Definition of Stance
This article is part of the Deconstructing MUN: Stance series. Check out the rest of the series below!
Part 1: Definition of Stance (currently reading)
Part 3: A Model of Stance
When the concept for this series of articles was first proposed by our conference's Secretary-General (@Royston Long), it was with some apprehension that I picked up my (virtual) pen to put a half-decade's worth of thoughts into words.
After all, stance has been, and will always be, core to the Model United Nations (MUN) experience from an academic point of view. Naturally, however, if your job is to acquire placards and food for delegates, you will probably vehemently disagree with me. :)
In this introductory article, I seek to respond to some of the common refrains you might hear when preparing for a conference, and in doing so, hopefully prove several key claims I would like to make on the subject of stance. In subsequent articles, I will be relying on these fundamental claims to build a coherent framework which any delegate, representing any country on any issue, can use to think about stance.
Before I forward any of my own ideas, let's first examine some MUN clichés that have been brandished ad nauseam.
Cliché: "MUN is about human rights/peace/equality for all/(insert lofty value)."
A quick search for the mission/vision of several Model UN conferences would yield common phrases such as building a world which strives for "peaceful, multilateral conflict resolution" (National Model United Nations, 2020), develop "true international cooperation" (THIMUN, n.d.), and "solve complex challenges facing the world" (Yale Model United Nations, 2020). In fact, even the United Nations website currently has the following header:
Peace, dignity, and equality on a healthy planet. ww.un.org
This may lead delegates to the natural conclusion that, as an attendee of a conference with these goals in mind, their goal in committee is to propose solutions that best achieves whichever lofty values that the conference and committee emphasises. Unfortunately, I cannot stress enough that that is often not the case.
The United Nations (and these conferences) can indeed have the very valid goal of finding solutions to global problems. However, this is always done in spite of, and not because of, the stances which states have. As a delegate representing a state, and not the United Nations, it is the states' interest that you are expected to defend!
At times, some states (quite regrettably) have interests that are inimical to general human goods; the United States' and China's carbon emissions are the highest in the world (Ritchie & Roser, 2017), Syria's Assad regime has been accused of engaging in war crimes against civilians (with Russia's economic and military support) (Charbonneau & Nichols, 2012), while Myanmar continues to persecute a sizeable minority of their population (the Rohingya) (BBC News, 2020). If all these states were really concerned with the lofty values that MUN conferences purport to uphold, then these general 'bads' would have long been eradicated.
The frequent dichotomous nature between stance and the global goods can make delegates feel like they are forced into choosing which to defend. This is, however, a false choice. Delegates cannot choose to stop acting in the interest of their country, because they are its ambassador (and in the real world, on its payroll). That is, after all, the definition of being a "delegate".
Delegate (noun) A person sent or authorised to represent others, in particular an elected representative sent to a conference.
Many people at this point get disillusioned: Why do we continue engaging in this silly pretend-world when we're just repeating what goes on in real life — especially when we know that hardly anything gets done? I admit, it is easy to get cynical about international relations and international organisations. However, I would posit that this is done by design, and not a flaw of MUN as a platform for discourse.
The point of MUN, and indeed one of the key features that distinguishes it from any other platform for youth activism or dialogue, is to expose youths to the difficulties faced by policy-makers, especially if the problems being discussed directly impact the countries being represented. It also illuminates the impossibly huge task that diplomats encounter when they try to find common consensus while achieving some modicum of progress on global issues — orders of magnitude greater than just finding compromise within one's own government.
The second point of MUN is to challenge delegates to be creative, and to employ intellectual and interpersonal skills in council to negotiate. Delegates cannot simply get away with asserting that "my country wants x, and will not stand for anything else!" Otherwise, no delegate would achieve their end-goal, councils will always reach an unbreakable deadlock, and soon we would all stop attending conferences entirely.
Instead, the astute delegate would quickly realise that they have to put together a resolution that combines the desired goal of most, if not all, members, while strategically choosing how to account for members in the council that have opposing stances. This shifts the focus of the discussion from "How can we reduce world poverty?" to "How do I persuade, nudge, and appease the delegates in my committee to convince them that this resolution is the best option for the international community and their individual states?"
Cliché: "MUN is about diplomacy!"
Having read the previous section, one may now think that the role of delegates in a MUN simulation is to try and be 'diplomatic': to practice soft skills such as tactfulness, speak in parliamentary (read: fancy and sophisticated) language, and facilitate compromise between different groups. While these are definitely skills you should learn and aim to master as a delegate (as ambassadors would usually also practice them in real life), this is also not the main point of being a delegate. Rather, these skills are a means to an end, with the end goal being to defend and advance your country's stance.
The preferred modus operandi of states can vary considerably, ranging from the cooperative (e.g. Singapore), to those that are firm (e.g. United States/Russia), to the downright belligerent (e.g. Libya under Gaddafi, DPRK). Not to mention, states may also tweak their stances depending on the specific issue at hand and the forum in question. An approach which may be acceptable in say, the UN General Assembly, may not be as appropriate in an ASEAN forum due to the latter's emphasis on consensus and conflict avoidance.
As a delegate, you will likely have the experience of representing a multitude of countries across different conferences, with each country bringing their own stances and quirks. The fundamental principle to abide by is that one must stick to their country's stance no matter what, even if it means throwing diplomacy out the window when the situation calls for it. It would not be reasonable for the delegate of Russia to politely suggest compromising on a resolution that unequivocally condemns their actions in the Middle East — imagine the chewing out that diplomat would get from their superiors for allowing such an infringement on one's key interests!
Such 'undiplomatic' behaviour actually happens more often than you might think, in MUN and in real-life international relations. Hence, it would be wise for delegates to cast aside any preconceived notions of how diplomats stereotypically behave, while also carefully thinking through any proposals they intend to make or accept.
What is stance?
At this point, it seems like every action a delegate should take in a MUN conference is based on this mysterious concept of 'stance'. Inferring from the previous section, stance has some of the following characteristics:
It is a concept, derived from a myriad of factors. that does not always have a clear answer
It is tied to the state which the delegate is representing
It is based on what the state ultimately wants (its interests)
It is built on what the state has done before (its history)
It significantly affects every decision and action that the delegate makes in council
At this juncture, I would like to posit that stance is second to none in importance within MUN (and international relations). It is the most important thing a delegate has to master to do well.
Stance keeps the simulation of the UN realistic by informing delegates of what they can and cannot do in council. Delegates should constantly ask themselves: "Is it in the interest of my state to do this?" Stance defines the limits of what can and cannot be proposed in council. "Can my state or other states accept this? Are they likely to veto/vote against it?" Stance also shapes debate by informing the delegate of what they are obliged to defend, and especially any "red lines" or "hard no's" in their state's foreign policy.
In short, stance is the perspective a state, and consequently the delegate representing that state, takes on a particular issue. It is therefore extremely frowned upon to 'break stance' in a conference which seeks to realistically simulate discussion between states on international issues.
I hope this has shed some light on what stance is, and how it should shape delegates' behaviour during conference. I anticipate that you might now be wondering how this relates to a state's foreign policy, or how this can be practically applied in MUN (read: how do I show my chairs that I have portrayed my country's stance well). Suffice to say, stance is a combination of the foreign policy of a state (derived from its history), the policies proposed by a state, and its delegates (you!) representing the state in the present. These ideas will be further elaborated in later articles.
BBC News. (2020, January 23). What you need to know about the Rohingya crisis. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41566561
Charbonneau, L., & Nichols, M. (2012, March 2). U.N. chief slams Syria for ‘atrocious’ Homs assault. Reuters. https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-syria-un/u-n-chief-ban-pleads-with-syria-for-aid-worker-access-idUSTRE8211E820120302
National Model United Nations. (2020). Mission & History. https://www.nmun.org/about-nmun/mission-and-history.html
Ritchie, H., & Roser, M. (2017). CO₂ and Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions
THIMUN. (n.d.). About – THIMUN Foundation. THIMUN Foundation. Retrieved 19 May 2020, from https://foundation.thimun.org/about/
Yale Model United Nations. (2020). About Us. Yale Model United Nations. https://ymun.org/about