By Prof Dr Steve Cornelius
When former US President Donald Trump announced economic measures against China in 2018, he was accused of starting a trade war that would damage not only the US economy, but also disrupt the global economy. He was also accused of using cold war tactics in directing US foreign policy towards China.
Four years later, with Donald Trump voted out of office and a new administration, under President Joe Biden, at the helm, not much has changed in US policy towards China. In fact, the Biden administration has, to some extent, even upped the cold war rhetoric towards China, with senior officials openly accusing China of genocide, oppression of minorities and authoritarian actions in Hong Kong. President Biden fired the next shot in the new cold war with China when he announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games.
Whilst reaction in the United States was mostly in support of such a boycott, some US Politicians called it a half-measure and called for an all-out boycott of the Winter Games.
Chinese reactions varied. The first word from Beijing was that China would greet a diplomatic boycott of the games with firm countermeasures. Chinese diplomats later laughed off the boycott and indicated that no foreign dignitaries have been invited to the Games in any event. There was little international reaction to the announcement, but indications were that other countries, such as New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom, were considering similar boycotts.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) gave a cautious reply, indicating that each country had the right to decide whether it would send political dignitaries to the Games, but applauded the decision against an all-out boycott as recognising that the Games were beyond politics.
But what exactly does a diplomatic boycott mean?
Simply put, it means that the United States will not send any official government delegation to the Games and no US government official will attend in an official capacity. The total impact which this would have on the Games is zero. Fans across the globe watch athletes perform at the Games. They do not even notice the dignitaries – even if they hand out medals to the winners, the fans only notice the athletes. The effect would be the same as firing blanks from a .22 caliber at the stroke of midnight on New Year's eve when tons of fireworks are going off – a few puny bangs against many impressive and dazzling explosions. A boycott merely means that no US politicians will be freeloading at taxpayers' expense and staying in expensive hotels, eating expensive food and wasting taxpayers' money, to attend sports of which, in any event, they know very little. I would support a complete ban of political dignitaries at sports events.
The move by the Biden administration is very calculated. They wish to use the Games to make a political statement against China. At the same time, they are mindful that the previous time a US administration instigated a boycott – of the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow under the administration of Jimmy Carter to protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – it had no bearing on Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and merely resulted in the Soviet Union and its allies returning the favour four years later when the Summer Games were hosted in Los Angeles. Undoubtedly, the Biden administration were mindful that the rights to host the 2028 Summer Games were awarded to Los Angeles and they were eager to avoid another boycott of the Los Angeles Games.
Whilst the diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Games is a lame attempt to put some pressure on China, an all-out boycott would also not be a wise decision. Although an all-out boycott would undoubtedly cause the greatest harm to athletes, who have worked a lifetime to make it to the greatest showcase of winter sports in the world, this is not the primary reason why an all-out boycott would be a bad idea.
The fact is that previous boycotts of the Olympic Games have had absolutely no effect on the issues they were aimed at redressing. In 1976, in protest against a New Zealand rugby tour to Apartheid-era South Africa and the refusal of the International Olympic Committee to ban New Zealand from the 1976 Summer Games for having sports ties with the Apartheid state, African countries staged a boycott of the Games in Montreal. New Zealand still participated at the Games and the rugby tour to South Africa went ahead. In fact, the boycott had such a profound effect that today, when commentators mention boycotts of Olympic games, they hardly ever mention the African boycott of 1976.
Similarly, the 1980 boycott of the Moscow Games did nothing to stop the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the war continued until 1989. The only effect it had was to produce a tit-for-tat boycott of the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. American media created so much hype around superstars, such as Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses, Michael Jordan and Mary-Lou Retton, that no-one missed the Soviets and their allies. In addition, the collision between Mary Decker and Zola Budd, as well as the controversy surrounding the South African athlete's inclusion in team United Kingdom, further overshadowed the Soviet boycott.
In 1936, there was also a call to boycott the Berlin Games in protest against Nazi oppression in Germany. Eventually, a fact-finding mission by the former IOC President Avery Brundage advised against a boycott. Whether his view was occasioned by the proposition of IOC membership, whether he was swayed by a contract for his construction firm to build a new German embassy in Washington, or whether he made an honest and somewhat naive assessment of the situation in Germany, the decision to send US athletes to Berlin has proven to be fortuitous. If the United States had boycotted the Berlin Games, the world would have been deprived of the brilliance of Jesse Owens. The impact which Owens's achievements had on Hitler's ideal of racial purity and Arian superiority, as well as the myth that Hitler snubbed Owens, still reverberates today. A boycott would have been long forgotten and would have done nothing to prevent Hitler from plunging the world into war. Nor would it have prevented the holocaust.
In conclusion, the diplomatic boycott allows President Biden, like the Biblical Pontius Pilate, to wash his hands of China. It gives him the false sense that he is taking the moral high ground. However, a stern test for his sincerity and honesty will come later in the year when the FIFA World Cup will be hosted in Qatar. The US team is expected to qualify and, if President Biden is honest about his concern for human rights, he will announce a similar diplomatic boycott of the FIFA World Cup.
Somehow, I doubt if this will happen as the oil rich state of Qatar is a strategic ally of the United States, with the latter known to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses by the former.