BRICS host sports events to boost prestige, just don’t call it ‘soft power’

Proud hosts. EPA/Alexey Nikolsky/Ria Novosti/Kremlin Pool

As the BRICS Summit meets hot on the heels of the FIFA World Cup, also in Brazil, a remarkable trend is apparent. Most of the major global sports events such as the World Cup and the Olympic Games are taking place in the emerging powers of the 21st century. Russia, China and South Africa are all hosting the World Cups or Olympics along with Brazil in recent years. This phenomenon reflects a trend to adopt global sports events as a diplomatic tool to enhance prestige and become more socially accepted in the established world order.

Although some have questioned the narrative about the BRICS, Jim O’Neill’s grouping together of theses countries back in 2001 (plus South Africa since 2010) remains central to the debate of emerging powers. Together the BRICS hold more than 40% of the world population and a combined GDP of US$16 trillion.

The BRICS are also more than a heterogeneous group of countries as they have organised formal summits since 2009; the 6th summit started on Monday. These meetings have already led to a political agreement to create a New Development Bank with a potential capital base of US$100 billion. Yet rising in the ranks of world politics not only requires robust economic growth but also prestige and social acceptance.

Brazil on the international stage

Experts have referred to prestige and public image through hosting global sports events as soft power – the ability to influence, attract and persuade through for example cultural means of music, sports and film. It allows aspiring great powers, the argument goes, to show themselves as attractive actors in the international political arena. Therefore, hosting the World Cup and Olympic Games is seen as a strategy that rests on soft power.

The comments by former Brazilian President da Silva in 2009 after hearing that Rio would stage the Olympics would support this claim. He said:

Today is the day that Brazil gained its international citizenship … Brazil has left behind the level of second-class countries and entered the rank of the first-class countries.

Similarly, current Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff stated in her inaugural address before congress in 2011 that the way forward for Brazil is not only in economic growth but also requires investment in Brazil’s cultural presence in the world.

Soft power? Far from it

Yet this perfunctorily plausible application of the notion of soft power onto global sports events doesn’t hold as the concept has been frequently misused, a concern also expressed by Joseph S Nye, who coined and developed the term, in his later work.

The argument that hosting global sports events is a manifestation of soft power is problematic. First, with “soft power” Joseph Nye conceptualised an understanding of power based on the case of the US in the late 20th century. There is no reason to presuppose it is applicable to the case of the BRICS in the 21st century.

Second, soft power is not “created” by investing billions in global sports events and expecting it to just develop as a product of that investment. The best explanation for this comes from David Shambaugh in his recent book, where he writes, “Soft power is not built this way. It is earned.” Soft power is not a tool that can be purchased in a World Politics Shop. It is not an investment where you pour money into a project to then expect the results to appear.

Third, Nye’s concept of soft power rests on dimensions not only of culture but also domestic political values and foreign policy. This dimension excludes Russia and China from meeting his standard, with authoritarian regimes at home and assertive foreign policies in eastern Ukraine and the South China Sea, respectively. In fact, governments can lavish soft by power by adopting unattractive domestic and foreign policies.

Finally, borrowing Nye’s description of soft power, the question to evaluate as to whether some of the BRICS have soft power is clear. Are other players in world politics persuaded to go along with the purposes of Brazil, Russia or China without any explicit threat or exchange taking place? The answer is no.

Outsiders to the established order

Russia and China today, like the other countries of the BRICS, are outsiders to the Western-dominated established social order and aspire to be socially accepted as prestigious great powers. In fact, mega-events in the BRICS today reflect a different trend – of outsider regimes that use global sports events as a diplomatic tool at a time when they aspire to be accepted in the world community. Hosting global sports events as diplomatic tools is certainly not soft power in the cases of Russia and China as it is inconsistent with the other main dimensions of soft power.

Germany and Japan perhaps best illustrated this when they were isolated from the world community in the 1930s and aimed to use global sports events as an international diplomatic tool to be included again. The bid by Germany’s Weimar Republic in 1931 to host the Olympics in 1936 was a diplomatic tool to be accepted again in the social world order after the country was isolated with the onus for World War I. Tokyo’s successful campaign in 1932 to host the Olympics (even though eventually cancelled) was a strategic effort following the Mukden Incident that isolated Japan from international diplomacy. These regimes were outsiders to the established international system and used global sports events as a diplomatic tool to expand their power, enhance their prestige and promote their government abroad.

Today the BRICS are aspiring great powers at the start of the 21st century, and are outsiders to the established, Western dominated social order. The observation that they are hosting two thirds of all the World Cups and Olympic Games from 2008-2018 is not an example soft power, but rather a manifestation of the use of international diplomacy to enhance prestige. For this trend to be described as soft power, the other dimensions of attractive domestic political values and foreign politics would need to be fulfilled.

Hosting the Olympic Games or the World Cup will clearly not be sufficient to challenge the established social order and cannot be described as soft power, but it does enhance the public image of outsider countries that aspire to be accepted in the world community. It is therefore no coincidence that the day after the World Cup finals in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday, Brazil also play host to the 6th BRICS Summit.

They are expected to inaugurate the New Development Bank, which is touted as an alternative to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank of the established international system. Billions of viewers from around the world tuned into the finals of the World Cup on Sunday, and from Monday through Wednesday the BRICS Summit tells us more about the great powers of the coming era.

The Olympics in China in 2008, the World Cup in Brazil today and the World Cup in Russia in 2018 thus represent more than just spectacular sporting events. They give a boost to the prestige of aspiring great powers of our age in a world order that is unfolding before our eyes.