One History Major’s Reflections on History and the (Model) United Nations

Today we’re happy to welcome back to AC 2nd junior History/Social Studies Education major Kelly Van Wyk (’15), who last month joined other members of Bethel’s Model United Nations team at a national conference in Chicago. Assigned to represent the country of Austria in the same semester in which she is taking HIS354 Modern Europe, Kelly wrote this reflection on the importance of historical context to diplomacy.

“Armenia.”

“Yes!”

“Armenia votes yes.”

The dais was progressing toward our direction in the roll call vote. We would have to make a decision soon.

“Australia”

“Abstain!”

“Australia abstains from the order.”

We were next. I looked toward my teammate and she nodded. For some reason, the imaginary slogan “What Would Austria Do?” flashed through my head.

“Austria. Austria?”

There was no going back. “Yes!” I declared loudly.

Kelly Van Wyk at American Model UN 2013
Kelly Van Wyk (r.) representing Bethel and the Republik Österreich at the 2013 American Model UN in Chicago

“Austria votes yes.” The dais recorded our vote and continued through the roll of First Committee. After each country had recorded their vote and the total was tallied, the dais announced that the current resolution for the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East had passed. Sheraton Conference Room IV filled with applause as the First Committee breathed a collective sigh of relief that we had managed to build consensus and actually pass something on the topic. This was one of the high points of my first experience at a Model United Nations event.

In Model United Nations, students must pretend they are delegates sent to represent a country that serves on various United Nations committees. In order to prepare for such a meeting, students must research the issues that their committee will debate with a focus on their own country’s particular interests and policies. Participants are encouraged to remain in character and work through the issues at hand with the purpose of the United Nations as a consensus building body kept in mind.

In the American Model United Nations, our delegation was one of approximately 140 other colleges and universities from across the United States to attend the AMUN conference in downtown Chicago. Over the course of four days, our Bethel team of thirteen student-delegates and one advisor worked in various committees to represent the nation of Austria’s interests as best as we could. In First Committee, the one that I was working with, our group would be debating two disarmament and international security issues: (1) the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the region of the Middle East and (2) problems arising from the accumulation of conventional ammunition stockpiles in surplus. Needless to say, our work was cut out for us.

When all was said and done, our committee presented two passed resolutions to the General Plenary where one was passed and the other was tabled — a seemingly small reward for the twenty-five hours we had spent in session. However, over the long weekend I learned that the process of building and reaching political consensus is indeed challenging, but not impossible. With all of the nations represented in our committee, it was an arduous task to understand, let alone collaborate with 140-odd nations with different cultural backgrounds and foreign policy goals. Because of this diversity, I gained a new insight into the role that history and context play in diplomacy.

To prepare for the conference, I had to familiarize myself with the national history of Austria and found myself researching Austria’s permanent neutrality, membership in the European Union, and self-establishment of a completely nuclear-free nation. It was in rooting these recent decisions in the context of modern European history that I began to get a feeling of what it means to be Austria. Yes, knowing Austria’s past informed and guided the decisions of the present, but there was more to the connection between past and present. History lays a foundation for diplomacy in a way that I did not fully understand until I put it in the context of model UN.

Kelly and the rest of the Bethel Model UN team
Kelly (far-right, back row) and the rest of the Bethel Model UN team, which also includes History major Paul Flowers (3rd from right, back)

I have recently been reading John Fea’s book Why Study History?, in which he quotes Wilfred M. McClay on a concept called “collective memory”:

In the end, communities and nation-states are constituted and sustained by shared memories — by stories of foundation, conflict, and perseverance. The leap of imagination and faith, from the thinness and unreliability of our individual memory to the richness of collective memory, that is the leap of civilized life. (from McClay’s 1995 lecture, “The Mystic Chords of Memory“)

This idea of collective memory reminded me of the concept of Volksgeist, a German term from my Modern Europe history course which translates to “spirit of the people.” The notion of Volksgeist was used to make history a rallying point of common identity for a nationalist group. To this day, history is still used as principle of unification for nations. However, I saw at model United Nations that where history has the power to unify, it also has the ability to produce the opposite effect. A nation’s history builds the framework for future relationships and sometimes the past leaves a nation with a very poor foundation.

For example, American diplomat Ian Kelly was the keynote speaker at the UN conference, and an audience member asked him what was one of the biggest influences on his work with the Russian Federation. Ambassador Kelly answered “Russian political history. It really has shaped how nations view Russian diplomatic relations of the present.” The ambassador’s statement served to me as a reminder that history binds us all together, but our ties to history should be remembered for what they are and not cast in a light that paints them in a way fits present purposes. History is not something that I manipulate to shape my present; it simply is a part of who I am.

Knowing what I know about Austrian history, I think that Austria and its people probably understand this truth more than most. Gaining this insight from my participation in Model UN was a valuable contribution to my understanding of history at work. At Model UN, though I was a history major in a political science major’s world and often felt like a minnow among sharks, the experience confirmed for me the importance of the study of history and the role that I want to play in teaching it.

– Kelly Van Wyk

Read more from Kelly in a recent post on her experience as a History major active in intercollegiate athletics.

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