Think your world is complicated?

Consider what 16-year-old David Bibeau had on his plate last week.

Just after 2 a.m. Wednesday, Bibeau was awakened in his dorm room on the University of Southern Maine’s Gorham campus, where he was representing the country of Lebanon at the 12th annual Maine Model United Nations Conference.

The Scarborough High School junior, along with 14 other sleepy members of the “U.N. Security Council,” found himself moments later staring through bleary eyes at a news bulletin from Islamabad, Pakistan:
Virtually the entire government had just been wiped out by a bomb that all but leveled the parliament building.
Chaos was fast engulfing the already unstable country amid rampant rumors of a military coup … or was it a terrorist attack?

And, oh yes, nobody could vouch for the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

Goodbye, peaceful night’s sleep; hello, world on the brink.

“I got 25 minutes of sleep last night,” Bibeau said. “I received word from the Lebanese foreign ministry that I was supposed to pursue a diplomatic resolution and avoid armed conflict due to the tribal nature of many nations in the Middle East.”
But what about those nuclear weapons?

“It’s still unclear at this time,” Bibeau replied in perfect diplomat-speak.

It’s easy to be pessimistic these days about how much – or how little – we Americans know about what’s going on around us.
Right here in Maine, a recent poll of likely voters by Critical Insights found that with the statewide primaries just weeks away, 42 percent of the electorate could not name a single declared candidate for governor.

Extrapolate that kind of blissful ignorance out onto the world stage and you can’t help but worry: As we ricochet from Twitter to Facebook to the next best reality TV show, is anyone paying attention to what’s going on in Pakistan … or Greece … or Afghanistan … or any of the scores of other countries that most Americans would have trouble finding on a map?
In a word, yes.

“These kids are so excited to be here,” said Lynn Kuzma, an associate professor of political science at USM who founded Maine Model United Nations 11 years ago. “And they’re all so articulate. It’s amazing.”

Back when the first conference was held in 1999, 27 kids attended. This week, 380 students came from 23 high schools across Maine and three schools in neighboring states.

The three-day, full-immersion exercise in politicking, persuasion and parliamentary procedure is months in the making.

It starts with a USM independent study course in conference planning and leadership. The dozen or so college students who enroll not only plan the food, room assignments and other nuts-and-bolts logistics for the event, but also author position papers, communiques, intelligence briefs and, when necessary, hot-off-the-presses news reports designed to push the high schoolers to their geopolitical limits.
Topics for this year ranged from peacekeeping on the high seas to colonization and security of outer space, from violence against women and children to protecting civilians in armed conflict, from the education of girls to “Ensuring Fair and Equitable Sharing Benefits Arising Out of Use of Genetic Resources.”

And then there’s the inevitable “crisis.”

“We always throw it at them at 2 a.m., when they’re half asleep,” explained Kate Adams, a USM senior who served as this year’s U.N. secretary general.

“That’s the real-life part – you can’t predict when something’s going to happen. It’s not always going to be neat and orderly between 9 and 5.”

This year’s monkey wrench, dropped in the dead of night into the agenda of the 15-member Security Council, was concocted by Ben Converse, who just graduated from USM with a double major in political science and international studies with a focus on Russia (where he spent a semester) and Eastern Europe (where he spent a year in Croatia).

“I’m pulling strings and pushing buttons,” Converse said with a slightly mischievous smile. “They’ve been spending the last year saying it’s all about peace, it’s all about diplomatic solutions. But diplomatic solutions don’t always work.”

Indeed. Less than 12 hours after they first heard of the crisis in Pakistan, members of the Security Council voted 11-4 in favor of a 16-point resolution that called for the deployment of a 50,000-member U.N. security force (including 6,000 “highly trained and qualified” soldiers to secure the nukes); the activation of nuclear defense systems worldwide; and the designation of Russia and China as “liaison for countries wishing to give economic and military contributions.”

Russia and China? No United States?

“We were looking for oversight that wouldn’t freak out Pakistan,” explained Ness Smith-Savedoff, a senior at Casco Bay High School in Portland who occupied France’s seat at the Security Council table.

“Being members of the P-5 (the five permanent members of the Security Council), it seems appropriate to have Russia and China do that.”

The crisis was supposed to take all Wednesday to resolve, but this bunch had it resolved in time for lunch. Or so they thought.

At 5 a.m. Thursday, “Crisis Czar” Converse once again rousted the Security Council with the news that earlier intelligence had been flawed: Pakistan’s nuclear weapons were now in the hands of either the Taliban or al-Qaida (or both). Even worse, a warhead had just been fired at a yet-to-be determined target in the West.

Kents Hill School senior Meg Richardson, also known as the honorable delegate from Brazil, found the whole thing “nerve-wracking.”
“It’s a credit to (the conference organizers) that my heart was racing the entire time,” Richardson said. “That’s how real it felt.”

In the end, the rogue nuke landed in the Mediterranean just off the coast of Israel. U.S. troops quickly secured the rest of Pakistan’s arsenal, and Israel, after a little cajoling, agreed to refrain from launching a retaliatory strike.

Meaning the conference was a success?

“Well, we avoided nuclear war,” noted Richardson. “So that was good.”

Talk about overachievers.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]