Sports diplomacy existed long before Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power”. It was supposed to peacefully “co-opt” political actors rather than threaten or coerce them—which is, historically, how “hard power” works. But facing the Covid-19 pandemic, in existential terms, soft power gets left at the starting gate because the pandemic represents a threat greater than the threat of nuclear weapons, and mediating the Covid-19 threat it is not a series of polite conversations, but a merciless race against time
Against this backdrop, to palliate the anomie and the psychoterror caused by the pandemia, some world leaders are supporting the return of competitive athletics—spectator sports—to create the sense of a “new normal.” The costs of doing this are likely to be more social, than political. After all, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are well known sports fans. Joe Biden is not.
TASS reports that the Russian Premier League football championship will resume play late next month. Germany’s vaunted Bundesliga has already started playing in empty stadiums with some modified rules and players and venues under strict medical control. Online advertising that link to gambling sites appear on nearly every sports journal or sports gossip site about the Bundesliga and lesser leagues that you visit. There is talk in London’s Fleet Street press that England’s Premier League wants to resume games in June in spite the reluctance of a few team owners and, some players. As the pandemia continues to kill, professional sports in the United States including football, baseball and basketball are planning to resume playing, to empty houses via television. It is the same throughout the “British Commonwealth,” where cricket has an audience of around a billion people eager to watch—and bet on—games. Hundreds of billions of dollars in sports and entertainment economy dollars have been lost and among the powers behind those interests, there is a sense that “winback time” is approaching. For them, in business terms, it is time for them to recoup their losses.
But how long will it be before sports fans grow tired of just watching—and betting—on sports online from their homes. We are already seeing the pressure—via social media—the desire of people to return to the stadiums. People want to escape quarantines and lockdowns and eat, drink and be merry. This means the return, en force, of racism, hooliganism and other types of violent behavior. People want to hang out at sports bars with restaurants, go to betting parlors, take cruises and ride ferry boats that offer sports and table gambling. Some of these “fans” are members of organized clubs that have links to criminal and extreme right wing groups, and these organizados (what the groups are called in Latin America where I live) will create more challenges for those involved in policing sports crime. Las Vegas will soon be open for business with social distancing enforced, visitors required to wear masks, and have their body temperature taken on walking through the door. That gives a green light to just about everybody. Good guys, and bad.
Sports diplomacy existed long before the term “sports diplomacy” was coined. We can find it first at the 1936 Berlin summer olympics, where african-american Jesse Owens soundly defeated the best athletes prodced by Adolf Hitler’s “master race”. A message was sent. A message of freedom winning out against totalitarianism. Ironically, the Adidas shoe company claims on one of their websites that Owens won his gold medals running in their shoes.
We can also find sports diplomacy associated with Hungary’s “Golden Team” featuring Ferenc Puskas and Gyula Lorant that won the 1952 Helsinki olympics gold medal in football and was a finalist in the 1954 World Cup in Bern, helping foment the ill-fated Hungarian revolution which created political, and public relations problems, for the Kremlin. One can argue that both of these situations were “hard power” sports diplomacy, before the concept of “hard power” was even “branded.” It was the era when the calculations to develop nuclear power—and nuclear weapons—were made with slide rules, not supercomputers.
During the same Cold War period, during the global polio epidemic (it was not called a pandemic), the Kremlin allowed millions of Soviet citizens to be tested with the polio vaccine developed by the American doctor, Albert Sabin. This was an amazing diplomatic and humanitarian effort promulgated by two bitter Cold War rivals. It is unlikely that similar cooperation to develop a Covid-19 vaccine can happen in our current political-psychological scenario. Some countries want to develop “their own” (proprietary) vaccine and not share. It’s analogically akin to a child who is holding a chocolate bar, saying “this is mine and you can’t have any.” Other fearmongering politicians and internet influencers say that cooperation to develop a Covid-19 vaccine invites “industrial espionage” or “cyberspying.”
Maybe the Covid-19 pandemia will create the impetus to “repurpose” what we call “sports diplomacy” in the “post-pandemic era.” One hears the FIFA slogan, “for the game, for the world.” And there is the slogan “we are basketball”. Or the Asian Football Confederation meme “one Asia, one goal.” Will these slogans, memes, and their superstar spokespersons and expensive advertising and public relations campaigns hold the same meaning in the “post pandemic era” or will they become less relevant? Do average sports fans, women and men, or even the athletes—if you stopped to ask one of them getting off their team bus or out of their limousine (when they are not wearing the headphones they are often being paid to endorse) know what these slogans mean, in general, and to themselves?
As the pandemia continues, the so does the demonization Moscow and Beijing, and the assesment of “penalties” and sanctions by one nation to another in realpolitik— via public diplomacy, economic policy, social media. It’s reminiscent of the role of the “enforcer” that we see during games of ice hockey. This current scenario further stretches the frayed fabric of cooperation between security services and police organizations (and back channels) among the major powers, including those who are at odds with each other.
Cooperation, not confrontation as examplified by the politics of “vaccine nationalism” that been manufactured by the White House is what is required to contain the current pandemic. Then too, because mainstream and epidemiological media are reporting that the possibility of producing successfuly a vaccine that will be effective during “peak periods” is only 50%, an effective countermeasure may never emerge from at least one, among the several vaccines that are being developed. Nations ought to work together to minimize the risks of the current—and the next global health crisis—rather than operate at cross-purposes, which only doubles down on those risks. Why aren’t very many “sports diplomats” or “sports brand ambassadors” having “soft power” conversations about that…
From our partner RIAC
The Digital Diplomacy Revolution
The way people communicate with one another has changed dramatically. The term “networked society” is used to describe how society has developed, where data is freely transmitted. Knowledge is obtained, contained, interpreted, controlled, and exchanged in almost entirely different ways than previously done. The use of technology, especially the internet and other ICT-based technologies, in the conduct of diplomacy is referred to as digital diplomacy. Covid-19 has ushered in a new age of digital diplomacy, also known as e-diplomacy. It has evolved as one of the instruments for advancing foreign policy. The days of strict government oversight are long gone. Information has a greater impact in today’s “networked” society because it can spread in a matter of seconds or minutes.
For many people, Twitter has been the go-to platform for modern diplomacy. We’ve seen how social media helped the Arab Spring revolution in countries like Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt. The word “Twiplomacy” was coined to describe diplomacy conducted through Twitter. There are close to 300 Twitter accounts dedicated to heads of state. More recently, during the populist boom, we’ve seen how leaders like Modi and Trump’s Twitter presence aided their electoral performance. Not only governments but also non-state actors, such as terrorists, have used social media to further their goals.
The Rise of Digital Diplomacy
Between March 2020 and the end of 2020, the United Nations headquarters in Geneva hosted 1,200 important international conferences online. The UN has been able to continue its operations on the ground as a result of this. In terms of digital diplomacy, the United States now leads the way. Since 2003, the US State Department has had an e-diplomacy branch, but it was Hillary Clinton who brought it to a whole new dimension. She introduced “21st Century Statecraft,” in 2009, a program aimed at complementing conventional foreign policy techniques with statecraft technologies that completely harness the network and technologies of an interconnected world. The US State Department employs 150 full-time social media workers in the e-diplomacy office.
India’s Use of Social Media in Public Diplomacy
The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) sent out its first tweet in 2010, managed by Ambassador Navdeep Suri, then joint secretary and head of the public diplomacy section. Many distressed Indians stuck abroad found Twitter to be a helpful crisis management tool, facilitating the safe evacuation of over 18,000 Indian people from Libya during the civil war in 2011. India aspires to be a trailblazer and is working hard to pave the way for itself to become a global leader. For a nation like India, social media allows for constructive communication about the country’s coming of age as a result of scientific progress, technical advancements, and new ideas advanced by initiatives like digital India. The government should take advantage and expand their public diplomacy agenda more engagingly. The government can intensify its initiatives – even on the foreign policy agenda – in a perfect digital diplomacy setting, and the public can have a more direct channel to communicate with their government. In the age of digital diplomacy, it is critical to address policy context relevant to a world where political views are developed based on knowledge from tweets and social media accounts. As, Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, put it: “The only thing that is constant is change”. Countries must take advantage of the latest digital diplomacy framework to develop the skills needed for the future and to create stable digital channels for future diplomats.
Ramifications of The Pandemic In International Relations
Ever since the global spread of the COVID-19 virus, claims have been made of the pandemic causing a massive impact in global politics and international relations. In the pre-pandemic era, international relations were defined by increasing bipolarity, greater isolationism, greater trade protectionism and increasing nationalism. While the West led by the US was gradually adopting a protectionist attitude, the East led by China in particular, was looking towards increasing multilateral cooperation. Alongside this, international organizations were seeing their roles diminishing. Moreover, populist leaders and authoritarian governments were gradually gathering influence globally, in stark contrast to a decline in democracy and neo-liberalism. These trends could be seen most clearly in the US/China conflict that has dominated most international relations rhetoric of the 21st century.
Although China had been hit with the pandemic first, through extreme lockdown measures, quick responses, mass screenings, targeted monitoring and an effective socio-political response, the country quickly reversed course and had flattened its curve by March, depicting the resilience of the country. With a mere 87,000 cases as of December 2020 in a country of 1.4 billion people, China’s effective policies to deal with the pandemic can hardly be sidelined. Nevertheless, as the virus had been identified in China first, this triggered a massive backlash from the West, particularly the US, where President Trump blasted China for covering-up details about the virus. Rumors were spread by the White House itself about the virus originating from a Wuhan lab, and the virus was labeled the Wuhan Virus – a move discouraged by the WHO. This inflammatory language worsened relations between the two countries. Going even further, President Trump terminated US involvement in the World Health Organization, claiming it to be controlled by Chinese authorities.
With this move the influence of the world’s most important health organization was weakened, further showcasing the decline of the liberal international world order, due to a diminishing trust in international organizations. Thus, the pre-Covid trend of a lack of trust in international organizations, continued during the COVID-19 pandemic as well. With Trump advocating for closed borders with his “We need the wall more than ever” expressions on Twitter, and similar far-right leaders like France’s Le Pen ruing the “religion of borderless-ness” for the pandemic, the West’s protectionist, nationalistic ideas showed no signs of abating even during a global crisis.
In stark contrast, the East led by China continued on its path of greater cooperation and interdependence, through bilateral and multilateral engagements. With the US leaving a void in the global leadership spot for handling the pandemic, China stepped in and offered to assist other countries in handling the outbreaks in their respective countries. China’s foreign ministry’s spokesperson, Hua Chunying, even stated that they would like to share China’s good practice and experience.
Furthering its charm offensive, China started shipping out masks and ventilators to countries that were very badly hit by the pandemic, like Italy, Spain and Serbia. With the countries of the European Union shutting down their borders and hoarding domestic supplies, despite Italy’s pleas for help, Italy turned to China for aid in fighting the coronavirus pandemic. This “mask diplomacy” along with China’s Health Silk Road has served to strengthen global public health governance, as envisioned by China.
Undeniably, the pandemic’s effects in the short-term have been wide-reaching, especially in the social and technological domain. However, expecting global politics and international relations to undergo a transformational change in the long-term, solely due to the COVID-19 pandemic is relatively far-fetched, especially if current global trends are assessed.
The virus may or may not have taken its toll on international diplomacy in the traditional context, but it has certainly shaken many things if not stirred them completely.
Diplomatic Fiasco: PTI Government’s Failure on the Climate Diplomacy Front
“Think about this: terrorism, epidemics, poverty, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – all challenges that know no borders – the reality is that climate change ranks right up there with every single one of them”.– John F. Kerry
The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and United Nations Security Council (UNSC) have both declared that unrestrained climate change poses a threat to international peace and security. Presently, climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity. We all will witness its impacts, making it a critical foreign policy and diplomatic issue. Climate change will overturn the 21st century world order and characterize how we live and work. Even so, in the midst of a global pandemic, it is evident that climate change will be the major issue of this century. As countries will move toward rebuilding their economies after COVID-19, recovery plans will shape the 21st century economy in ways that are clean and green, safe and healthy, and more resilient. Over the last decade, foreign policymakers have taken measures to better understand climate risks. To date, foreign policy responses to climate change have primarily centered on the security repercussions of climate change.
To chart a fresh course ahead, in order to initiate a global fight against climate change, President Joe Biden welcomed a diverse set of leaders from around the globe to explicate the connections between climate security, climate change and broader foreign policy objectives. The list of invitee included world leaders like President Xi Jinping of China and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, PM Modi of India, Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh to attend the two-days meeting to mark Washington’s return to the visible lines of the fight against climate risks. Though, Pakistan have its place in the same region, and fifth-most vulnerable country to climate change, it has been disqualified from the summit. Likewise, Biden dispatched his climate envoy, former secretary of state John Kerry, to prepare the ground for the summit in meetings with global leaders. The U.S. invited the leaders of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, which includes the 17 countries responsible for about 80-percent of global emissions and GDP, along with, heads of countries that are unambiguously vulnerable to climate impacts or are representing robust climate leadership.
The current global efforts towards mainstreaming of climate change in development policies and programs are getting more traction due to expanding avenues of domestic and international climate diplomacy. For developing countries, climate diplomacy is undoubtedly becoming a key incentive to integrate climate change issues into their foreign policy. Pakistan is also a relatively new player in the climate diplomacy arena with a nascent institutional setup. The climate diplomacy adaption experience of Pakistan is still at the embryonic stage. The main problem is the gradual decline in the aptitude and capacity of institution to develop a clear policy route. The policy decline is much more rapid under the PTI government. Pakistan’s ambassadorial clout has eroded over the years due to political unpredictability and economic timidity. Similarly, the government has failed even to built a national narrative on climate change issue. Imran Khan has been warning the world of catastrophe if the climate problem is not addressed, but has failed to come out with a clear policy direction on the issue.
Among the many challenges fronting the Imran Khan government will be tackling the notoriously dysfunctional U.S. – Pakistan relationship. The Biden presidency has designated climate change as a critical theme of its foreign policy, and indeed aware of Pakistan’s deep climate vulnerability. For the first time since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Pakistan is not a foreign policy priority for U.S. administration. Many high-ranking Biden government officials, including climate change envoy John Kerry, know Pakistan well. When Kerry was Obama’s secretary of state, co-chaired US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue that counted renewable energy. Anybody familiar with how Islamabad and Washington have interacted over the last 74 years will resort to weary metaphors: a roller-coaster ride, the dynamic between an overbearing mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. Biden and his experienced team of ex-Obama administration officials are likely to press Pakistan – for Islamabad, it is a catch-22 situation. In the indigenous context, internal political strife in Pakistan and economic dependency on other countries have raised questions about our ability to effectively fight our case in international arena. The latest diplomatic fiasco speaks very loud and clear about the government’s inability to deal with fast-changing geopolitics. Washington’s broader interests in Asia, including relationships with China and India, will determine its policy at the Leaders’ Summit on Climate. It seems, Pakistan has no friends in the Biden administration. Thus, out-of-the-box thinking is required for Pakistan’s foreign policy decision makers.
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