Seeing Diplomacy through Young Eyes: Building Personal Understandings Matter
“Wait, how old are you?” This was often the first question I was asked while working at the United Nations. I started working at the United Nations when I was 18 years old, as an adviser on the Republic of Seychelles delegation. At the UN, I mainly worked in the General Assembly, specifically in the Main Committees to work on draft resolution (treaties) debates on a wide range of issues. For a bright-eyed 18-year-old, barely an adult and barely old enough to be on a delegation, there was no better way to get exposure.
I would admit, it was not easy. Our delegation was very small. For us, it was all hands-on-deck, even for a newbie like me. It truly felt like being thrown into the fray in those first couple of months. The first day at the UN was magical—there were so many people from so many different countries bustling about, talking about the headlines I saw on television. Over time, I started to develop more of a routine—although I still was mistaken on occasion for a lost high school tourist by security guards, sometimes even while I was wearing my UN delegate ID—but I was thankful every day by the opportunity to be at the center of action and soak it all in.
Balancing the UN with my undergraduate course load was even tougher. I was able to schedule my classwork so that I could be in New York at the UN on Fridays, catching the early morning train to get into New York, but every week became a battle of catch-up. Communicating over email and WhatsApp the other days of the week was just not the same as being there in person.
At the UN, my principal tasks were to participate in the General Assembly Committees, which tackle different issues, ranging from security to sustainable finance. It was in these Committees where draft resolutions were submitted, edited, debated, and ultimately voted upon to recommend to the plenary debate. These Committees were action-packed—they were where those lively discussions occurred, both formally and informally. Especially ahead of the yearly General Assembly session, there was always a lot of work to be done—a great way to see how international decision-making happens in real time. In practice, it meant constantly shuttling between meetings on widely different subjects—hectic, but fulfilling.
It was not an easy job. My work focused on the First Committee, Second Committee, and Third Committees, on issues of disarmament and international security, economics and finance, and social, humanitarian, and cultural matters. In addition, I also attended meetings in the Fourth and Sixth Committees on Special Political Issues and Law, as well as the occasional bilateral negotiation and a smattering of other UN body meetings. I quickly found myself in over my head—an unenviable position to be in. One of the first meetings I attended was a debate on a draft resolution on eliminating nuclear weapons, and I quickly found myself lost in the details. For me, there was a steep learning curve in terms of knowledge acquisition.
In many ways, the UN shaped my academic experience. At Yale, I tailored my coursework to be on nuclear disarmament, on climate change, and on human rights (corresponding to each of the Committees I worked on). I tried to absorb as much as possible. Over time, as I learned more, I became more effective at the UN, and as I saw more at the UN, I applied those observations back to my academics. It was a mutually enforcing process—busy, but fulfilling.
Even though I was young and inexperienced, I felt welcomed. The other members of my delegation were wonderful people and incredibly supportive in helping me get up to speed. Without them, learning the ropes of the General Assembly would have been difficult. The diplomats from other delegations also went above and beyond their call of duty to include a lost kid like myself: their actions made a big difference for me.
Over time, I grew, matured, and got to know the other diplomats as people outside the negotiations rooms. My English and Chinese bilingualism came in handy in hallway discussions—I was surprised at how much more diplomats were willing to talk about in their native language. This was what allowed me to take a stab at mediation, helping me realise that change happens one conversation at a time, and where diplomacy came to life for me.
My fondest memories were of sharing meals with others in the UN Cafeteria and Cafés, where we talked not about politics or international relations, but about family and about the things we cared about. I learned about different cultures and worldviews, and most importantly, about the reasoning behind those unique views and ideas. Getting to know and respect the others outside the negotiations context changed everything for me—I started to pick up deeper nuances in their policy statements and better understand where they were coming from. I started to put myself in their shoes. Personal stories and personal narratives, I realised, matter for diplomacy.
As a small delegation, Seychelles often has to pick and choose which meetings to send delegates to, which necessarily means that it has to forgo other meetings. Such is the reality for small delegations. My experience was that being a physical presence at meetings, by itself, can go a long way for getting the word out for those weaker voices at the table.
One day, as we were finishing a meeting, one of the other diplomats turned and told me, “thank you for being here.” That simple phrase meant so much to me: being at the UN gave me a chance to make a small contribution of my own to global dialogue. For me, the UN was the start of what I hope to be a lifelong fight to continue making those contributions and help tackle the world’s most pressing challenges.
Mason Ji (Washington & St Antony’s 2016) was born and raised in the US, but learned to speak, read, and write both Chinese and English at a native level. He is passionate about global affairs and intercultural cooperation, and is committed to bringing others along with his service and inspiring others to excellence. He graduated summa cum laude from Yale University with a degree in Global Affairs and Political Science, and received a Master’s of Science in Global Governance and Diplomacy from Oxford in 2017. He is currently studying the Master of Public Policy at Oxford. In the past, he served as an Adviser on the Seychelles Mission to the United Nations, where he focused on issues of nuclear disarmament, climate change (particularly sustainable development financing), and human rights. He was also an ambassador for the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) under the past US administration to work on improving quality of life for AAPIs. His research focuses on international security and law, exploring how multilateral approaches can help encourage consensus-building.
Please view his professional profile.