Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > The Olympics: New Model for Foreign Policy?

Jul 30, 2012

The Olympics: New Model for Foreign Policy?



Amid all the extravagant hoopla of the Olympics’ opening ceremony in London, one striking contrast caught my eye. Though some of the athletes parading into the stadium looked like they had come for a great party, many were obviously taking the occasion very seriously -- especially those from smaller and “less developed” nations. You could tell that being in the Olympics was the greatest occasion of their lives. But even those who looked most dignified were often smiling. Their big broad smiles made these beautiful young people look absolutely radiant. Even if they weren’t smiling, you could see the obvious pride and pure joy bursting out of them.

Contrast that with the uniformed soldiers who were conscripted to perform in the ceremony. Maybe they were just as proud, perhaps even just as joyful. But their appointed role and the ethos of military culture combined to prevent them from showing it, or showing any emotion at all. They kept their faces stiff and blank, while they moved like life-sized robots.

There’s nothing surprising in that rigid demeanor. It’s what we expect from military personnel performing military jobs. After all, the people in uniform are obligated, above all, to follow orders. They have largely given up their individual personalities to become merely extensions of the state apparatus that gives the commands.

Of course the Olympic athletes are extensions of their home nations and their governments too, most obviously in the opening parade of nations. The athletes are at least as highly trained as the soldiers, at least as disciplined in perfecting their skills -- probably even more so -- and at least as dedicated to winning for their nations on all three counts.

But athletes don’t represent their nations by fighting and killing. They represent their nations by playing games. Can anyone imagine Queen Elizabeth saying, “I declare open these Olympic wars?”

The media do often tell us that the athletes are “battling” for the gold medal and, more often, that countries are “battling” for the lead in the medal count. Once the games begin, the competition and desire to win can fairly be called “deadly” serious.  But everyone knows that those are just metaphors drawn from the realm of war, where the words are meant quite literally.

It doesn’t work the other way around, though. No one ever says, even metaphoricaly, that U.S. troops in Afghanistan are “playing” war. No one call the war a “game.” (There are “war games.” But everyone knows that they are just pretend, that no one risks getting killed, except in the rare accident). 

So we have two starkly contrasting models of international competition, creating two equally different images of patriotic service to the homeland: the robotic soldiers fighting deadly wars and the joyous athletes playing games.

 The two have not always been so different, however. In medieval jousting tournaments (as in bullfights even more recently), men did get killed playing athletic game. Conversely, when those medieval knights went out to war, they were in a real sense playing a game. It was much like what we call a sporting event. The same has been true of warfare in many other cultures around the world.

When war was play, the contestants were all expected to observe elaborate rules and codes of conduct. War, like sports, was highly ritualized. And though the results were often gruesomely horrific, the death tolls were suprisingly small compared to what we are accustomed to now.

That’s because (according to one theory, at least) the goal was to display superiority, but not to destroy the enemy completely. In fact it was necessary to let most of the enemy forces survive so that both sides could return to the playing field to renew the game another day. It was the process, not the outcome, that mattered most.

We still have an echo of that medieval heritage in the word “sportsmanlike,” defined in one dictionary as “qualities highly regarded in sport, such as fairness, generosity, observance of the rules, and good humour when losing”; in another dictionary the qualities are “fairness, courtesy, good temper, etc.”  And we still occasionally hear that old, once popular, saying: “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.”

Of course now we’re more likely to hear the much more popular saying, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” The widespread currency of that saying is a sign of how much we’ve turned our athletics into war and, more importantly, given up the old idea of war as sport.

How that transformation of war occurred is a very complicated story, still debated by historians of warfare. There’s general agreement that the Napoleonic wars were a decisive turning point. For the first time, war was waged not by small professional armies but by huge conscripted forces. Entire nations were mobilized to support those forces. Every citizen was encouraged to see him- or herself as part of the war effort.

The result was a sense that the nation’s very existence depended on victory. Governments eagerly promoted that view: If all citizens saw the prospect of defeat as a prospect of annihilation, they were more likely to sacrifice all to support the war. If annihilation was the only alternative to victory, the logical response was to try to annihilate the enemy. Thus war became a zero-sum game, which meant, in effect, no longer a game at all.

The old idea of war as a game -- where the rules of honorable conduct were as important as, perhaps more important than, victory -- lasted longest among the most elite military leaders. One sign of the death of this ethos at the highest level came in 1945, on the day Germany admitted defeat in the European war. The Allied commander, Dwight Eisenhower, refused to shake the hand of the surrendering German commander, a ritual that military tradition had always required.

In his war memoir, Crusade in Europe (1948), Eisenhower explained both that refusal and the book’s title in the same sentence: “Because only by the utter destruction of the Axis was a decent world possible, the war became for me a crusade in the traditional sense of that often misused word.” The representative of pure good could acknowledge no hint of comradeship with the representative of pure evil, Ike implied, because that would imply some kind of equality, as if both were players in the same game.

There is good reason to believe that Eisenhower was offering an ex post facto explanation, trying to prove his credentials as a crusading cold warrior. During the war he had given little indication of concern about, or even understanding of, fascism as a political system or ideology. His memoir was published in the same year that official Washington fully committed itself to mobilizing the nation in an anti-communist crusade, a crusade made all the more convincing by conflating Nazis and communists in an image of “red fascism.” It was the cold war, even more than World War II, that vanished the last trace of sportstmanlike conduct in war.

The Olympic Games have such broad appeal, I suspect, in part because they offer a rare chance to regain at least a glimpse of that old-fashioned idea of international competition as a sporting event. The Olympic Games also have broad appeal because we watch athletes doing things we might imagine, but can scarcely believe are possible in reality.  

Danny Boyle’s production for the opening ceremony was certainly an extravagant indulgence in pure fantasy. So it got my imagination going in some pretty extreme ways. I imagined for a while what war would be like if we went back to the medieval tradition of battle as ritual contest.

Then I took a bigger leap and imagined what U.S. foreign policy would be like if we thought of it in the same way. We would compete earnestly with other nations for wealth, power, and influence over world events. Policy debates and decisions would still be deadly serious. But we would not think, even for a moment, of destroying the nations and groups we were competing with. We would understand that the whole point is to keep the game going.

So the most urgent question of foreign policy would not be “Who won?”, but “How did we play the game?” The most important goal would be to make sure that we acted in the international arena with fairness, courtesy, observance of the rules, generosity, and good humour when losing.

And if we lost one round in the contest, we would shake hands with our opponents, congratulating them on a contest well played. Then we would go back to the drawing board, figure out how to do better next time, and prepare to play better another day.

My fantasy is not totally beyond the realm of possibility. It is, in some respects, how kings conducted their foreign policy in days of old, when knights were bold. Since the Olympic Games inspire us all by seeing people achieve feats we never dreamed possible, why not dream of a new mythology for foreign policy: picking up where those kings left off but going even further, making foreign policy in every respect a serious, strenuous, but ultimately playful game? 

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