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2019 Opening Plenary Remarks from Shannon L. Dunn, Executive Director

The following are a written copy of the remarks presented at the 2019 American Model United Nations Opening Plenary session. The Session was held from 6:00 – 6:45 p.m. on Saturday, 23 November 2019. The remarks were written and presented by the AMUN Executive Director, Shannon L. Dunn.

Welcome representatives, faculty and staff, to the 2019 American Model United Nations conference. Let us start with an analogy. Diplomacy is like riding a bike. And no, I don’t mean that once you’ve learned how to do it, you will never forget. Although that might be true. 

Diplomacy and bicycling are both wobbly, precarious endeavors, especially at first. The internet is filled with videos of little kids learning to bike — wobbling along until they fall over in a heap or crash into a curb. And just think about how wobbly the League of Nations was when the world started thinking about global governance and how to prevent war. Its decisions had to be unanimous – a lofty, but often unattainable goal. The United States and Russia did not join the League, and Germany was precluded from doing so — and the absence of these three actors weakened the League’s ability to persuade and carry moral authority. Its bureaucracy was cumbersome, and it lacked mechanisms to enforce decisions.

But even amidst lots of failures, there were moments of hope and optimism–just as someone learning to ride a bike gets closer and closer with each attempt. The League could serve as a referee between nations with disputes, for example, between Sweden and Finland over the Aaland Islands in 1921. In 1925, the League condemned a Greek invasion of Bulgaria — and the Greeks stopped, in part because of this international pressure.

So although those crash videos are, let’s face it, endearing and sort of hilarious, there are also the triumphant ones when the training wheels come off, and you see a kid on two wheels for the first time. And those are pretty great, too. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the community of nations tried again, and the second time around, the United Nations got more things right. It has been a centerpiece of the Global International Order for almost seventy-five years now. The United Nations system remedied some of the deficiencies of the League of Nations, by granting decisions by the Security Council the weight of international law, by allowing for non-unanimous decisions in the General Assembly, and by outlining more clearly the responsibilities of Member States. Since 1945, the United Nations has been instrumental in making the world an inarguably better place.

  • Smallpox has been eradicated from the world. And the United Nations continues to supply 45% of the world’s vaccines. 
  • The percentage of the world’s population living in absolute or extreme poverty has declined from about 50% in 1945 to less than 10% today.
  • The hole in the ozone layer has been healed after significant depletion. 
  • More than 80 million malnourished people receive food aid. 
  • More than 1 million UN peacekeepers have participated in more than 70 UN peacekeeping operations to quell and prevent conflict.

And just as kids move from driveway maneuvers, to roaming trails and neighborhood roads, perhaps to road biking or mountain biking – seeking new challenges and new adventures, the United Nations has, since 1945, continued to change and evolve to meet the challenges of a changing global environment, and it will continue to change in the future. 

But even when things are going well, and you absolutely know how to ride the bike, the costs of even minor problems can be quite high. On a bicycle, it only takes one little rock in the road to flip you over the handlebars onto the pavement. Diplomacy isn’t that different — diplomatic history is littered with stories of little actions having outsized impacts. Back in 2014, very promising talks between the Government of Colombia and the FARC broke down. The cause? A group of rebels kidnapped a senior Colombian army general, which produced a sharp response from Bogotá and the temporary suspension of peace talks. Thankfully for the participants, the general was released several weeks later. 

And there are other lessons here, too. Here’s one from my own life.  When I finally learned to ride a bike I was very excited to join my older brother riding along dirt roads and navigating big ditches. My brother and I were out, riding down the middle of the road, as you do when you live in the country on a dirt road. He challenged me to race home. He probably said something clever like “Last one home is a rotten egg”. And as we reached the driveway 2 things became abundantly clear to me. (1) I didn’t know how to make a 90 degree turn and (2) I didn’t know how to stop. I missed the turn and crashed into the ditch. I ended up with a very bloody gash in my knee and lots of cuts and bruises. I indicated that I needed help in the traditional manner of 5 year-olds: I scream-cried. My dad ran out of the house, pulled me out of the ditch and checked me over, confirming the minor nature of my injuries. It wasn’t long before I had a full lesson on turning and stopping. What I remember most about this is not how much it hurt–though it definitely did. What I remember most vividly is that there would be people there to pick me up, dust me off, reassure me, and help me do it all over again. 

Diplomacy isn’t at all different. Just look at the negotiations to achieve peace in the Middle East. It feels like there is a new proposal for resolving the conflict every 3 years… because there is. Under President Obama, George Mitchell and John Kerry both tried to bring the parties together and resolve things amicably. Today, Jared Kushner hopes to the same. Mitchell and Kerry have now joined the storied ranks of diplomats who have tried. Both launched efforts that showed some promise before coming crashing down. Both failed to resolve the conflict. Kushner, despite his hopes, is likely to have the same fate. As will many others after him. Until, of course, one of them succeeds. Succeeds in keeping the conversation going. Succeeds in getting the bicycle up, riding through the wobbles, and making it all the way down the road. And figuring out that 90 degree turn. When the parties in the Middle East finally agree to a deal, the terms will look obvious in retrospect. It will be hard to imagine why it took so long. After all, the success came from people just engaging in diplomacy — and making it work. But that success is built atop failure after failure, crash after crash. But those failures are learning experiences that pave the way for success. Skinned knees heal, eventually.

Many of the issues you will work on over the course of this conference have storied histories of failure. You will fail. You may even fail tonight. But failure doesn’t mean you’re done or that you have to stop. You can get back up. And, I hope, your friends will be there to dust you off, give you a hug (if appropriate!), and encourage you to go back in and try again.  

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