International Symposia

The Nexus of Diplomacy,Sport, Politics and the Media: Parallels, Paradoxes and Pitfalls
On May 22, 2017 the Academy of Diplomacy and International Governance and the Institute for Sport Business, in collaboration with the Institute for Media and Creative Industries, the Institute for Design Innovation, Institute for Digital Technologies, and the Glendonbrook Institute for Enterprise Development, Loughborough University London, held the 20th International Symposium in the series of Diplomacy in the 21st Century.

Thematic Overview

The aim of the 20th International Symposium is to parse and interrogate four apparently distinct fields of professional practice - diplomacy, sport, politics and the media. At first glance, this might seem a rather daunting, even ungainly enterprise. Upon closer inspection, however, the organisers will make the case that there exist not only significant parallels, but also some intriguing paradoxes and potentially consequential pitfalls.

In an increasingly globalising and world imperilled by a new threat set of science and technology-driven issues, diplomacy has never mattered more. Soft power has a demonstrable comparative advantage over other international policy alternatives in treating challenges for which there are no military solutions.  Today, the time honoured tools of dialogue, negotiation, and compromise have been reinforced with knowledge-based, technologically enabled problem-solving and complex balancing. Diplomacy alone is capable of resolving differences and securing win-win outcomes by positively affecting behaviour on all sides of the exchange. This stands in stark contrast to hard power, which relies on the use or threat of armed force to compel or coerce adversaries to submit. The exercise of persuasion and influence through non-violent political communications, aimed at winning over others through the power of attraction, is, or should be, diplomacy’s strongest asset.

Unfortunately, all three elements of the diplomatic ecosystem - the foreign ministry, foreign service and diplomatic business model - are in crisis. They have not adapted fully or well enough to the challenges of the 21st century; marginalized and side-lined, they are facing a perilous performance gap. If progress is to be achieved, this chasm must be bridged.

The association of sport with diplomacy, and what we now refer to as international relations, goes back a very long way. In Ancient Greece, the often warring city states would declare an Olympic Truce during the games at Olympia. Not unlike the Superbowl today, which serves effectively an agent of Americanization (if not globalization), the Greeks used the popularity of those encounters  to spread Hellenistic culture, values, and influence throughout the Mediterranean. In terms of “media”, and well prior to the age of live streaming and cable television, the significance of these historic contests was chronicled by the likes of geographers Pausanias and Strabo.  By way of additional parallels in the contemporary setting, consider the role of “ping-pong diplomacy” in preparing the way for the resumption of China-US relations, or the highly politicized  process of selecting venues for the World Cup or Olympic Games. 

In its essence, sport, with its highly competitive animus and zero sum orientation, more closely resembles war than it does either diplomacy or politics. Hard power rules. The overarching purpose of sport is to win, and, although there are occasionally ties, typically the only other option is to lose. That said, and not unlike diplomacy, politics and the media, although the contest itself is central, organised sport still brings together otherwise hostile opponents who share a devotion to the game. Like politics, sport also features fierce competition, stars and teamwork, as well as action in concert to achieve identified goals.

For all of these domains, recent times have brought significant legal battles with charges of improper conduct, accepting payoffs and bribes and behaving in an improper or an immoral manner.  Cabinet ministers have been sacked, and athletes banned from participation due to use of illegal performance enhancing drugs and gambling on the outcomes of the games in which they are participating. For its part, the commercial media is frequently biased and inaccurate. Perhaps especially in politics, we have observed too many examples which underscore  the words of 19th century British politician Lord Acton "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

In sport, players are hired or drafted, whereas in politics, at least in democracies, the members are elected, and their success or failure is often tied to the policies adopted by their party. Unlike much of diplomacy, sport is played out almost entirely in the public eye, and does not turn upon earning the confidence, trust and respect of interlocutors. Not unlike right-wing populists, media celebrities often resemble contestants in a beauty pageant engaged in a race to the bottom. And politicians too often reach for the gun when responding to perceived threats.

Organised sport diverts even as it entertains. Sport is a mainly commercial enterprise - owners, sponsors and investors exercise influence accordingly. While political decision-making and direction is not without relation to the objectives of corporate donors, in most jurisdictions this relationship is closely scrutinised and regulated. Diplomacy, although not practised in the absence of important financial and budgetary dimensions, is, with the notable exception of political appointees, several dimensions removed from immediate private sector influence.

Politics is architectonic, and is in many respects the over-arching function under examination today. The political process in most Western countries, as with sport, is highly contested. Heads of state and government, ministers and legislators are responsible for shaping the rule of law, crafting the content of diplomacy (as expressed through international policy) and for regulating important aspects of the media. Yet in many instances, the political and democratic process is facing very hard times.

Developments such as Brexit, the Trump ascendency, and the generalised rise of regressive populism have defied rational analysis, public opinion research, and the considered opinions of most experts. Today there are fewer freely elected governments in the Middle East, Africa, or Latin American than was the case a decade ago. Notwithstanding the outcome of the recent Dutch and Austrian elections, the rise of right-wing demagogues and populist leaders and parties in Europe, Latin America and the USA has shaken established patterns of belief and behaviour to their foundations. We are now in political terra incognita, and the way forward is anything but clear.

Diplomacy, politics and sport all make intensive use of, and are in considerable part dependent upon the media, both conventional and social. However, as is the case with diplomacy and politics, the mainstream media’s business model has broken down. With the rise of the Internet and the revolution in information and communication technologies, conventional journalism has taken a terrible hit. Papers have closed, foreign bureaus have been shuttered, investigative units disbanded, reporters sacked, and journalism schools cut back. This has deprived diplomats of some key intelligence contacts in the field, robbed the citizenry of a key source of analysis, fact-checking and truth-seeking, and removed from the public realm a critical driver of scrutiny and ventilation.

Governments everywhere are now less closely watched, even as the surveillance state (as detailed in the Snowden revelations) grows by leaps and bounds. Now that everyone with a hand-held digital device or computer can become a reporter and analyst, professional standards related to objectivity, fairness and balance have been degraded. Infotainment, sensationalism, “alternative facts” and fake news, in contrast, are flourishing. The public interest has suffered a body blow.

To conclude, provisionally, we have seen the parallels: the four principal symposium components - diplomacy, politics, sports, and the media - are in varying degrees of crisis. We have observed the pitfalls: democracy, governance and the public good have suffered significant setbacks. And the paradoxes? Among others, even amidst the gathering gloom, there just may be a strategic opening here to turn adversity into opportunity. The symposium is a call to break the habit of regarding diplomacy, sport, politics and the media as distinct fields of practice, and instead to find ways to rearticulate their synergy and to search for alternative perspectives and new ways of seeing.

What better time for a searching discussion of the possible ways forward?

The Symposium examined a number of key questions, including:

  • What attributes and qualities best characterise the relationship between diplomacy, sport, politics and the media?
  • What lessons and insights can be learned and applied by comparing each of these enterprises?
  • What is the role and place of the public interest?
  • How has the media migration towards social and digital media affected diplomacy, governance and public administration, sport,  business and civil society?
  • What types of training in media literacy are needed to increase editorial awareness and heighten sensitivity to the new communications environment?
  • What constitutes best practice in social and digital communication, and in response to “bad press”, “negative reports”, crises and emergencies?
  • How important are issues of image projection and reputation management in diplomacy, politics, communications and sports?
  • How can national and multilateral institutions effectively manage issues such as doping, bribery, criminality, corruption, and sexism?
  • To what extent is the erosion of democratic process and the rise of right- wing populism related to the issues under discussion?
  • In that respect, what will be the impact and consequence of Brexit, the Trump ascendancy, Executive Orders, and the savage cuts to funding for diplomacy, development, UN contributions and environmental protection?
  • In the post-truth era, what are the implications of the emergence of “alternative facts”, fake news, infotainment, sensationalism and the triumph of emotion, conviction and ideology over evidence, data, and empirical methods?
  • How does professional sport related to diplomacy, politics and the media?
  • Is there a sustainable business model for traditional media?
  • Given the crisis in the diplomatic ecosystem, what are the prospects for effective reform, and what might that entail?
  • Can the degradation of national politics and democratic process be reversed, and if so, how?
  • What  political and security issues merit consideration in the planning  of major sports event?
  • Is the practice of science diplomacy relevant to advancing the goals of sport, politics and the media?