Diplomacy and the Infinitesimal
Closing Remarks, 2016 American Model United Nations Conference
by Jacob P. Torres, 2016 AMUN Secretary-General
Well, here we are at the end. We’ve made it! Over the last four days, you have all been engaged in intense discussions about incredibly important topics.
- GA1 worked to develop a system of sharing information on domestic policies for the dual use of goods.
- HRC affirmed the right to life of all peoples and urged for a ban of the death penalty as criminal punishment.
- IAEA established regional offices to monitor nuclear development.
- GA3 made a conscious decision to ensure all Internally Displaced Peoples found new, safe homes within the borders of UN member states.
- ECE sought advice from experts in STEM fields on renewable energy to help build European sustainable energy infrastructure.
- The security councils each addressed international incidents over the evening.
- In 1973, they addressed a conflict between Egypt and Israel.
- In 1990, they sought a resolution to Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
- And in 2016 they dealt with a military and humanitarian crisis in Aleppo, Syria and along the Syrian-Turkish border.
You have seen first-hand how frustrating diplomacy can be. I’d venture to say that many of you didn’t get everything you wanted in your committee.
Not every resolution passed. Large meetings became bogged down in conflicts over the rules of debate. You made concessions to get votes. And everything probably moved far slower than you would have liked. While these may seem like Model UN problems, they aren’t unique. They are the same challenges that diplomats face every day.
Diplomats do not have easy jobs, yet we often judge them harshly. They never do enough. They never do it fast enough. And they never do exactly what we want. Their work seems to be plagued by half-measures and compromises.
This process runs counter to how we often think about politics and diplomacy, as a series of grand gestures and big moments: The Magna Carta. The Declaration of Independence, The United Nations Charter, The Paris Climate Agreement. We often read these documents as the beginning and end of diplomacy: the negotiations mark the beginning, and the signing of the treaty marks the end. Yet they are neither. Diplomats often spend years working just to make negotiations possible. And often, the hardest work begins only after the document is signed. The recent Iran nuclear agreement will take years to fully implement, and it will take nearly-constant attention, care and feeding.
Even successfully-concluded agreements may set the stage for future conflicts, especially if it is not equitable or balanced. After all: the Treaty of Versailles may have ended World War One, but it certainly contributed to the start of World War II. These agreements are only single pieces of larger stories. For the professional diplomat, day-to-day diplomacy never ends.
I’ve been thinking lately about the infinitesimal, an important principle in calculus. The idea is that tiny, tiny numbers—that are so small as to have no meaning on their own can add up to a much larger whole. The sum of these infinitesimally small numbers can create something complex and interesting: a far bigger picture.
I think this idea applies to diplomacy, too. Most diplomatic efforts are smaller than we’d expect. Trade deals, defense pacts, and even backroom meetings open up dialogue, creating new possibilities. This smaller, consistent cooperation between nations to reach common goals is what diplomacy is all about.
Change within and among countries is also usually small and incremental. This is one of the reasons that I love Model UN. Not only does it let you fill the role of diplomats for the weekend, it also illustrates the value and difficulty of this diplomacy writ small.
Now consider this: at the United Nations, most resolutions are adopted by consensus. Over the last four days, you probably fought for votes, advocated for them, but very few of the resolutions passed over the weekend were adopted by consensus. In fact, less than 20% of the resolutions passed this weekend had consensus.
Take a moment and think about the documents you voted for this weekend. How many more changes do you think would have been required to reach consensus? What about consensus of all 193 Member States of the United Nations? Or, think about it in another way. How many said no, that voiced their concerns that the resolutions you were working on did not address their concerns, their problems? What could you have done to earn their support?
Though diplomacy may be difficult, we need our diplomats now more than ever. In a time marked by the rise of populism, and isolationist policies, diplomacy is more important, not less. We are stronger together, not because we all agree on every issue, but because we celebrate our differences and look for small areas of commonality.
The next time you find yourself in an ideological debate, remember the goal of diplomacy. Find small areas of commonality and build on them. Be receptive to the interests of others. And as Shannon reminded us on Saturday, keep showing up. Keep listening. Keep working. And never forget that this idea, that small contributions can lead to great change, applies to more than just diplomacy. Contribute, volunteer, show up, and your efforts, no matter how small, will help build a better and bolder tomorrow. You all did it over this weekend, and I know you’ll all be able to do it again. Practicing and developing this skill is a hallmark of great diplomats, but also of great people.
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