Illustration: Figures play football, next to them are figures with weapons.
A Tool for Cultural Relations

Sport is universally attractive. It bridges language and cultural barriers and can open doors worldwide - as an important tool for cultural relations. To what extent does global sport play a role in achieving larger foreign policy goals?

Sport is not a solution in and of itself but its importance in helping with contemporary cultural relations should not be underestimated. We need to continue to press the case for a better understanding of what sport can and cannot do, and what it should do. In a fragmented, tense and increasingly divided world there is a growing need for effective cultural relations. More effective cultural relations would reduce the risk of major conflicts due to a misunderstanding or no understanding between different countries, communities and/or groups and sport should be part of every diplomat’s or civil servant’s toolbox. A real opportunity exists to make the case that sport is part of the essential toolbox for anyone involved in contemporary cultural relations. We should use any means at our disposal to strive to make the world a less tense and better place.

Whatever the differences between European cultural partners and agencies may be, we are stronger working together than apart. The real opportunity and challenge is whether the European collective expertise, will and effort is strong enough to marshal our evidence and expertise to demonstrate how sport does and can influence cultural relations and foreign policy.


Making the Art of the Possible Possible

I will make the case that sport is capable of making the art of the possible possible. Cultural relations and foreign policy can at times seem remote from our everyday lives. Sport, on the other hand, connects with people from all walks of life and we cannot afford to ignore anything that can contribute to better international cultural relations now, today.

It would be a wrong to suggest the interest in sport, culture and foreign policy is new. There is a considerable body of work that supports and questions the role of sport. It is just about 50 years since the British politicians Christopher Chataway and Philip Goodhart penned their account of international sport in 'A War without Weapons' (1968). They described the place of sport in the Cold War, in South Africa, in the American Civil Rights struggle and in brokering diplomatic relations between the USA and China.

Handshake between two athletes.
Sport connects with people from all walks of life and we cannot afford to ignore anything that can contribute to better international cultural relations, photo: Massimo Sartirana via unsplash

More recently Victor Cha, the former Director of Asian Affairs for the White House, provided in 'Beyond the Final Score' (2009) one of the few inside accounts of sporting diplomacy and argued that sport matters because it can provide opportunities for interventions, and it can be less aloof than some forms of diplomacy.

The UK House of Lords report on 'Persuasion and Power in the Modern World' (2014), pointed to the necessity of balancing hard and soft power tactics, and acknowledged the role that sport could play.

There is a plethora of distinguished works from which we can learn. They demonstrate that sport matters because it has (i) universal appeal that crosses linguistic and cultural barriers; (ii) the capacity to develop feel-good factors – even temporarily; (iii) the ability to foster conversations between countries that take place around sporting events and (iv) the capacity to reduce crime and suicide rates.

Sport can open doors for people, communities and universities, and [...] it can help countries communicate. 

Broadly speaking, there are three propositions on sport, culture and foreign policy: one is outward looking, and claims sport contributes to broader goals of cultural and foreign policy. One is inward looking and points to how sports organisations, agencies, clubs and institutions manifest and negotiate their own internal cultural and foreign policy within and across sport. And one is a mixture of both.

Sport is a fantastic area to work in because it can reach out to so many people. It can take you into many interesting areas of discovery. Sport can open doors for people, communities and universities, and I would argue that it can help countries to communicate. It is a language in its own right.

The role of the arts has long been recognised and celebrated in European culture as a valuable social tool. Sport should be awarded the same status as European cultural relations. It should not be considered to be less important than art or music, which are often prioritised in European cultural debates and practice. Sport can be a social, cultural, political and popular force, but we need to know more about what works where, and when, and under what circumstances.The language around sport, culture and foreign policy is a crowded area. Too crowded, in my view. We hear about hard power, soft power, cultural diplomacy, cultural relations, cultural policy, foreign policy, and public diplomacy.

We need a new language around cultural relations, if not a new modus operandi. As the name suggests, cultural relations seek to create a relationship. The medium of exchange is culture, and what is created is a relationship: something that should be but is not always mutual. Much has been written about sport’s contribution to soft and hard power. Evolving evidence acknowledges the existence of cultural relations within this 'hard and soft power spectrum', but in this context we need to understand what works, what tools are available, and how we might get better at using sport and other aspects of culture.

Sport can be a social, cultural, political and popular force, but we need to know more about what works where, and when, and under what circumstances.

Governments can make countries more attractive to others through policies, diplomacy, and the deployment of resources, including development assistance for sport. This also applies to a host of non-state institutions and agencies working below the level of formal government. If we consider hard and soft power to be what one country does to another, I would contend that effective international cultural relations go well beyond that.


Sport as Potential Influence

Afghans play soccer on a dirty court in the city of Kabul.
In some of the most war-torn countries in the world, sport is of special relevance, photo: Ebrahim Noroozi via picture alliance

Sport is more than a game – it is potential influence. Sport can help win friends, be a resource of hope and, like other aspects of culture, can help develop human capital. I recently interviewed a UK shadow international development minister on the whole issue of football, poverty and international development. He told me tale after tale about the relevance of sport in some of the most war-torn countries in the world.

He pointed to the crowds during the Arab uprisings, many of whom were wearing football shirts from European football clubs. He told me how football had broken down barriers in Afghanistan, and in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. The refugees had not wanted to talk to him until he joined in the football game.

He said: ‘The young boys were kicking a football around. Now, it was a football by name only it didn't look much like a football, because there was no air in it. But I joined in their kick-about. And, immediately, the families are happy to talk about their situation, their circumstance, their predicament, as Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. So football immediately broke down that barrier.’

In Afghanistan his experience was much the same. He watched members of the then new Afghan security forces, who had taken a break from taking on the Taliban in the dust and the danger of Afghanistan, and were playing in football strips from 30 different European football clubs There they were, with British soldiers at their side guarding the match from attacks from the Taliban.

So here were people who were taking a break from the supreme danger. And what did they do with their time? They had put on the football strip of a club that they had perhaps only heard of by word of mouth. Those sorts of things show the cultural penetration and influence of football. So, despite recent revelations surrounding its world governing body FIFA, football and sport in general can create influence.

Norwegian international development ministers tell similar stories, and have often talked about the role that the Norwegian Football Cup has played in fostering internationalism and co-operation between Norway and other countries. The aim of this tournament is to create bonds between children from different nations at a young age and win friends for Norway. It is perhaps surprising then that Norway comes behind Denmark in the global league table of sporting influence. Denmark is an example of a state that has deliberately set out to plan, evaluate and compare what exactly its sporting influence should and could be.

The Global Sports Political Power Index was founded in 2013 and attempts to measure the influence that nations have and should have in world sport. Denmark invented and manages the scheme because it wishes to establish an evidence-based assessment of the number of international positions that Denmark should strive to hold in international sport, identifying which nations have the greatest influence on the international scene and which countries Den mark should co-operate with.

Denmark is an example of a state that has deliberately set out to plan, evaluate and compare what exactly its sporting influence should and could be.

Analysis of the data shows that, amongst the Scandinavian countries, Denmark comes second behind Sweden but ahead of Norway and Finland. Amongst other European nations, Denmark was placed 12th. Great Britain was top, with Italy, Germany, France and Spain taking the other top five positions. In the international league of sporting nations Denmark was placed 36th, with the top 5 positions being held by the USA, Great Britain, Italy, France and Russia. Australia was 8th, Germany 9th and China 10th.

Denmark was seeking to co-operate in sport with countries that valued a similar approach to democracy. That is to say, the Danish sports federations were seeking to develop mutuality and co-operation with other countries in and through sport. They wanted to build alliances with like-minded countries while diminishing the influence of less democratically inclined countries.

The Danes undertook the analysis in order to better equip themselves to enter international discussions on democracy in sport. But creating further influence in sport is not the same as creating influence through sport where sport is a means to an end.


The Impact of the World Cup in Brazil

Much has been written about the impact of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Brazilian authors remind us that sport has increasingly figured in Brazil’s foreign policy agenda since 2003. While the specific foreign policy outcomes have still to be evaluated, winning the right to host major sporting events was planned as a mechanism for giving the country increased recognition and symbolic power in the international arena.

Brazilians wanted to ‘sustain the profits of a remarkable level of soft power by using the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic sport events’, as one author puts it. It is clear that such events supported the intention of many Brazilian political officials to increase the status of Brazil in the international sphere through major sporting events.

Much has been written about the way in which sport is used as an aspect of soft power. 

A painting with the logo of the FIFA World Cup 2014 on a house wall.
The right to host major spor ting events was planned as a mechanism for giving Brazil increased recognition and symbolic power in the international arena, photo: Simon Stacpoole via picture alliance

In 2015 Jonathan Grix from the University of Birmingham and others published their work on the use of sporting events as part of a nation’s soft power strategy. In 2013 Robert Huish from the University of Halifax, Canada, and others published work on the place of sport in Cuba’s soft power strategy. A group of American researchers have also published a study on street soccer and the building of social and human capital through sport.

The work that provides evidence of sport’s capacity to build human capabilities is important because of the link between human capital, economic growth and the reduction of the inequality gap. This aside, the general point that is being made is that we should recognise the way in which countries use sport as a tool to gain influence both within sport and through sport.

I would add that universities also have a huge role to play through sport and other means. My own university, Edinburgh, argues that it has been influencing the world since 1583. Sport has its part to play in this as well, as does the work of different universities who work with others across borders and between nations. It is not as if the world has not always had its problems. What is new is the contexts in which we live today and the tools at our disposal to resolve these problems and issues. The World Economic Forum has identified the top four international trends as: worsening income inequality; unemployment; rising geo-strategic competition, and intensifying nationalism. Additional concerns include rising population levels; weakening of democracy; climate change, health, and increasing water stress.


No Simple Solutions

With each world problem there is a temptation to simplify matters, find a quick solution, and identify – sometimes wrongly – aggressors, transgressors and/or victims. But humanity, like power politics, is not that simple. The issues we must confront may be imposing in their scale and expansive in their reach, but they must be faced with fortitude and with a co-operative, collaborative spirit.

Consequently, foreign diplomats, ambassadors, civil servants, cultural agencies, communities and countries need to have a wide variety of tools at their disposal in order to win friends and maintain and foster relationships and understanding. As I said earlier, sport should be one of these tools.

We need to take advantage of sport’s global currency, and further the part that sport can play in winning friends for countries. We need to find an effective framework, language, and set of principles through which international cultural relations can and should operate through sport and other facets of culture today. Good cultural relations are a two-way process, but if we are to forge longstanding, meaningful international cultural relation we have to work on issues of mutuality, reciprocity, trust and co-operation. The role played by a host of non-state institutions and agencies working below the level of government is crucial. These include sports institutions, clubs, agencies, universities and more. Sport has a role to play in making the art of the possible possible. Making sports policy, sports investment, sports research, sports advocacy, commitment, alignment, and the power of universities and civil society working for people, places and communities.

So I hugely value the role of sport and the contribution it can make, and I hugely value the contribution of universities. But I firmly believe that if we are to make them more effective we need to develop new ways of thinking about international cultural relations. Resistance to this might come from traditional theorists or orthodox practitioners, but of course it is the case that coun tries are already facing a million different global challenges.

We need to find an effective framework, language, and set of principles [...]. Good cultural relations is a two-way process.

We may still be lacking a complete phiosophy of international cultural relations, but we can demonstrate how good practice works on the ground. We have plenty of examples and evidence of the way in which sport works in developing human, social, and cultural capital. Economists tell us that it is this development of human, social and cultural capital that may help to close the inequality gap and create growth. I would now like to suggest a few principles that we might like to think about as necessary for more effective international cultural relations, and also propose some of the work that needs to be done.

  • Connectivity: Connectivity happens at all levels and sport can create the opportunity for people, cities and countries to connect and communicate. From the social events and meetings that take place around an Olympic or Commonwealth Games and other international sports events, to the analysis of sports conversations through social media, we need to map an understanding of what works where, when and how. I am sure Edinburgh is not alone, but some of the work that Edinburgh Informatics has carried out in analysing Twitter conversations about sport is truly illuminating.
  • Relationships: Relationships are formed through sport and because of sport. Sport helps foreign leaders to meet and form relationships, often in more informal settings. However, such relationships are built up over time, may not be transactional, and may not even be mutual or trusting, but they can still help. Building sustainable relationships allows countries to talk to each other at a multitude of different levels.
  • Mutuality and Trust: It may be a normative proposition that sport can help with building mutuality and trust, but there is enough evidence to support the argument that involvement in and through sport can lead to higher levels of social capital. Morrow’s work on the mutual ownership of sports clubs is a fine example of this.
  • Influence: This is the soft power, public diplomacy route where sport can facilitate, and procurease outcomes, usually in a one-directional manner, and usually guided by a country’s foreign policy or the key messages it wants to convey at a particular time. It is about reducing risk through listening and influencing the risk levels of conflict or increased tension.
  • Intercultural skills and perceptions: Effective international cultural relations are also about perception and projection. Sport helps us to understand the impact of globalisation on culture and culture on globalisation. We need to ask how the language of sport or the inter-cultural tool that is sport helps you to talk to the other and the other to talk to you. How does sport project an image of a place and how do others see and act upon that image?


People cheer and watch a soccer match together in the stadium.
Sport has a part to play in helping with global tensions and, perhaps more importantly, winning friends in a mutually supportive way. photo: James Kirkup via unsplash

The City of Glasgow’s 2014 message was of the friendly Commonwealth Games, while the Commonwealth’s message through Glasgow was one of humanity, diversity and equality. Cultural relations are also about foreign policy. What do foreign diplomats need to know today in order to do their jobs effectively, and are they equipped to understand what sport can and cannot deliver?

I want to mention the work of one Welsh writer and academic, and one Canadian activist and humanitarian. The Welshman is no longer with us, but Raymond Williams penned an important intervention in the 1990s called 'Resources of Hope' (1991), in which he championed the need for commitment. He argued that artists, writers, academics had to balance their freedoms with a duty to strive to help others – what he called the art of the possible. Sport can make the art of the possible possible in so many ways, and we should exploit it to the full.

The Canadian activist Samantha Nutt is one of the most intrepid voices in the humanitarian arena. She is the founder of War Child and author of 'Damned Nations' (2013), a book of uncommon power that aims to raise education levels and looks at the role of women in some of the most challenging circumstances in the world. Nutt’s work covers decades of searching for answers to what can and should be done to help communities and countries caught up in conflict, and she describes the well-intended interventions that went wrong.

She reminds us that there is a great resilience, courage and strength in countries and communities where none ought to exist because of the atrocities they have suffered, and that for those seeking to make a difference it is not about interventions paved with good intentions but about making the art of the possible possible and sustainable.

Apart from this, there is an impressive body of work that points to the role of sport in providing a degree of normality in the lives of asylum seekers, when all around seems strange and insecure.

Or a former UN Secretary General for Europe who asserted that ‘The hidden face of sport is also the tens of thousands of enthusiasts who find in their football, rowing, athletics and rock climbing clubs a place for meeting and exchange but above all the training ground for community life.’

The fact is, sport has undoubtedly a part to play in culture and foreign policy. But this is not new, and whether sport is viewed as a war without weapons, an agent of hard or soft power, or a tool that the United Nations can draw upon to help with conflict resolution and rebuilding resilience, we need a new way of framing not just the part played by sport in international cultural relations but international cultural relations per se.

There is an impressive body of work which points to the role of sport in providing a degree of normality in the lives of asylum seekers, when all around seems strange and insecure.

Sport will not solve the world’s problems but it can make an effective contribution. The global balance of power is tense, in a state of flux, and countries and cities need effective international cultural relations. This should include sport. Sport has a part to play in helping with global tensions and, perhaps more importantly, winning friends in a mutually supportive way.

I have tried to suggest that the framing of international cultural relations should think about matters of mutuality, trust, and cooperation, and that today’s foreign diplomats, civil servants, activists and universities should use sport to the full. We need to re-think and continually evaluate what international cultural relations means today and how such relations can help with making the art of the possible possible. I believe sport has a huge part to play in this.

About the Author
Grant Jarvie

Grant Jarvie is a professor at the University of Edinburgh and a former vice-principal and acting principal. He is the author of Sport, Culture and Society, published by Routledge in 2016 (co-authored by Hector Macki).