Stirling students selected for competitive NATO event feedback on experience

The two 4th year politics students Elizabeth and Alex had a fantastic time representing Stirling University on the mock-NATO stage.

14 mins read

At the best of times, but in particular during lockdown, it can be difficult to motivate yourself to engage with opportunities and extra-curricular pursuits. Many of these regular events have been altered or cancelled, or you may not be aware of their existence due to poor advertising or reduced engagement in what is going on “out there”.

The British International Studies Association (BISA), in partnership with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) ran one such event last week: their annual model NATO conference was held virtually due to the pandemic this year.

NATO is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, a political and military alliance between 30 European and North American countries since 1949. As a democratic body, NATO’s main purpose is to facilitate consultation and negotiation between members for the purpose of defence, crisis management, and maintenance of the North Atlantic Treaty.

Model NATO events involve assuming the position and viewpoint of a member state in response to a hypothetical crisis, where co-operation, allies, and knowledge of strategic resources within the member country are of paramount importance. Participants aim to produce solutions to problems while navigating the pitfalls of diplomacy.

Two Stirling politics students, Elizabeth Dryburgh and Alex Johnson, were selected to participate in the event, winning the two places after facing off against other students in a competitive selection process.

They spoke to Brig regarding their experience of the event, highlighting any successes they may have achieved, or failures they had to overcome, and what skills they developed or utilised within the setting.

What did the event consist of?

Elizabeth: The event basically consisted of a bunch of delegations from across UK universities that came together in a simulation that was over zoom. Some universities sent two people per delegation, so participants had to split the responsibilities. However Dr, who was in charge of the Stirling delegation (i.e. myself and Alex, Latvia and Luxembourg respectively) thought that we would get better experience participating on our own as we could engage with research more thoroughly, and factored in the fact that it’s already difficult to communicate with people online, so thought it best we were in charge of our own research. This made it much easier to organise ourselves and get the information solidified.

Alex: The event consisted of fifteen universities chosen to represent thirty delegations of NATO’s member states, with the scenario consisting of an ongoing series of earthquakes which affected the southern regions of Europe and its NATO members – including Turkey, Romania, and Italy. Most of the universities chose two students to represent one of two delegate countries each allocated to them, but some universities – including Stirling – had only one student per country. Whilst this may be interpreted as a disadvantage by some, I felt it allowed me greater independence in dictating the approach required to reach a consensus between my country’s interests (which was Luxembourg) and those of the NATO alliance itself. 

What sort of problems and successes did you encounter in your negotiations and dealings within the model NATO environment?

Alex: One of the main successes I achieved in the simulation was reaching said consensus between Luxembourg and NATO’s interests, by proposing an agenda item advocating for joint collaborative relief efforts between NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre, the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism, and the UN’s Disaster Assessment and Coordination program.

More specifically, I emphasised the exact instruments needed for this to be a success, including the use of GIS and CESIS technologies for efficient coordination between these institutions and NGOs. By doing so, I simultaneously fulfilled Luxembourg’s interests of greater integration between European states and its transatlantic partnership, whilst aligning them with NATO’s core principles and interests.

This also allowed my country to use its specialised assets despite its defence expenditure being the smallest out of all the alliance’s member states. Whilst there was a wide range of disagreements between member states on more delicate issues such as the distribution of aid and Russian intervention (which I attempted to mediate through Luxembourg’s mostly neutral position), my proposal received no objections.

Elizabeth: Firstly, one problem was actually trying to be heard. This was something I struggled with as obviously, as you’d imagine, there are a lot of very ambitious people who have put themselves up for the event. A lot of politics students can be very loud and opinionated as I’m sure you know, and there were A LOT of people who wanted to speak. If someone said something contentious and you wanted to get in there, there were also a lot of other students doing the same! So making yourself heard yet trying to be polite, as well as aiming to be assertive was really difficult over Zoom, and I think it would have been much easier in person to have done so.

North Macedonia is the most recent member state of NATO, making 30 members in total as of last year. Image Credit: NATO News

In terms of successes, I honestly left the event just BEAMING, I was so happy. I was really proud of Alex, he got an award and totally deserved it! In general it was just incredibly fun negotiating with people about topics that hopefully one day I’ll actually be able to negotiate for real. Learning all about a culture and a political system I’m not really familiar with (I’ds seen Latvia once on an episode of Wallander!) and beyond that I didn’t have a concrete idea of what Latvia was like, culturally and politically. To be able to study a nation so indepth, yet having that be your first exposure to the systems of that country was really interesting.

Was there any competition or pre-requisite you had to fulfil to be chosen to participate?

Elizabeth: It wasn’t so much a competition; we had to upload a two minute video to YouTube explaining why we should be chosen over other students. In my video I spoke about my experience of debate teams within education, my interest in international affairs, the modules I’d chosen to study at university, and my interest in continuing to learn more, increasing my knowledge and skills. I illustrated that my dissertation is going to be on the EU, and as a similar intergovernmental organisation, that linked into NATO really well. I also illustrated my interest in both as overarching governing institutions.

Alex: The application process required few materials, albeit ones which had to be carefully crafted to ensure they expressed a strong and appropriate impression of the candidate. These consisted of a CV and a two-minute video of myself explaining why I should be chosen to represent Stirling on the Model. Due to only two spaces being available, the chances of securing one was most likely slim – but I am unaware of how many applicants applied. However, because of the reduced number of spaces available compared to last year’s Model (which I also applied for but failed to secure a place), I would imagine it was still very competitive this year.

Did you take away any new skills or new thoughts about career direction from the event?

Alex:  Until participating in the Model, it had been five years since I participated in a formal competition involving debating, which only consisted of schools local to my home in a Model UN. Whilst that opportunity provided me with an experience of negotiating that still aids me, the grander scale of Model NATO (especially when competing against universities such as King’s College London and Birmingham) felt much more rewarding and cemented my abilities to engage in diplomacy. This is doubly the case when having to represent one of the weakest nations in the alliance. It just goes to show how conducting discourse efficiently can prove to be more valuable than one’s resources – even if the latter is only hypothetical in the Model! Above all, the experience has fully confirmed my desire to pursue a career in foreign affairs/diplomacy, ideally one in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

Elizabeth: I came away with a more grounded certainty that this is what I wanted to do. I felt so good after completing the event. Looking back, even as it was going on, I felt I should have said more or been more confident- I should have just got my voice heard. Even then afterwards, and with the knowledge of these things I could have improved on, I still felt so good about participating. In terms of career direction, I did consider, “oh am I really cut out for this sort of stuff?” but in terms of how much I enjoyed it, I reminded myself that YES, I can do this. I didn’t perform badly at all. There’s things I could have improved on but that it always the case. The main take away was that actually, this is something I could really see myself doing.

I don’t think I learnt too much in terms of new skills, moreso tested skills I previously ascertained: negotiating, debating, putting my research to into practise. It was an arena to showcase the skills I have learned.

Would you recommend the experience to other students in terms of being valuable, or interesting?

Elizabeth: 100% yes. It was just so fun. As I said, I finished it smiling. My boyfriend got chucked out the flat for the entire day! It was just so interesting, and being able to actually chat about politics with others given the isolation we are experiencing in lockdown was fantastic. I would recommend it to other people for sure. Usually the event is obviously conducted in person, and when I spoke to previous students who had participated last year they had nothing but praise for the event – especially as it is usually conducted in London!

Alex: Most definitely. Even when not having a strong interest in NATO, anyone who cares about foreign or defence affairs and the conduct of diplomacy should participate in any Model NATO events available to them. Unlike the Model UN or Model EU, they place greater emphasis on states’ military capabilities rather than basing diplomacy on interests alone, which is especially relevant given the increasing instability of international relations. As mentioned previously, I had limited experience and interest in debating – mainly due to such facets of diplomacy highlighted by Model NATO being largely neglected in more traditional simulations. Now, after having participated in Model NATO as a nationwide event, my enthusiasm for debating in general is much greater – in addition to being enriched by the Model’s informative experience.

Featured Image Credit: AFP

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