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Boycotting The Olympics Is An Ineffectual Waste Of Energy And Outrage

There is an undeniable visceral pleasure to discussing a boycott of the Beijing Olympics. So much so that all three presidential candidates have signed on to the idea that the president skip the opening ceremonies. After all, the PRC government … Read More

By / April 10, 2008

There is an undeniable visceral pleasure to discussing a boycott of the Beijing Olympics. So much so that all three presidential candidates have signed on to the idea that the president skip the opening ceremonies. After all, the PRC government is behaving bestially towards the people of Tibet — as it has done consistently for the better part of sixty years. If the democracies of the world participate in the Olympics, are they not conferring legitimacy on the PRC regime? And do they not risk, as Thomas Laird worries, handing the Communist Party a propaganda victory akin to the one the Nazis enjoyed in the Berlin Olympics of 1936?

If only taking a morally proper stand by boycotting the Olympics could deliver anything to the people of Tibet. Or to the people of China, for that matter. But it cannot. The Olympics simply are not that important. What made the Nazi regime a threat to the world and its own people was not Leni Riefenstahl's work, but that of party's war machine and the SS. Suppose the 1936 Olympics had gone disastrously for Germany. Or that Germany had not hosted the Olympics at all. What have would followed? The Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, and the Holocaust would have followed. Sports boycotts are, in general, ineffectual wastes of energy and outrage. Worse than that, they underscore the notion that diplomacy is not a matter of picking the right policy to achieve a desired set of outcomes, but simply adopting the appropriate posture for every moral context. The people of Tibet will continue to suffer whether American politicians and journalists are in high dudgeon about the Olympics or not.

There is one exception to the overall fecklessness of sports boycotts, but it makes the case against boycotting the Beijing Olympics, not the case for it. The ban on South Africa from international sporting competitions succeeded for three reasons: (1) South Africa's idiosyncratic attachments to cricket and rugby meant that the Republic's exclusion from, e.g., the quadrennial Rugby World Cup which began in 1987, depressed national morale in a way that is unthinkable with respect to China. (2) Unlike the silly, pointless mutual boycotts of Soviet and American Olympic games, the South African ban was not a unilateral, one-off decision by a particular state with a grudge against another, but a decades-long, internationally enforced ostracism. (3) The ban on South Africa was coupled with divestment and isolation from international markets.

None of the conditions that made the boycott of South Africa successful have even a remote chance of coming into play in the case of China. The People's Republic gained legitimacy when, despite its catastrophic human rights record, it was seated at the UN. The PRC is a major international creditor, and its economy is inextricably tied to most of the world's advanced and developing economies. For both good (as with North Korea) and ill (as with Darfur), China is too large and too important to be denied influence in international diplomacy. The PRC cares about neither sports nor public relations enough to give up its claims on Tibet.

A threat against a meaningless asset like the Olympics might salve the consciences of guilt-ridden western liberals and satisfy the emotional needs of neoconservatives to feel that, they, too, are courageous warriors. But in no case will threatening China with a bad Olympic experience actually improve the lot of the Tibetan people. That would require a long, sustained, multilateral campaign that a faddish cause like boycotting the Olympics will more likely hinder than help.

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