‘We learned to act like real diplomats’: SPAIS students attend Model NATO

From left to right: Verity, Chinumezi and Dunya in the Foreign Office.Last month, students Verity, Chinumezi and Dunya represented the University of Bristol at a Model NATO event organised by the British International Studies Association (BISA).

Model NATO events allow students all around the world to experience a simulation of a NATO summit, providing valuable experience of debate and negotiation and insight into careers in diplomacy, government and non-governmental organisations.

BISA’s annual flagship event brings together up to 31 UK universities and provides a unique active learning opportunity for those who take part. On 3 March of this year, three SPAIS students travelled to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) in London to take part.

Here’s how Verity and Chinumezi found the experience. Photos provided by Dunya.

Can you tell us how you got involved in Model NATO?

Verity: I’m a Politics and International Relations undergraduate student in my final year, and I responded to an email that was sent out to all students across the School.

I was keen to take part as I’d heard of Model UN before but never had the opportunity to be involved in something like this.

Chinumezi: I got involved firstly because of my course – I’m doing a Master’s in International Relations. I thought it would be a great way to experience how debate actually happens at NATO.

How did the hypothetical scenario work?

A grand, ornate ceiling and chandeliers over a long table of student representatives.
The event took place in the opulent Foreign Office Building.

Verity: In our initial meeting, they gave us an outline of what would happen leading up to the event and then they sent out an initial crisis scenario, which described what we’d be dealing with on the day. Our crisis was an earthquake in Turkey.

They also sent out the official NATO handbook, with all the rules of how you vote in these situations, as well as info on the formal ways of doing things in the debate, which was interesting.

Chinumezi: We found out ahead of time that we would be representing Hungary, so to prepare we researched the country and their foreign policy.

I read all about their culture and their prime ministers and anything else we might need to know. I wanted to know at least a bit about the country that we were going to represent!

Verity: Closer to the time, they sent another briefing and then the evening before the event they sent a crisis update, outlining how many casualties there were and how severely it was impacting each country.

We didn’t have any wi-fi on the day, so you had to think on your feet. It made it feel more like a real-life scenario.

What was it actually like on the day?

Verity: I don’t know about everyone else, but I found it a bit nerve-wracking! But throughout the event I got more involved and relaxed into it.

From left to right: Verity, Dunya and Chinumezi smiling in the Foreign Office building.
From L-R: Verity, Dunya and Chinumezi represented Hungary in the mock debate.

We were split into different rooms during the day. Chinumezi was in the Atlantic Committee, and Dunya and I were in the Military Committee.

We got to express our preference but, as none of us had done anything like this before, we were happy to sit in any role.

Chinumezi: It was my first time ever going to such an event, especially in a place like the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and I was a bit nervous too. But I picked things up quickly and everything went smoothly after that.

I was placed in the committee where we were actually making decisions and deciding how to approach the crisis. Hungary played the role of a supporting country, so when the need arose we just raised our hands in support.

So that was a good country to start with, as we weren’t so directly involved.

Verity: It was an interesting one to get because Hungary had been quite contentious in the real NATO in the lead up to the event.

They had previously blocked Sweden from joining for a couple of years and then, a day or two beforehand, reversed their position and showed support for them to join. So we had to consider how that might affect our event too.

Was there a competitive angle to the event?

Chinumezi: In the memo they sent us ahead of time, they informed us it wasn’t going to be a competition.

Dunya and Chinumezi smiling at the camera as they hold up their passes for the event.
Dunya and Chinumezi show their guest passes at the FCDO.

Even during the call we had with the organizers they reiterated that there’s no first position, no second position – just a learning opportunity.

The focus should be on building our networks for the future and gaining experience of what it would be like to join different organisations.

The organisers also taught us how to formally deliberate in environments like that. Before we started, we were taught how to answer questions the right way.

You have to observe the rules to be heard – when you want to speak, you notify the moderator first. We learned how to act like real diplomats.

Do you feel you gained something from taking part?

Verity: It was super interesting and a great way of seeing if you’d be a good fit as a diplomat because you wouldn’t normally get an opportunity to try that out.

And actually, the thing that I liked most was helping to write the press release at the end of the session. Getting the chance to recognise what I enjoy and where I thrive is very useful when it comes to considering future career steps.

I liked that it was also presented as a networking experience. I got talking to quite a few people and even some of those I didn’t properly speak to have since added me on LinkedIn. Even some of the teachers and facilitators who were there.

I found it rewarding to talk to people who work in this area, as I’ve never moved in those kinds of circles before.

Would you recommend Model NATO to other SPAIS students?

A view of the crowd in a reception area of the Foreign Office Building.
Students from 31 universities took part in the Model NATO event.

Chinumezi: Yes definitely, this was a great opportunity that should be open to all students. It really helped me enhance myself for potential careers ahead of me.

If you decide to take part, make sure you research and prepare properly. Try to be confident, but obviously follow the rules and comport yourself like a real diplomat from the start.

Verity: Absolutely. I would recommend going in with an open mind – don’t be too afraid to say something silly or ask questions.

And be sure to reach out to your professors for advice. I have a professor who has worked in the UN and I wish I’d gone to him beforehand to ask questions.

I’d love to do something like this again, but I think it was probably my last opportunity in education. Maybe I’ll just have to go into the real thing!

If you are interested in taking part in a future Model NATO event, please contact Dr Raphael Lefevre.