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Sizing Up an International Icon from my Youth, Shengyang Li

5 May

Editor’s Note:  Shengyang served as an intern this spring with GAPW.  A citizen of China, Shengyang came to us from the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program as have a number of interns over the past few years.   Shengyang took a keen interest in many aspects of the UN’s work, including in the Security Council under China’s April presidency.  His interesting reflections on his experience (lightly edited) at the UN appear below. 

As a child, the education I received about UN is generally similar to how it describes itself to the rest of the world: the UN is the guardian of world peace, solver of the world’s problems, one of the most important organizations in the world. Other than we were taught few specific about UN activities. This deficit became clearer after we learned about the history of the League of Nations, the predecessor of UN and generally deemed a failure in the eyes of the world and its historians. I happened to have had the honor of learning the history of the League of Nations in both the Chinese educational system and the UK A-Level system. I noted that both ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ forms of education agree that our children should understand that the League of Nations failed, memorize why it failed, and note  that its successor, the UN, is doing its business differently and thus has been more successful. Still, nothing much was taught about how the UN actually does that “business.”

It was not until high school and my experience in the Model UN (MUN) club that I was provided more than a glimpse of the UN’s role. In retrospect I was not very happy about that lens, mainly because it was distorted: the nature of MUN portrayed the UN as more about state competition than an actual simulation of the challenges and opportunities regarding how the UN addresses global problems.  I encountered  a similar lens when I entered Bard college, so my perspective did not change greatly. This is not to say  that I have never heard negative comments about the UN’s potential, as there are many floating around in real life or on the internet. In fact, most of the negative comments I have heard are quite extreme, saying that the UN should cease to exist since it does little good in the world. Although some aspects of this frustration have merit, most are simply too extreme to be considered seriously.

Thus before I joined UN-based Global Action to Prevent War and Armed Conflict (GAPW) as part of an internship program from Bard College, my understanding of the UN remained more or less stagnant. Therefore, when I actually started my internship, I was both very excited and had no clear idea of what I was seeking or what I should be expecting.  I’d been told to pay close attention to the processes in UN conference rooms and to note down whatever was most worth reporting, including things that I felt might be contradictory or otherwise out of place. In other words, listen carefully for subtleties, and provide the most fair and accurate feedback possible

The first time I was able to recognize a full-fledged, subtle UN confusion was only weeks after I started this internship. It happened in relation to a panel focused on the inclusion of indigenous people and their issues. During that meeting a frequent sentiment was shared that the UN system should be more open to groups of indigenous people that are autonomous with a viable political structure, instead of opening more space to indigenous advocacy groups that act more like NGOs. It seemed like a reasonable suggestion to prevent this particular UN process from being flooded by activist agendas. A related sentiment widespread in the room suggested that indigenous representatives should concentrate on meetings and events ‘that are within their area of concern.’

These two sentiments seemed appropriate enough and were all mostly agreed by all delegates in the room. But after the meeting, I recognized an inconsistency: if we are to welcome at the UN those indigenous groups that tied to legitimate governments, then suddenly every topic that the UN is concerned about should be applicable to those groups as well. Water stresses? Arms flows? Gender discrimination? Income inequality?  SDGs? Are any of these topics (and others not mentioned) not an area of concern for legitimate representatives? Also, by using phrases like restricting indigenous groups to only participate in events “within their area of concern,” the UN was essentially forcing groups to focus on/fight for more narrow policy agendas. Isn’t that exactly the job of most NGOs? This interesting paradox was probably not intentional. Still, it reflects something that shouldn’t be there and was apparently not noticed by anyone participating in the discussion. What troubled me a bit is the realization that there are surely delegates and diplomats, not only observers like me, who noticed such logical fallacies, but chose not to point that out, or to even reiterate the error. People inside the system are often not willing to talk about an easily detectable inconsistency, or are simply too preoccupied to even notice things going wrong that might easily be corrected.

This was the first “Eureka” moment for me inside UN headquarters. The rest of my experiences I learned through my daily coverage of various UN meetings and events. I had been informed by my mentor of the importance of paying attention to who is not present, what is not spoken. Things ranging from an absence of an expected briefer to long and arduous statements that went on about past achievements and future expectations without solid plans or methods of implementation, even to the increasing number of ‘closed meetings’ in the UN buildings. I think I gradually understand what that means. There will always be things important to be discussed but that aren’t handled with proper urgency due to a variety of reasons (some intentional and political), and it is crucial that we notice what those reasons are and why things happen the way they do.

So overall, what did I learn from my time at GAPW? What should be my takeaways after only 3 months of trying to comprehend this system? Personally, I would say that one of the most valuable lessons I have learned is that just like other entities in the world, the UN is no stranger to branding, even boasting. And in this case, this branding can be somewhat useful; : people are taught from their childhood that the UN is a great institution, and it would be a huge burden to the UN if it ever fails to strive for the most positive image possible in the public eye.

Another key lesson I learned during my stay is the realization of the true function of organizations like GAPW. A Chinese idiom goes: “The bystanders always have better clarity than the insiders.” This assumes that the ‘bystanders’ are close enough to the center to see what is happening without getting completely caught up in it. This is what we at GAPW do according to my understanding: to study UN processes like an interested bystander but then provide “insider” advice to diplomats with the goal of helping the UN fulfill the tasks and aspirations that the world has entrusted to it.

A final interesting point about my experience is that before starting my internship, I was told by my mentor that many students before me have changed their interest or area of focus as the result of their UN exposure. I told him then that it probably won’t happen to me, but when I look back, I realized that my perspectives and interests have in fact changed a bit. Before GAPW I was fascinated mostly by diplomacy between states — so-called international politics — and little else. I cannot say that I have lost interest in those aspects, but now I have learned that there are so many other fascinating and important policy options for the world that need attention and that I had not truly considered before, from climate change and inequalities to gender balance and violent extremism.  These issues all form a connected web that will decide the fate of humankind’s future.

And what makes it more interesting for me is that all these UN policy issues require consensus, which gets us back to the good-old diplomatic formula that the UN and member states struggle to achieve every day. The multi-faceted learning experience I gained at the UN through GAPW is destined to leave a huge impact on me, and for which I am genuinely grateful.