Friday, February 5th 2016
News of a hockey tournament with retired NHL players slated for March in Pyongyang – “a charity event to raise money for sports equipment for disabled North Korean athletes” -- prompted Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute to challenge some of the comfortable assumptions about “sports diplomacy.” His essay, “Is Engaging North Korea ‘Innocuous’?” was posted to the Commentary magazine website on January 31, 2016. For details of the hockey tournament, see the full article by Kent Boydston of the Peterson Institute for International Economics – and a back-and-forth between Rubin and Boydston -- here. These are some of Rubin’s key points on sports diplomacy in general:
- First, does sporting diplomacy really break barriers or come without a cost? The record is spotty.
- Take Jesse Owens’ record at the 1936 Berlin Olympics: Certainly, an African-American winning four gold medals at games hosted by Nazi Germany undercut Adolf Hitler’s racial theories, but it did nothing in reality to delegitimize Hitler in the eyes of the German masses; quite the contrary, the 1936 Olympics became a propaganda triumph for Hitler, Nazism, and the idea of a resurgent Germany.
- As for the “ping-pong diplomacy” . . . ? That actually followed months of secret talks — diplomacy preceded sports, not the other way around.
- When Iran’s soccer team triumphed over the United States in the 1998 World Cup, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei congratulated Iran’s team, saying, “Tonight, again, the strong and arrogant opponent felt the bitter taste of defeat at your hands,” hardly a sign that the match had furthered peace.
- The Sochi Olympics became a testament to Putinism and, as former chess Grand Master turned democracy activist Garry Kasparov discussed in his new book, Winter is Coming, an opportunity for massive graft to enrich Putin and his close allies.
- Back to North Korea: Pyongyang seldom agrees to international initiatives, so it is worthwhile to consider why, when it comes to the occasional athletic exhibition, it agrees readily. The reason, as military historian and POW activist Mark Sauter notes, is “not because they care about their ‘disabled hockey players’ or international sportsmanship. They agree to such events for two main reasons: acquiring Western currency and producing agitprop designed to support regime propaganda themes. On the margin, such events typically make the regime stronger and its opponents weaker.”
- The notion that, as Boydston suggests, “in the big picture these kind of engagement activities are fairly innocuous,” might be conventional wisdom in the State Department and among those who see the world in the more sterile terms of economics and trade, but to write-off the cynical motivation of totalitarian dictators or see such exchanges as cost-free is both naïve and destructive.