Tonight’s foreign policy debate promises a healthy dose of the Middle East and what each candidate thinks the other one should do or should have done with respect to places like Libya, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Romney will hammer Obama on Benghazi, completely ignoring the reality of the situation and the fact that a President should not be micromanaging things like security at a small consulate. Obama will talk about energy independence while choosing to continue ignoring our infatuation with the Saudis and their oil despite that country’s status as serial human rights abusers and traffickers in persons.
It’s too bad we can’t focus on some of the good things. Like the baseball diplomacy program that uses MLB players as ambassadors to baseball crazy countries in Latin America and attempted to use the game to thaw relations between the US and Cuba. Or how about the exchange programs where female American athletes travel all over the world to teach basketball and soccer clinics to young women in other countries?
We aren’t going to hear about any of that tonight. But we should.
When most people hear the word “diplomat,” they experience a faint sensation of cocktail parties and a life on the international jet-setting circuit. But if you ever wondered exactly what a diplomat does, this recent account of the negotiations surrounding a Chinese dissidents departure for the U.S. is nothing short of fascinating. However, I still think the best work done by America’s Foreign Service is its sports diplomacy programs. In China this meant building on the opportunity offered by Yao Ming and bringing over other NBA stars.
In Latin America these programs go under the name “baseball diplomacy.” It makes sense. Most MLB teams have at least a scout and sometimes an entire infrastructure in Latin American countries in order to seek out and recruit promising young talent. Why not build on those ties by using the baseball players as ambassadors of American good-will? I’m pretty sure there’s no better way to illustrate the American Dream than by sending guys who are actually living it.
The only problem is, the guy who is truly living the dream right at this very moment hails from the U.S. of A., not Latin America. Seriously, does it get any better than being Bryce Harper? The guy is nineteen years old, talented beyond belief and finds himself playing on a team that seems to have finally put the pieces together. Not bad for a guy who still can’t legally drink and who only recently became eligible to vote. Oh, and I forgot to mention this:
Yep, I’m pretty sure I’d take “being a ballplayer” over “being a diplomat” any day of the week.
When it comes to colonialism, the US has tended to take a different approach than our European forefathers. The Belgians had their “chop off a hand if they aren’t working hard enough” method, the French used a “leave the country in even worse shape than you found it” doctrine and everyone tended to embrace the “prop up a minority tribe and give them weapons so everyone else hates them but they fight each other instead of us” hypothesis. The US, after a failed attempt in the Philippines at European style colonialism, invented a new way. We decided to sow our products and culture on any possible fertile land and then reap the harvest.
You can call it what you like but the US approach has been pretty successful so far. You probably can’t find McDonald’s in Mogadishu but it’s one of the few world capitals where that’s true. Yankee hats decorate heads from Morocco to Malaysia and is there anyone who doesn’t know who Kobe Bryant is? Neo-colonialism, as it’s often called, has even found its way into US diplomacy where baseball and basketball feature prominently in pro-American campaigns in Latin America and China, respectively. Honestly, it’s a much nicer kind of colonialism.
That’s probably why it’s not much of a surprise that the Chinese internet community laughed aside a recent State media editorial claiming that the newly arrived US ambassador to China, Chinese-American Gary Locke, was an American attempt at neo-colonialism. Locke captured quite a few fans before he even arrived when pictures of him buying his own coffee, using a coupon and carrying his own luggage showed up on the internet. The Chinese have a reputation for being frugal and they appreciated seeing these same qualities in the US representative to their country. It’s ninja neo-colonialism. You don’t realize what is happening until it’s already done.
I, for one, applaud this new approach. Appointing an Ambassador who comes from the same cultural background as the country where he will serve and someone who has real experience from his time as governor of Washington and Secretary of Commerce? That sounds less like neo-colonialism and more like common sense to me. Or maybe that’s exactly what ninja neo-colonialism is all about.
We often make fun of peoples’ names. And there’s a good reason why we do that. It’s funny. Growing up in Southwest Michigan, all of us knew a Dick Shrivels in Coldwater (Coldwater being a town over near Battle Creek, of course, not the punchline in an infantile joke).
Sometimes the simple act of repeating a person’s name over and over can have the same effect. My brothers once heckled Manny Ramirez for an entire game, chanting his name rhythmically everytime he took the field. It got to the point that he actually looked up into the stands and asked them to stop. Even Manny didn’t like hearing his name at a certain point.
But what happens when your name gets in the way of your ability to do your job? Unfortunately, this is exactly the problem faced by Akbar Zeb, an elder statesman in the Pakistani diplomat corps. Mr. Zeb has been a distinguished member of the foreign service for decades now but has been rejected from serving several places in the Middle East. The issue? Well, here’s how one headline explained it:
“Saudis Reject Pakistani Diplomat Whose Name Translates to ‘Biggest Dick’“.
Yeah, I guess that might do it. And when you’re job is to work “with some of the largest members of world governments (sic),” you can see how a name might get in the way. Poor Akbar. Hopefully one of these days he can find a place where he’ll just, uh, fit in
In baseball, the very best players fail seven times out of ten. With defeat as the understood underwriter of the game, we as fans tend to not flip every time a batter makes himself an out. Instead, we get over it, move on, and wait for the next opportunity.
The tentacled world of international diplomacy, however, does not feature such a luxurious background. So when it was announced that former president Bill Clinton was to head the rescue mission of two American journalists imprisoned in the mysteriously wacky, pro-proletariat North Korea, I breathed an ecstatic sigh of relief.
Because if anyone can woo the pants off a frail, old, tyrant dictator who fancies Don King hair and Elvis sunglasses, Bill Clinton certainly can.
And like Albert Pujols at the dish with 2 outs, bases loaded and the entire game, season, legacy on the line, Slick Willy delivered.
Of course, while he was there, he did do Al and I a favor by getting Kim’s personal thoughts on Red State Blue State, which Kim supposedly reveres despite his having to ban it in North Korea due to its “flamboyant content” and “excessive skin service“:
Yep. Just don’t hate me ‘cuz I’m right. That’s all I ask.
(*Images courtesy of the Associated Press)
So far the 2009 World Baseball Classic has provided plenty of
nail-biting drama, including upsets by the Netherlands, Italy and
Australia, proving the magnitude of baseball’s global potential. In
recent years the NBA has had success in sending the message of its game
worldwide and to some degree, so has the NFL. Realistically speaking,
does baseball have a shot at becoming a truly universal sport and is it
premature to think that little kids in London might some day replace
the soccer ball with a baseball?
In many ways the WBC is like any other tournament. You get your share of upsets and surprises and there’s always some sort of Cinderella story. But, at the end of the day, the teams that are supposed to win usually do. Look at the run the Americans made in this year’s Classic, edging out Canada with some late inning heroics and treating Venezuela like Hugo Chavez treats the rule of law. But, when it came down to it. They faltered against Venezuela the second time around and then embarrassed themselves against Puerto Rico. The same thing is going to happen to the Netherlands and other pretenders.
Here’s the thing, though. Calling this exhibition the World Baseball Classic is a misnomer at best and an outright lie at worst. Team Italy? A bunch of American baseball players who happen to have Italian last names. Same thing with with the Dutch. Actual baseball does not exist on the European continent nor does it have any role in the sporting lives of millions of Africans and billions of Indians (with the exception of Rinku and Dinesh). Even in the Americas, baseball is far from being the most popular sport and pales in significance to soccer. In its own birthplace, the USA, baseball comes in third behind the NBA and the NFL in terms of popularity.
So, what are its chances of becoming a truly worldwide phenomenon? Somewhere between slim and none and slim is on his way out of the building. There are really two issues here and they happen to be two sides of the same coin.
Number one is the worldwide popularity of soccer and the ease of entry into playing the game. Stuff a sock with some rags and you’ve got yourself a makeshift soccer ball. Offsides can be a somewhat difficult concept at first but the rules are relatively straightforward. If you can get the ball into the goal, you score. It’s that easy. And you can play on a dirt field, the middle of the street or even indoors. Realistically, it’s hard to say that more than half the world’s population can be wrong.
By contrast, baseball is a prohibitively expensive sport, especially when you’re living on less than 2 dollars a day like a majority of the world. At the least, you need a glove, a bat and a ball but none of these are easy to come by. You need a space that’s big enough in which to play and you need enough people to field a couple teams. Once you add in the intricacies of the rulebook and the relative slowness in the speed of play, well, I think it’s safe to say that baseball’s spread has been contained.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see the popularity of baseball expand. I think it’s a wonderful way for the US to conduct soft diplomacy. And I think it’s one of the few areas in which we’ve had constructive interaction with Latin America. But, I don’t think it’s very realistic to think it will happen. The competition is too stiff and the barriers to entry are too high.
This isn’t to say that the WBC has no place and that we should give up. It’s great that every few years different countries get a chance to show their skills and it’s particularly fun to see the Cubans emerge from their isolation. But a tri-yearly celebration of international baseball is not going to overcome the incredible headstart that soccer holds, nor is it going to make it possible for a poor kid in Port-au-Prince to get a glove and go play catch with his friends. Unfortunately, that is where the warm fuzzies of the WBC run smack into the cold, hard truths of real life.