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Olympic Choices

July 29, 2008

by Doug Bandow
The National Interest (USA)
July 28, 2008


Plans for an Olympic protest suffered fatal damage when French
President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that he planned to attend the
games in Beijing. He had previously hinted that he might stay away to
protest the Chinese crackdown in Tibet, but ended up following the
example of President George W. Bush, who never took boycott proposals
seriously.

Actually, Sarkozy's decision is a double blow: he will be attending
both as president of the European Union and president of France.
Ironically, his temporizing —he had said his decision would be based
on the progress of talks between representatives of the People's
Republic of China and the Dalai Lama" means he is not likely to be
well-received in Beijing. The Communist Party's People's Daily
complained that his "wavering attitude on whether he will attend the
Olympics opening ceremony has already hurt the feelings of the
Chinese people." An online poll run by the Chinese website sina.com
reported that nearly 90 percent of those responding said he was not
welcome. The results may be skewed, but nevertheless probably reflect
broadly held nationalist sentiments.

A number of national leaders, including Britain's Gordon Brown and
Germany's Angela Merkel, plan to skip the opening ceremony. But,
complains the group Reporters Without Borders, the U.S. and French
presidents are "depriving themselves of a means of leverage that
might have led to the release of imprisoned journalists and human
rights activists."

Actually, a full or even partial boycott never had a chance. The real
decision point was July 13, 2001, when the International Olympic
Committee announced that it was awarding the games to the PRC.

Fears of another 1936, when Adolf Hitler's Third Reich manipulated
the sports spectacle, were always overblown, since China is not a
facsimile of Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, there was a reasonable case
against awarding the games to the PRC. The human-rights situation in
China was bad and Chinese promises to liberalize were unenforceable.

Once the IOC had committed to Beijing, however, logistics alone
effectively forbade reconsideration. Later shifting the games to
another locale would jeopardize the contest and create the kind of
controversy international organizations seek to avoid at all costs.

A genuine boycott was barely more plausible. The U.S.-led boycott of
the 1980 Moscow games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan
was joined by about sixty states, while a few others skipped the
opening parade or marched under the Olympic flag. No doubt the
communist authorities were embarrassed, but in practice the effort
achieved little beyond disappointing athletes who'd trained years for
the competition.

The Soviet Union did not withdraw from Afghanistan; the Soviet
military did not discover its kinder, gentler side. Moreover, the
Soviets responded with a boycott of their own of Los Angeles in 1984.
Although they were joined only by a baker's dozen of allies, the dual
boycotts soured most everyone on using the Olympics to make political
statements.

Any attempt to promote a genuine boycott of the Beijing Olympics
would have run up against two facts: first, the PRC is less evil and
less threatening than the Soviet Union. Second, the West has a lot
more at stake in its relationship with China. Beijing is thuggishly
authoritarian rather than brutally totalitarian, and has not invaded
one of its neighbors. The PRC's threats against Taiwan might be
unsettling, but aren't the same as attacking the island. Moreover,
the USSR was an economic nullity, while China is a global trading
state. The West would pay a price for angering the PRC.

The potential cost is hard to estimate since a boycott would affront
the Chinese people as well as their government. A refusal to award
the Olympics to Beijing could have been publicly disguised with the
usual verbiage about having to choose among several fine contenders,
leaving the more honest explanation to back channels. Chinese
citizens might have been disappointed, but they would have had no
easy target for their anger. It doesn't matter much if they hate the
IOC, while Western states would have enjoyed the cover of plausible
deniability.

However, by awarding the games to the PRC the IOC raised the Chinese
people's expectations. Pride in their role as global Olympics host is
obvious and a Western attempt to wreck the proceedings would have
generated enormous hostility. Strong popular anger arose against the
United States in the aftermath of the mistaken bombing of the Chinese
embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and the EP-3 spy plane incident in 2001.
An attempted Olympics boycott likely would have generated even
greater wrath against the offending parties.

Half steps, such as avoiding the opening ceremonies, as advocated by
both Senators Barack Obama (D-IL) and John McCain (R-AZ), would
antagonize the Chinese people without achieving any practical
results. The West would appear fractured while the PRC still enjoyed
massive media attention, showcasing the nation's drive for great- power status.

Similarly misconceived is John McCain's proposal to kick Russia out
of the G-8. He would do this while including Brazil and India, but
not China. He wants to turn the G-8 into "a club of leading
democracies" and says the ouster would represent "a new Western
approach to this revanchist Russia."

A new approach it would be, but hardly a positive one. Again,
whatever the theoretical merits of his idea, it is far too late to
employ. Perhaps Russia should not have been invited to join in 1997,
since that decision reflected as much hope for the future as Moscow's
actual status as a democratic, capitalist power. However, the logic
was obvious: the G-8 (and G-6 before it) provided an informal forum
in which to encourage cooperation over the issues of the day,
including finance, trade, exchange rates, energy, the environment and
terrorism. In these and other areas Russia mattered and, it was
thought, would increasingly matter. And it does, if not entirely for
reasons foreseen a decade ago.

In any case, kicking Russia out of the G-8 "as well as proscribing
membership for China—has no support among the other members. Since
the group nominally operates by consensus, Moscow's ouster
theoretically would require its own consent. And kicking out Russia
would create far more antagonism than any good it would achieve.

Moscow would become less rather than more cooperative, and would have
plenty of opportunities to commit mischief. Such a blatant attack on
Russia's dignity would rally the population behind more nationalistic
policies. Whatever differences might exist between Prime Minister
Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev likely would disappear.
Finally, could there be a policy more likely to push Moscow and
Beijing together?

The basic point is not that it never makes sense to exclude
authoritarian players from an international forum. But timing
matters: some decisions simply become less possible over time. The
next time the IOC considers a controversial venue, it, and the
Western nations influencing its decision, should think long and hard
before making their decision. But once the decision is made, absent
compelling circumstances, the decision will have been made.
Similarly, the chance to exercise a national blackball is before
Western states invite outsiders into an international club such as
the G-8. Later kicking out a member usually won't be worth the cost.

It's not enough to have the right policies. One also needs to have
the right timing. Today's crusaders against China and Russia have
failed to match their moral fervor with good sense.

Doug Bandow is the Robert A. Taft Fellow at the American Conservative
Defense Alliance. A former special assistant to President Ronald
Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America's New Global
Empire (Xulon Press).
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