You know the type, viscerally, from your high school years. The guy who proposes a land invasion of Russia in the wintertime. He’d tank nuclear disarmament talks if the room won’t go along with the uranium disposal plan he pulled from a random academic paper found in obscure JSTOR corners.
Perhaps you’d forgotten about him — a certain Model United Nations delegate.
When Ukraine’s war with Russia came up in Fox News’s Aug. 23 GOP presidential primary debate, former kid diplomats found themselves back in the unsettling realm of their adolescent foreign policy debates, of strong egos in ill-fitting suits. When moderator Bret Baier asked the candidates if they’d oppose sending more money to bolster Ukraine’s defense forces, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy was the only one to raise his hand high in the air. The audience erupted in applause.
“I find it offensive,” Ramaswamy said, “that we have professional politicians on this stage that would make a pilgrimage to Kyiv, to their pope, Zelensky, without doing the same thing for people in Maui, or the South Side of Chicago, or [the Philadelphia neighborhood of] Kensington.”
Some of the “professional politicians,” like former vice president Mike Pence, tried to dig into Ramaswamy by invoking what they saw as a holy Reagan-era doctrine of sending money to foreign rebels fighting communist leaders. Ramaswamy’s mouth curved into a smug frown. “I have a news flash,” he shot back: “The U.S.S.R. does not exist anymore.” Cheers in the arena.
Nikki Haley, Donald Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, countered with her own version of a crash course in containing Russia with aid to Ukraine, wearing the face of a disappointed professor as she shook her head.
“Nikki, I wish you well on your future career on the boards of Lockheed and Raytheon,” Ramaswamy said, referring to two large military contractors.
Oh, thought anyone watching who once survived the Model U.N. scene. We know him.
Santiago Mayer, 21, recalled moments from his not-so-distant past. He’s the executive director of Voters of Tomorrow, a left-aligned group focused on young voters. Watching from the group’s D.C. office, he saw a familiar character in Ramaswamy he’d seen at the many Model U.N. conferences he attended throughout high school. He remembered that pesky Egyptian delegate at a Mexico City conference eagerly disrupting discussions on space weaponry, as if Egypt had ever put more than a few satellites in orbit.
“All of us are sort of annoying in the sense that we’re so passionate about foreign relationships — like, I have a Foreign Policy magazine subscription,” Mayer says. “But when you reach that level, where you’re actually just pretending to be an expert when the former ambassador to the United Nations is standing right next to you, that is just next-level.”
That was Haley’s retort to Ramaswamy: “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows.”
Who knows why 14- and 15-year-olds with no foreign policy experience devote eight-plus years to debating these issues. The romantic explanation: Escapism and wish-casting for a better world. The cynical explanation is preprofessional résumé-padding and ego-feeding. Being subjectively crowned “best delegate” can be addictive.
In the taxonomy of this subculture, two broad archetypes emerge: One kind is the future alphabet bureaucrats and Capitol Hill flacks and Langley-cloistered analysts, who see in Model U.N. an outlet for their Westphalian passions.
The other kind are known in these circles, somewhat derogatorily, as “power dels.” The label, former Model UNers agree, can ruin reputations. Power dels tend to filibuster, scramble the diplomatic board and bulldoze over group consensus.
Which is what some — liberals in particular — see in Ramaswamy. “For the Trump version of the Republican Party today that often puts a premium on the dominating alpha-male archetype, he fit that mold pretty well,” says Ryan Shay, a D.C. lobbyist who has worked in legislative affairs for sundry Democratic lawmakers. (Shay’s most memorable run-in with a power del? Food insecurity talks “like 15 years ago.”)
Both types of Model U.N. formers can end up in D.C., in Democratic press shops or the State Department or as a character in the Russiagate saga. “There’s a specific type of energy that I think a lot of us recognize,” says one former Ohio State University Model U.N. delegate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because, well, she takes her job in D.C. politics seriously. “Right away [during the GOP debate], I started seeing tweets and got a couple of texts from old friends that were saying: ‘Isn’t this straight out of a Model U.N. conference?’”
Actually — perhaps surprisingly — it turns out that Ramaswamy, 38, was not a Model U.N. delegate at the Jesuit-run St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, class of 2003.
But he was a mock trial lawyer. Reached via phone one night after putting his daughter to bed, one St. Xavier graduate who argued in mock trial with Ramaswamy said the comparison to Model U.N. power dels isn’t exactly right, because Ramaswamy wasn’t nerdy. Zachary El-Sawaf, now a practicing lawyer in Cincinnati, sees a different advocate in cases dealing with serious issues like search and seizure of racial minorities amid post-9/11 paranoia.
The Ramaswamy that El-Sawaf saw on the debate stage was, he says, “similar to what I experienced in high school, just in terms of, he seemed confident and seemed in control; very direct, firm in what his positions were.” It’s a weird juxtaposition, seeing his old schoolmate in this persona. “One of the most brilliant people I know,” he says, even though he had some colorful, not-printable words about Ramaswamy’s policy proposals. A 2006 Harvard Crimson article said Ramaswamy “quenched his thirst for debate” through his involvement in the Harvard Republican Club.
Ramaswamy couldn’t be reached for an interview, but his spokeswoman, Tricia McLaughlin, said in a text to The Washington Post that he is “more into mock debate” and “deeply skeptical of nongovernmental institutions.”
Does that debate-team, power del vibe have a lasting appeal for some voters? A recent poll from The Post, Ipsos and FiveThirtyEight, showed that 26 percent of Republican primary voters who watched the debate said Ramaswamy won. (Caveat: these polls can be influenced by voters’ previous perceptions of the candidates.)
And that’s explained by?
“Most debate is a zero-sum game,” said Frank Pobutkiewicz, the 35-year-old founder of All-American Model U.N., who, as a “lifetime Model UNer,” estimates he’s coached some 600 students. “Whereas Model U.N. should be about increasing the size of the pie, rather than trying to get as much as you can from everybody else.”
But the power del, he says, can be defanged.
“Power dels feed off of attention,” he advises his students. “You cannot adopt that same zero-sum approach. As soon as you enter that game with them, you’ve already lost. So you disarm that person by trying to incorporate their ideas. … They’ll ultimately self-destruct.”
Incorporating a rival’s ideas is not what typically wins presidential debates these days. And Ramaswamy has advanced some radical notions: Abolishing the Education Department, eliminating the FBI, and using “military force to decimate the cartels, Osama bin Laden-style.” He’s inveighed against “globalist institutions,” writing in June that “NATO’s behavior is bringing us *closer* to nuclear war with post-Soviet Russia.” In August, he settled a lawsuit with the World Economic Forum to remove his name from a 2021 list of “Young Global Leaders.” The WEF said sorry.
In the days following the debate, the Ramaswamy and Haley campaigns kept sparring over who won the debate. The ‘power del’ seems to have captured the attention of the front-runner, Trump, who called him “very intelligent” and said he “could be some form of something,” in response to a question about a hypothetical Trump-Ramaswamy ticket.
He added: “He’s getting a little bit controversial. I got to tell him: ‘Be a little bit careful. Some things you have to hold in just a little bit, right?’”