The Sports Celebrity in the Face of Crisis

Sports and sports players are far from immunized from the realities of the wider social or political life.

In some cases this has a beneficial effects on international relations. One instance has been recently marked with celebrations this month of the 40th anniversary of the initiation of the famous Ping-Pong diplomacy.  After a Chinese and American player established a friendship at a 1971 tournament in Japan, Chairman Mao recognized the importance of this personal US-China relationship and invited the US team to play in Beijing.  This tourney in turn facilitated the ‘the week that changed the world’ with the 1972 visit of President Nixon to China.

The harsher impact on international relations of such sports events stands out in Munich massacre during the 1972 Summer Olympics. In this instance, members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and ultimately killed by members of Black September.

The highly different consequences for sports participants – some celebrities and others not –was on display this week because of two very different events.

The first of these received very little attention: the difficulties imposed on athletes from the Philippines in training for the Southeast Asian Games later this year in Jakarta, Indonesia.  Because of the ongoing Spratly Island dispute between the two countries, an MOA between the Chinese Sports Ministry and the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) remains unsigned.  Consequently, athletes from the Philippines – in fencing, weightlifting, wushu, diving, table tennis and shooting – have been unable to train at world-class Chinese facilities alongside some of China’s top-rate athletes.

The second story unfortunately grabbed the bulk of the attention  the tragic killings in Norway.  Such a massive shock puts activities such as sports events in perspective. Do the athletes from a country such as Norway continue in the course of their sporting events – do they continue training?

Obviously, with killings as in Munich taking place at the site of the Olympic games, this question about continuing to participate or not was hugely controversial.

On the surface the argument for Norwegian athletes continuing to participate – whether in the last legs of the Tour de France or the swimming world championship – seems much stronger!  After all the killings in Norway were far removed from the actual sporting events. Moreover, an argument could be made that it is best to maintain a sense of normalcy and keep going. Yet, as witnessed by the reaction of the Norwegian cyclist who said he just hoped for the Tour de France ‘to be over’ even elite athletes are not immune from the generalized trauma of such a national shock

Although Celebrity Blogger is about celebrities, a few points of interconnection with geo-politics merit attention.

Out of the limelight athletes of a small vulnerable country such as the Philippines must struggle to react to circumstances (perhaps with a new forms of Ping-Pong diplomacy!) to deal with the policy linkages imposing restrictions on them.

In the limelight a country such as Norway with not only a host of sporting celebrities but a positive brand of diplomatic activism – its mediation efforts in a number of arena, including most famously the Oslo process aimed at bringing peace to the Middle East – has a much great range of agency.

Even with all these resources, however, Norway will now require renewed efforts to craft its global brand due to the actions of one individual- the antithesis of a celebrity.

Public domain This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States Federal Government under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code  U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 2nd Class Shawn Burns. (RELEASED) 021126-N-1777B-001.jpg


The Hunter Becomes the Hunted

All of us – including your faithful Celebrity blogger – love a good celebrity scandal.

Who can fail to feel some base satisfaction or schadenfreude when a star is ‘outed’ for nefarious activity and behavior? Think, Tiger Woods as prime example! Or Ryan Giggs of Manchester United! Or for that matter Paris Hilton – on many – too many – occasions!

Yet, as the ongoing News Corp/News of the World saga demonstrates there are dangers when media is allowed to investigate without restraint the private lives of these celebs.  And in this case the Murdoch Empire has become the ‘Celeb’ and the scandal concerns this media giant.

The techniques of illegal hacking of voicemails/messages and buying stories came to light after the Murdoch Empire targeted politicians, soldiers killed in Afghanistan, victims of the 7/7 2005 terrorist attacks in London, and at least one murdered schoolgirl.  The  techniques used were initiated and perfected with respect to traditional celebrities.  They were extended to a variety of individuals and situations and now those who targeted celebs have become both the Celebs and the scandal.

Some of the celebrities whose phones were hacked were part of a central preoccupation of the Murdoch media – celebrities including most likely Princess Diana, her personal assistant and a lawyer connected to her.

But the range of celebrities who were followed not by old-fashioned private investigative tactics but allegedly illegal techniques of scrutiny stretched across the entire spectrum of celebrities from Sienna Miller to Hugh Grant. And this leaves aside undercover sting operations such as the one that implicated Sarah Ferguson in the well-known cash for royal access scandal.

To be sure, some of these behind these operations were caught and punished as witnessed by the jailing of the Murdoch’s royal editor and (well-paid) private investigator in 2006. But these actions failed to retrain the Murdoch media and prevent the escalation of illegal activities. The Murdoch papers were allowed to argue that the culprits were rogues disconnected from the overall Murdoch media culture.

And confirming the impression that sensationalism sells, the public continued to favor the results of this sort of investigation in connection to private wrongs over other sorts of scandal – such as those involving deficiencies in governance.

Instead of being ring-fenced, the success that the Murdoch papers and other media had in naming and shaming celebrities wetted the appetite of the Murdoch media for other targets – targets that were looked upon with far greater public sympathy.

Celebrities with some justification are often viewed as being exceptional. With the (now happily defunct) News of the World this unique quality seems to have justified an open season on a wide range of individuals and permitted the Murdoch media to target these people in the news. These nefarious actions led to a serious drop of ethical standards that eventually swallowed the Murdoch media itself.  The hunter became the hunted.

Seven Reflections on “Troubled Waters”


Recently the “China Threat” School has focused on the South China Sea as the point of US-China’s most evident flashpoint – and a likely challenge to US influence in Asia.  As noted by Columbia’s Andrew Nathan, there have been a spate of books that have emerged since the 1990s on the China threat.  And even those not necessarily attracted to China Threat or Realist perspectives – more on them in the following post-  have identified the region as a possible site of US-China rivalry.  So for this blogger it seemed timely to examine the challenges to US-China relations posed by the South China Sea.  Andrew Nathan has just mentioned has provided a recent “Review Essay,” entitled, “What China Wants”, in Foreign Affairs. The  review tackles China’s foreign policy objectives. Nathan has used the essay to focus on two US China watchers – Henry Kissinger, who needs no introduction, and Princeton’s Aaron Friedberg. Nathan has used these two experts to uncover widely antipodal views of China’s foreign policy views in the US community of China experts.

I have reviewed earlier – in a posting at the Feature of the Week at The Munk School of Global Affairs’s Portal,  Kissinger’s views in “On China” Kissinger’s recent summation of his perspectives on China from his many years of involvement in China and his many exchanges with China’s leaders as a public and private figure.

Aaron Friedberg has a China Threat perspective but a reasonable one according to Nathan.  On Friedberg Nathan writes :

Friedberg also exaggerates Chinese power, although in pursuit of a different argument.  His is the most thoughtful and informative of a stream of China-threat books that have come out since the mid-1990s.  Within that genre, its contribution is to focus on China’s strategic intentions.  Although Friedberg agrees with the classical realist logic that a change in power relations inevitably generates rivalry, he also believes it is important to figure out what, as he puts it, China wants. … China [according to those Chinese experts Friedberg follows] should seek to “displace the United States as the dominant player in East Asia, and perhaps to extrude it from the region altogether.

David Shambaugh, an extremely well known international relations scholar and first rate China hand at George Washington University used his recent sabbatical very well and he paints in, “Coping with a Conflicted China” (The Washington Quarterly, Winter 2011) a highly differentiated view – as opposed to the China Threat School or Kissinger for that matter – of the various approaches that influence China’s foreign policy thought and behavior.

Shambaugh describes seven – yes seven – distinct tendencies in China’s international relations schools of thought.  As a result of competing identities, there are, according to Shambaugh, in China’s foreign policy several elements simultaneously in its thought and action.  While these schools of thought, or as Shambaugh prefers “tendencies of analysis,” then are distinct intellectually, they nevertheless generate competing international relations identities and China remains, “a deeply conflicted rising power with a series of competing international identities.”

Obviously if there are these competing identities it is likely to complicate dramatically how China may or may not act in a particular situation or over a particular issue or issues. But the complexity set out by Shambaugh is likely a reasonable antidote to the overly simplistic but dominant, “China Threat” and realist schools in Washington  .  So a quick review of Shambaugh’s tendencies of thought is warranted:

  • Nativism (hyper-nationalistic and strongly anti-American) – “China should not be internationally active. … The group bears a strong traditional Marxist orientation” e.g., “China Can Say No” (Zhongguo Keyi Shuo Bu group);
  • Realism (dominant group – found throughout the military and in some universities and think tanks) – “a very hard-headed definition (relying on power) and defense of China’s narrow national interests” e.g., Yan Xuetong – Tsinghua daxue, Zhang Ruizhang, Renmin daxue;
  • Major Powers (China’s American Studies community) – focused on the major powers and major power blocs; “top priority maintaining harmonious ties with Washington”, e.g. Wang Jisi, Beida & Cui Liru, CICIR;
  • Asia First – China’s focus should be on “its immediate periphery  and Asian neighborhood” – a focus on regional trends and the growing regional architecture – a multilateral regionalism balancing purely national strategies as well as bilateral relations.  Analysts urge the building of a stable neighborhood; e.g., Zhang Yunling, CASS, Qin Yaqing, China Foreign Affairs University
  • Global South – main Chinese identity should be with the developing world and China should continue to see itself as a developing country and support common international positions with these countries notwithstanding China’s rising power status.  These analysts are strong supporters for the BRICS and G20 to the extent it enlarges the leadership pool and assists in the redistribution of power.  So joining the G20 leaders summit, according to this tendency of analysis, does not turn China into a status quo power;
  • Selective Multilateralism – supports expanding China’s global involvement but only on issues where China has national security interests. These analysts have found global governance to be highly contentious – Is China obliged to become a “responsible international stakeholder” or does it even have the ability to take on global leadership? Those favoring this tendency of analysis, urge that “China avoid increasing China’s global involvements, but realize that China must be seen to be contributing to global governance.”  Thus these experts are not the equivalent of Liberal Internationalists “but instead are a more internationalist version of realists.”
  • Globalism – these experts urge China “to shoulder the responsibility for addressing a range of global governance issues commensurate with its size, power, and influence.”  These group are close to the West’s, Liberal Institutionalism perspective.  These experts trust multilateral institutions more than the previous Selective Multilateralism.

The waters of the South China Sea have become the scene of increased tension with conflict over competing claims for islands and seabed mineral rights between China and its neighbors.  Now how does our understanding of the US China Threat School and realists and China’s seven tendencies in foreign policy thinking and behavior help us understand the China-US relations in this presumptive flashpoint?

What’s So Grand About Grand Strategy – Dan Drezner?

So on this auspices July 4th, I want all my American friends to enjoy their Independence Day.  Meanwhile thought I’d focus on US policy.  The impact on global policy and the rising BRICSAM is always significant.  And this is not any policy – but US grand strategy.

Dan Drezner in a recent edition of Foreign Affairs has taken a bead on one of those classic subjects of international relations – grand strategy.  Now I don’t wish to cast any aspirations on the famous blogger, but what is this new-style IR man “slumming”  in the hoary field of grand strategy?

Now like any good classic IR theorist, Dan starts off with a definition.  As he describes it, “grand strategy”:

… consists of a clear articulation of national interests married to a set of operational plans for advancing them. Sometimes, such strategies are set out in advance, with actions following in sequence.  Other times, strategic narratives are offered as coherent explanations connecting past policies with future ones.  Either way, a well-articulated grand strategy can offer an interpretive framework that tells everybody, including foreign policy officials themselves, how to understand the administration’s behavior.

The notion of grand strategy seems pretty critical to foreign policy action and possible foreign policy success but as Dan admits, “…most of the time it is not.” According to Dan grand strategy is only important when it indicates a change in policy.  And even there, according to Drezner, the true reserve currency is “power” – would you expect any difference from an IR type?

If then power is the sine qua non of influence, why so much attention to grand strategy.  The petty reason for such attention, says Dan, is that IR theorists all want to become George Kennan and write the next “Mr. X” article. Hmm.

The substantive reason for paying attention to grand strategy is that every once and awhile grand strategy does matter.  Says Dan: “Ideas matter most when actors are operating in uncharted waters.” Massive global disruptions for one or “power transition” for a second are both times of evident uncertainty in international  relations and paying attention to grand strategy may provide useful information to determine the behavior – and critically the intentions – of key great power actors.  And  – lo and behold – this a period where both conditions exist.  This lowly blogger has commented on both but especially on the power transition question – given the rise of China.

So then what is the Obama grand strategy?  For that Dan quotes Ben Rhodes from the Obama Administration:

If you were to boil it all down to a bumper sticker, it’s ‘Wind down these two wars, reestablish American standing and leadership in the world, and focus on a broader set of priorities, from Asia and the global economy to a nuclear-non-proliferation regime.’

Well it’s the biggest bumper sticker we would have ever seen.  And it doesn’t sell me that this is a grand strategy – or that the Obama Administration actually has one.  Indeed I think Dan inadvertently hits the nail on the head: first the Obama Administration has been moving from one grand strategy to another.  The Administration has reset several times and the latest version seems to be a more assertive counter punching strategy – the US reinsertion in the South China Seas trouble for example – more on that in an upcoming blog post – and a continuing effort to restore American strength at home.  On the latter, the politics of the US and the continuing sour taste in US domestic politics makes Obama efforts seem weak and ineffective.  On the counter punching it is hard to identify such a strategic direction when US efforts in Libya seem so difficult to fit such a grand strategy and where the best explanation for it is “leading from behind.”

Dan’s efforts are heroic but ultimately inapt.  At best the Obama Administration follows a course of pragmatism – and as such pragmatism is incapable of describing any grand strategy at all.  I’m afraid you walk away from Dan’s good efforts shaking one’s head and muttering – ‘he’s trying too hard.’

Not George Kennan yet; but don’t blame Dan; blame the Administration.


Where Have the Sports Stars Gone?

The reluctance of sports stars to get involved in celebrity activism in any sustained fashion has been a recurring theme of this blogger’s Celebrity posts. I have mentioned this issue in the past with reference to team stars: despite some notable exceptions this category – sports figures – have seldom been engaged in celebrity activism in comparison to personalities located in the world of movies and music.

But when examined against stars in individual sports such as tennis and golf – sports with high profile through Wimbledon and the US and British Opens – team players in fact do quite well.  At least in team sports we have clear exceptions, some of which we have profiled (Yao Ming, and the Barcelona football team) and others which deserve attention.

As this is a large topic I will isolate and examine independently the individual sports – tennis and golf – with tennis leading off, as we are in the midst right now of Wimbledon.

One name that represents major commitment is Maria Sharapova, who joined National Basketball Association icon LeBron James in 2007 to “Team Up Against Poverty” on a new UN Development Program advertisement.  The UNDP initiative was to raise support for achieving the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Well-known photographer Patrick Demarchelier photographed both stars in a striking series of UNDP campaign ads.

Given her embrace of a glamorous consumer-oriented life style her commitment to this UNDP initiative might seem surprising. Yet Sharapova’s role in this campaign is not as surprising as it might appear given her very poor origins.  In fact she was born in in Siberia, after her family fled the town of Gomel – now part of Belarus – in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl accident.  Moreover, although living the American dream in Manhattan Beach (with a mega engagement ring from another NBA player, Sasha Vujacic) Sharapova’s commitment to her place of origin – at the center of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster seems completely genuine. Not only did she provide a UNDP video marking the 25th anniversary of the accident but she has donated money from her own personal foundation and made a UNDP sponsored trip in June 2010.

Sharapova, however, is an exception, largely, who stands out at among women players. But there is also Justine Henin, the now retired player from Belgium, who is a UNESCO Champion of Sport. And there are several others who are UNICEF National Ambassadors.

A similar situation exists among male tennis players, as the only star that jumps out (albeit at the top of the all time greats list) is Roger Federer, who became a UNICEF goodwill ambassador in 2006. In a welcome message the Swiss legend said: “It is our responsibility to connect with the real world beyond our sport, to use our fortune to make a difference in the lives of those who most need it.”

Cynics of course can say that Sharapova and Federer are in a position to take on these responsibilities, as they can balance this work with enormous commercial endorsements including those for luxury items (Tiffany among other things for Sharapova, Rolex for Federer). They also have the management teams to facilitate their celebrity matters.

Yet, whatever the motivations and support, Sharapova and Federer remain the exceptions that prove the rule. This exceptionalism is further emphasized by the fact that all of the athletes mentioned as celebrity activists (besides LeBron, who himself needs further attention) have been born outside of the United States.

As golf further attests, US distinctiveness highlights a decided lack of enthusiasm by individual sports celebrities getting involved in celebrity activism. I will scrutinize this in upcoming blog posts.