting with staff over lunch in the embassy cafeteria and socializing with their fellow Model UN participants.
“I had the pleasure of meeting lots of people trying to improve their knowledge,” said participant Florencia Antonella Mastroianni. “We all had one point in common: trying to help and find solutions for major global problems.”
And of course, no visit to a U.S. Embassy would be complete without a truly American treat. Chocolate chip cookies prepared by the embassy chef are on hand all day to fortify the delegates during their action-packed agenda.
Role Playing Leads to Real Understanding
Delegates leave the embassy better prepared for their roles as U.S. delegates in Model UN conferences, but the program’s impact extends beyond the conference room.
Adopting the perspectives of other countries not only leads Model UN participants to develop a more complex understanding of the world, but also of the United States’ place within it.
“Before getting involved with the simulations, I thought of the United States as an alienated nation which only cared about its own profit,” said 18-year-old Alejandro de Cousandier. “However, I realized my thoughts were not exactly correct. I’ve learned to see the world from a more complex point of view, where decisions are not to be taken easily, but have to be reached by consensus — to be argued over or even to be subject to voting.”
According to Jonatán Carné, 20, the embassy program also exposes participants to the considerations behind U.S. foreign policy decisions. “I can see, after the program, that decisions are made within a context, a national reality,” he said, alluding to the domestic pressures that foreign policymakers often feel. “I have changed my point of view and it has helped me to understand lots of decisions and events from the United States’ or other countries’ perspectives without prejudging.”
Agents of Change
For many participants, Model UN is not just an after-school activity, but the beginning of a lifetime devoted to diplomacy and international affairs. The experience of working together to solve global challenges opens their eyes to the power of the international community to help people.
For Mastroianni, the experience changed the way she sees the world and its problems. “Before participating in this program, my view of the world was very simplistic. I refused to understand some situations. But now I can analyze them through a different perspective.”
As a result of her participation in the U.S. Embassy’s Model UN program, the 19-year-old is now pursuing a bachelor’s degree in government and international relations.
Carné, now studying international relations at the National University of Rosario, says Model UN directly contributed to his decision to pursue a career in international affairs. “I saw that the international system is a place to work on key problems that can change negative situations and consolidate agents of change,” he said. “I want to make the world a place of understanding.”