In my debut novel Portrait of Sebastian Khan, a coming-of-age story about a Muslim American art history student, I spend a good amount of time satirizing Model United Nations — that strange academic extracurricular activity in which high school and college students pretend to be diplomats and participate in simulations of United Nations committees. Ostensibly, Model U.N. is an activity designed to teach young people about global issues and train them in public speaking, but as I make clear in my novel, for most students it’s just an opportunity to party, to travel the country to conferences hosted by clubs at other universities and spend nights drinking in fancy hotel rooms and hooking up with strangers — the decadence of late capitalism as embodied by the students of the country’s elite universities.
In my novel, I use a college Model U.N. club to critique the aimless myopia of privileged millennials circa 2011. But even for those who take it seriously, the institution of Model U.N. serves an insidious function — because through it, students ultimately learn to look at global problems with a fundamentally neoliberal lens. Not only that, participating in a Model U.N. committee eventually reveals the sheer powerlessness of institutions like the United Nations, since even within the fictional world of Model U.N., the resolutions students spend days writing and debating are technically non-binding, as the U.N. doesn’t have any actual power over sovereign states. Thus, the whole exercise ends up a pointless farce in which students dress up in suits and ties and spend three days wandering around hotel conference rooms only to be reminded by the end that real power lies somewhere else.
In other words, Model U.N. is just neoliberal cosplay.
The first Model U.N. conferences date back to the 1940s, not long after the founding of the U.N. itself, but the idea of college students simulating an international body goes back to the 1920s, when students at Oxford University put on a model League of Nations simulation known as the Oxford International Assembly. About a hundred year later, Model U.N. exists all over the world, with the biggest conferences attracting thousands of students from over a hundred countries. The history of Model U.N. is thus arguably concurrent with the development of the twentieth-century international liberal order, and it’s success in the twenty-first century is a reflection of that order’s global triumph.
On a formal level, the structure of debate within a Model U.N. committee most evidently reinforces the neoliberal world order. In the big, hundred-country General Assembly committees, real debate is almost impossible as it takes over an hour to cycle through everyone on the speakers list, at which point you’ve likely forgotten the point you were intending to make when you first raised your country placard. Substantive discussion thus gets done in what are called “unmoderated caucuses,” in which delegates informally gather to discuss various draft resolutions. Inevitably, it’s the big countries that become the centers of attention in these discussions (the United States, Russia, China, etc.) countries which, as if to reinforce the global hierarchy, are always assigned to the top universities (Harvard, Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, etc.), making these debates even more lopsided than they would be in the real world. By contrast, in my first Model U.N. conference, our university was assigned Andorra, the ski-resort tax haven on the border between Spain and France, and my partner and I spent three days fruitlessly trying to insert ourselves into debates before giving up and agreeing with whatever France and the United Kingdom said.
In the fifteen-person Security Council (the most elite of Model U.N. committees) these dynamics are even worse, as the global hierarchy is enshrined in the committees rules, with the five permanent members (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia) having veto power over any resolution. Historically, this concentration of power was an attempt to correct the failures of the League of Nations, which had been unable to prevent the rise and expansion of Italy, Germany, and Japan in the 1930s, but in a Model U.N. setting, it only reinforces the twenty-first century global economic order and once again forces smaller countries to cater to the desires of the permanent members. Case in point, I remember once when the delegate from the U.K., who’d spent most of the weekend bored and uninterested, declared on the final day that he would arbitrarily veto the resolution the rest of us had been working so painstakingly on — a brazen and (in retrospect, at least) quite funny reminder of where global power actually lay.
On a substantive level, though, it’s the solutions that students come up with that really highlight the neoliberal nature of Model U.N. The most common solution in the Security Council, for example, is to impose economic sanctions. This is, of course, the most neoliberal of answers to a global problem, punishing a country by denying them access to global markets, which in todays late-capitalist world are essential to a country’s survival. Most students, though, don’t understand what sanctions really mean in practice, and for them the word is simply a signifier for a non-military solution that still represents some kind of action, a way to do nothing and something at the same time. Model U.N. never taught us the grim history of how sanctions were actually used by the real U.N. — how, for example, when they were imposed on Iraq in the 1990s, they destroyed the country’s economy and led to a humanitarian disaster so devastating that the U.N. had to pass an aid program known as Oil-for-Food that allowed Iraq to sell oil for food and medicine in an attempt to offset the crisis (the sanctions themselves, though, weren’t lifted until 2003, after the United States invaded the country and overthrew Saddam Hussein).
Of course, other U.N. committees don’t even have the power to impose sanctions. Instead, all they can do is issue non-binding resolutions that condemn a global problem and offer a few tepid suggestions phrased in the broadest language possible. It’s this lack of any actual power, even within the fictional conceit of Model U.N., that on a philosophical level most broadly underscores the institution’s fundamentally neoliberal nature. Students come away from conferences with a cynical attitude towards progressive solutions because they’ve witnessed how these solutions are just empty promises with no chance of affecting any real change — and if neoliberalism fundamentally believes in the private sphere over the public, then this disenchantment can turn all Model UNers into future neoliberals, skeptical that public institutions can ever achieve anything of actual substance. After all, what Model U.N. has unwittingly taught them is that even if they were delegates at the actual U.N., the resolution they just passed would still be completely meaningless.
In his 2018 book Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, historian Quinn Slobodian argues that, contrary to poplar understanding, the neoliberal project didn’t actually want a borderless, stateless, laissez-faire world to liberate global markets but instead sought to create supranational institutions that would protect those markets from democratic pressures — institutions like the League of Nations, GATT, and eventually the WTO. Interestingly, however, the United Nations was not one of these intuitions: according to Slobodian’s narrative, after 1945, the neoliberals of the Mont Pelerin Society actually viewed the United Nations as a threat, because it gave countries of the Global South equal representation in a democratic body and encouraged economic nationalism in a decolonizing world by justifying actions like the expropriation and nationalization of private economic assets such as the Suez Canal or the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Moreover, in the wake of the oil shocks of the 1970s, the United Nations became the center of an economic revolt by the countries of the Global South when the General Assembly in 1974 passed a resolution calling for a New International Economic Order committed to post-colonial economic redistribution, price stabilization, and other attempts to regulate the global economy.
However, as Slobodian describes, the neoliberals were able to beat back this revolt, and by the end of the twentieth century, it was their vision of the world that had won, a victory that culminated in the creation of the WTO, the most powerful of the supranational institutions designed to protect free-market capitalism from attempts at economic nationalism. And while Slobodian doesn’t discuss the role of the U.N. in a post-WTO world, I would argue that it no longer poses a threat to neoliberal capitalism. It may not explicitly be a supranational institution designed to protect the free flow of capital, but as an institution with no real power in a world where neoliberalism is triumphant, it implicitly functions as a defender of the economic status quo. If anything, the U.N. is now much more like the original League of Nations, a forum where countries can discuss global problems, but one ultimately powerless to prevent the kind of imperialist aggression and expansion that characterized the 1930s — and as Slobodian notes, mid-century neoliberals such as Ludwig von Mises viewed the League of Nations as an ideal supranational institution to protect the free-market, “an iron glove for the invisible hand of the market.”
In my novel, my central character Sebastian Khan treats Model U.N. as nothing more than theater, “the chance to pretend to be someone else for a weekend.” But of course, the real U.N. is today just theater too, a forum for leaders like Muammar Gaddafi and Donald Trump to perform their absurd personalities. Real power, meanwhile, resides where the neoliberals want it to, in capital and markets and the institutions that protect them. The U.N., by contrast, is just a facade — which makes Model U.N. a facade of a facade.