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Covid-19 Sports Diplomacy: Soft power vs. populism

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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

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Diplomacy

Sujit S Nair – Creating diplomatic ties between Europe and India

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Sujit S Nair., FRSA, the Chairman of Europe India Centre for Business & Industry (EICBI), is an accomplished international trade and relations professional with expertise in the UK- India and EU India corridor. Over the past eleven years, he has organised 22 Major summits at British Parliament in London and 3 Major summits at European Parliament in Brussels to promote relations between India and the EU as well as between India and the UK, in addition to other activities like delegations’ visits, virtual interactions etc.

Sujit is also an entrepreneur with interest in the beauty sector. Along with his wife, Lakshmi Menon, they run a social impact venture called Face Palette in Kerala, India, that uses Makeup as a tool to take women on a journey to employability and entrepreneurship, equipping them with a flexitime skillset like makeup artistry that helps them to balance their personal and professional commitments.

Please tell us more about your work at Europe India Centre for Business Industry. 

Europe India Centre for Business and Industry (EICBI), managed by Sivaleen Foundation for Developed India, is an independent, multilateral organisation promoting trade and relationships in the UK India corridor and EU India corridor. EICBI was formed to make EU/ UK companies aware of the business opportunities in India and vice versa. EICBI hosts projects and international forums to promote specific business and geopolitical initiatives.

We create awareness and opportunities for our stakeholders through our physical summits, virtual events, an annual listing of EuropeIndia40 leaders and delegation visits of European MPs to India. This year 2022, celebrates 60 years of establishment of diplomatic relations between India and the European Union (EU), and EICBI has been organising a series of activities as part of the EUIndia60 Campaign.

What are some key industries where we are seeing Europe and India collaboration currently? 

For EICBI, our European activities focus on promoting collaboration in the UK India corridor and EU India corridor.

In the UK India corridor, the top sectors of interest for UK companies were India’s industrial, business services, technology, consumer retail and e-commerce. The top sectors of interest for Indian companies in the UK were food and drink, creative and media, environment, infrastructure and transportation, biotechnology and pharmaceutical.

In the EU India corridor, textiles, leather, pharma, sports goods, some agri products, handicrafts, and handlooms are some of the critical industries from India that have a significant presence in the EU. In the case of EU companies in India, key industries are in Automotives, Chemicals and Business Services Sector.

Tell us more about your work as an RSA Connector. 

As the RSA connector based in India, I am a point of contact for fellows in India. I also scout for people doing great work in India and put forth their nominations for the RSA fellowship network.

How has being a part of RSA created value in your life? 

I have been a fellow of the RSA for nearly a decade. Being an RSA fellow helps me be part of a diverse network of like-minded people and expand my work. Also, as part of my work, I meet many highly credible leaders and stakeholders in the EU India/ UK India corridor. The fellowship of the RSA helped to increase my credibility in this network.

How can the RSA Fellowship create value for people who are not based in the UK? 

RSA fellows outside the UK must actively use the RSA social network to connect with other RSA fellows in their region. This will help to meet potential fellows and explore collaborations with them.

How do you envision India – UK partnership in the upcoming years with the change in Prime Ministerial Candidate in 2022? 

India – UK partnership will continue to thrive irrespective of who will become the Prime Minister in 2022. India-UK relations are on a high trajectory, and there have been a series of discussions and interactions between political leaders, government officials and other stakeholders from the UK and India. There is also a strong political will to get the Free Trade Agreement signed in the next few months. UK PM Boris Johnson’s strong support for signing FTA with India and his special friendship with Indian PM Narendra Modi did help in sorting out several issues between India and the UK. As the new PM might take a bit of time to get up to date with the issues, I assume that UK India FTA might be delayed by a few months, but I do not see any adverse changes to India UK partnership due to the change of the Prime Minister in the UK.

What are your plans for the future? 

I hope to continue pursuing my work in promoting UK India and EU India relations in the foreseeable future. When compared to the EU India corridor, the UK India corridor has a greater number of stakeholders who are actively working in promoting relations between the regions. I believe that there is a lot more work to be done in connecting people and leveraging opportunities in these regions.  As I also run a beauty venture with my wife, I hope to continue Face Palette’s work in supporting more women in India to be financially independent.

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Asad Lalljee on cultural diplomacy

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Asad Lalljee is SVP, Essar Group, CEO, Avid Learning and Curator, Royal Opera House, Mumbai. Prior to relocating to India, Asad worked for 14 years as one of the ‘Mad Men’ advertising executives on New York’s Madison Avenue. He was with McCann-Erickson, and earlier with Hill Holiday, a subsidiary of advertising giant In 2018, he was inducted into the prestigious FICCI Art and Culture Committee. He has previously worked for companies like McCann-Erickson and Hill Holiday (IPG) in New York. He holds a B.A. Economics (St. Xavier’s College) and an M.A. Global Marketing Communications (Emerson College, Boston).

What does your work at Avid Learning look like? 

My tryst with Avid Learning was nothing less than a serendipitous one. After 14 years of working as a Mad Man in Madison Avenue when I came to Mumbai, I was introduced to Avid Learning. Since then, by imbibing a simple mantra that I lived by so far- Learning Never Stops- I took a modest year old continuing education program and started to create content and programs around the arts (Applied, Visual and performing).

Today Avid Learning has grown into one of Mumbai’s leading public programming platforms and is firmly entrenched in the country’s wider cultural ecosystem of which I am the CEO.

Over the years, under my aegis, AVID has gained a reputation for curating thought provoking, innovative and path-breaking content that is intellectually and creatively stimulating and engages with a variety of topical subjects and trends. Our thoughtfully curated and diverse events embrace the spirit of collaboration to bring together the best of Indian and international writers, artists, intellectuals, cultural experts, policymakers and industry leaders across Visual Art, Literature, Culture and Heritage, Education, Design & Technology and the Performing Arts through engaging and dynamic formats like panel discussions, workshops & master classes, roundtables, lecture demonstrations, festival platforms, symposiums & conferences, multidisciplinary performances and walkthroughs.

Tell us more about your role at the Royal Opera House? 

In 2016, I was appointed as the curator of the newly restored Royal Opera House, Mumbai where my role consists ofcuration of eclectic and multidisciplinary programming. Today Royal Opera House has positioned itself as not just a spectacular location and heritage landmark, but more so as a proactive partner and catalyst in the propagation and revival of arts and culture in the city. Apart from the venue playing host to performances across several genres of music and theatre and presenting unique comedy and fashion shows on its grand stage, AVID has depersonalised the space by also bringing in Literature through book launches, Art through interdisciplinary performances, discussions, pop-ups and a robust arts initiative.

How did your experience at Ad agencies in New York create a base for your current work in India? 

It is always believed that Advertising is just a form of Arts. After spending 14 years in Advertising at NYC and having worked with some of the biggest brands, I have learned that power to connect with target audiences lies in leveraging a multitude of creative tactics. 

In the same way, at AVID I have continued to adapt the fundamentals of advertising, technology, brand elements and social media for my campaigns and create new forms of engagement touchpoints audiences. My aim is to make culture cool, accessible, inspirational to not just the few handful communities  but for kids, for new voices for nascent talent from all borders.

What are some projects you see yourself working on for the rest of 2022? 

In 2022, We will continue to curate a multiverse and hybrid programming module, based on current industry trends, and learnings from COVID-era practices, this financial year, Avid Learning aims to continue to build its programming platform into an integrated hybrid model which features both virtual and in person programs. Our focus this year will also be on strengthening our cultural diplomatic ties and creating newer platforms and opportunities for artists across borders to come and re-engage with arts post the gap of 2 years.

We have also planned to partner with Start Art and Kala Ghoda Arts Festival to present sustainability-related conversations and discussions on Mumbai’s diasporic communities and heritage. We also have in the pipeline ‘The (Un)Convention’, a day long production featuring performances and presentations by industry and some of the best artists in the country.

How can we promote culture and arts further in India? 

I have always believed in the power of cultural diplomacy to widen horizons and broaden minds and have been applying it to my work at AVID as well. I believe that by leveraging our local and international relationships we can bring the best of International Art, Culture and Design to our city and our audiences. This has always been my focus in promoting Arts and Culture further in India.

What are three social causes you feel passionate about and want to amplify?

I have always believed in the power of the arts in impacting great social change and have regularly offered our support and platforms for social advocacy. At Royal Opera House, Mumbai, I have brought on stage various differently-abled groups and artistes. We had a fantastic visually impaired orchestra perform on stage, displayed beautiful braille art, and many such events. We have also aligned with powerful annual socio-diplomatic initiatives like International Day of the Girl Child and International Women’s Day and supported significant campaigns like UN Women’s HeforShe and One Billion Rising.

In 2022, I pulled together an elaborate series of presentations, panel discussions and workshops called Sustainability NOW with an aim to convert audiences into change-makers and custodians of a greener tomorrow. Under this umbrella, we have had over 40 thought-provoking programmes.

I am personally passionate about growing and supporting the Arts Education landscape here in India,  Being a parent, I have realised the importance of quality education and the power of the arts to mold children.  Keeping that in mind, we have programmed numerous edutaining events for kids – from hosting children’s literature festivals annually to organising arts pedagogy roundtables and publishing an illustrated children’s book to engagingly teach them about sustainability.

The newly Coral Woman book was one such effort to empower the future custodians of the earth through the power of arts.

Which are some books that have influenced you personally? 

Reading equipped me with many professional and life lessons. I remember devouring books whenever I got a chance. Three books stand out for me which helped me through my advertising years in New York were – AdCultUSA by James Twitchell, The anatomy of Buzz by Emanuel Rosen, and Straight from the Gut by Jack Welch.

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Reflecting on Elon Musk’s Acquisition of Twitter and China’s Twitter Diplomacy

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The CEO of Tesla, Elon Musk, has always been an ambitious business magnate who actively expands into different businesses to realise his visions. Recently, his sudden offer of purchasing and privatising Twitter for 44 billion US dollars has shocked the world. Since Musk has strong business ties with China and often praises China effusively, this proposal has aroused widespread fear that Twitter will end up being a platform for China to spread its propaganda.

Although the deal was once “temporarily on hold” and is now “terminated” because of Musk’s concern about the prevalence of spam accounts, the international reactions to the takeover are reflecting the strategic importance of social media platforms to China. The privatisation of social media platforms could, in fact, foster China’s Twitter Diplomacy and shake international politics. Thus, we must keep an eye on the relationships between the business sector and foreign governments.

Twitter’s Outstanding Outreach Capabilities

As an influential social media platform with millions of users, Twitter offers strong outreach capabilities, which allows messages to be spread across the world. Users can also share their comments or engage in debates with other users on a certain topic. Meanwhile, the retweet function helps users disseminate information with just a few clicks, while the hashtag function helps the users to reach a high coverage of audience rapidly, regardless of whether the audience has followed the users. For instance, by adding the hashtag #pancake in the tweet, international audiences can also see the tweet in their search results of #pancake. Therefore, Twitter has become an attractive platform for politicians or governments to spread political messages and shape discussions. In particular, the former United States President Donald Trump created a large number of tweets to draw attention, mobilise support, and issue orders.

China’s Weaponized Use of Twitter

While China “had almost no diplomatic presence on Twitter’ a few years ago, China has gradually realised the benefits of using Twitter as a diplomatic weapon.

In 2018, China finally established its first official account on Twitter (Chinese Foreign Ministry, @MFA_China) to engage with the global audience. China is possibly using automation and bot accounts to retweet their political messages, influence public conversations, and spread their propaganda as well. To fully utilise Twitter as a propaganda tool, China also creates clickbait content or promotes conspiracy theories to capture international users’ attention.

In particular, China was increasing its use of Twitter when it faces international pressure stemming from human rights suppression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, the Sino-US trade war, and the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, the spokesman of China’s Foreign Minister, Zhao Lijian, has tweeted a conspiracy theory that the Covid-19 virus actually originates in the United States. Subsequently, a wave of #USAVirus tweets is sweeping across Twitter to support this claim.

Following the increasing tension between China and the international community brought by the Russian-Ukraine War, China is likely to make use of Twitter as its battlefield with its rivals, so as to craft the image that China is become suppressed or discriminated against by the Western hegemons.

Why Does Privatisation Matter?

This tendency to convey biased messages on Twitter to defend China’s reputation can be arguably encouraged by Musk’s proposal of privatising Twitter. Since Musk has friendly relations with China and he has been actively expanding into the Chinese market, critics argue that Musk could face pressure from the Beijing government, which could force Musk to allow China to track opponents, bolster its propaganda, suppress criticism, and spread disinformation. This has given us a warning that vested business interests of technological giants with autocratic countries can seriously influence the development of global politics.

Musk’s deal is appearing to be telling us the fact that a wealthy and powerful giant can easily take over social media platforms to realise his aspiration or accomplish some political goals. When social media platforms are arbitrarily controlled by individuals with inextricable affiliations with autocratic countries, they can be put vulnerable to the dictatorships’ intervention. Privatisation of Twitter thus could make it easier for China to continue its political advertising or “manipulate” public opinions by creating and controlling inauthentic accounts, although such promotions are supposedly banned by Twitter to contain China’s expansion. More disinformation and propaganda could arise, while Twitter would not take action against it. This will increase the effectiveness of Twitter diplomacy in using biased messages to persuade people to support the autocratic regime.

Under the aforementioned high volume and rapid dissemination of tweets, China can dominate the discussions and create an illusion that the world leans toward China. Seeing more and more pro-China posts, the public may mistakenly think that pro-China opinions are the dominating views in society. Accordingly, the international audience will fail to filter propaganda, while developing a more positive attitude toward China and a more hostile attitude towards the West. Therefore, the privatisation of social media can have a far-reaching impact on public opinions on geopolitics.

We Must Stay Alert

In this technological era, the digital sphere will certainly become a bloodshed battlefield for different countries to carry out their digital diplomacy. Following China’s increasing aggression and familiarity with Twitter diplomacy, Twitter is emerging as a strategic tool for countries to confront each other. If social media cannot be freed from political intervention from specific countries, it will become a biased platform for autocratic countries to spread their propaganda and distorted information. While we can be relieved for a while since Musk’s deal is now terminated, we have to stay alert to the potential impacts brought by social media platforms’ business ties with certain countries on international affairs.

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