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The Geopolitical Stakes of Olympic Perfection—and Defection

The Tokyo Games have brought a surge of nationalism and laid bare the methods of autocrats like Belarus’s Aleksandr Lukashenko.

By , a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
A Belarusian athlete arrives at an international airport.
Belarusian athlete Kristina Timanovskaya arrives at the boarding gate for an Austrian Airlines flight at Narita International Airport in Tokyo on Aug. 4. Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! I hope you are enjoying the summer—and the Olympics. I have been wanting to read Steve Walt’s article on nationalism and the Games, but I have been too busy admiring the U.S. lead in the overall medal count! USA! USA! USA!

Emma Ashford: And a happy Friday to you too, Matt. The Olympics are certainly fun, but I think Walt’s point was that a little nationalism—that is to say, a little pride in your country—is a good thing, but too much nationalism can be problematic.

I certainly wish the Olympics coverage was just a bit less jingoistic, sometimes. Look at all the people who argued that Simone Biles was failing her country because she had to withdraw early from the group gymnastics competition. It’s just a sports competition!

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! I hope you are enjoying the summer—and the Olympics. I have been wanting to read Steve Walt’s article on nationalism and the Games, but I have been too busy admiring the U.S. lead in the overall medal count! USA! USA! USA!

Emma Ashford: And a happy Friday to you too, Matt. The Olympics are certainly fun, but I think Walt’s point was that a little nationalism—that is to say, a little pride in your country—is a good thing, but too much nationalism can be problematic.

I certainly wish the Olympics coverage was just a bit less jingoistic, sometimes. Look at all the people who argued that Simone Biles was failing her country because she had to withdraw early from the group gymnastics competition. It’s just a sports competition!

MK: I, on the other hand, will not rest until the world bows down before American greatness in stealth technology, international finance, and beach handball.

But there was also a high-profile example of an athlete defecting from her nation. A Belarusian sprinter, Kristina Timanovskaya, feared her return home and was granted asylum by Poland. Nationalism is a powerful motivator, but it’s not as powerful as freedom.

Dictators send their athletes on to the world stage to pursue glory and instead show the world that even people with a fairly privileged status in their countries don’t want to live there.

EA: Yes, but what’s particularly interesting is that Timanovskaya was effectively pushed into it by the Belarusian authorities. She had criticized her coaches publicly, and, in return, the regime tried to force her onto a flight home. It’s the kind of Cold War-era tactic used only by the most hard-line dictatorships. I’m happy to see that she was able to get a Polish visa and that her husband also escaped.

But while this one was high-profile, athletes often defect during the Olympics. In London in 2012, for example, an entire team of Cameroonian boxers disappeared from the Olympic village in the dead of night, trying to stay in the United Kingdom. Honestly, it’s a surprise that more athletes don’t defect, though some of the worst autocracies do threaten retribution against the families of athletes who do.

MK: Timanovskaya may not be alone this year. I’ve just read that several other Belarusian athletes have also defected. It is a welcome comeuppance for these dictators. They send their athletes on to the world stage to pursue glory and instead show the world that even people with a fairly privileged status in their countries don’t want to live there.

But, believe it or not, there is more going on in the world than just the Olympics.

EA: Really? But there’s a synchronized swimming final starting soon, featuring the most terrifying act I’ve ever seen: Russian swimmers pretending to be spiders. You’d think the autocracies would pick nice, cuddly themes for their routines, wouldn’t you?

MK: OK. But what really brings you more joy, watching sports or bashing U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz? He is taking a tough stand on Nord Stream 2, but I suspect you disagree with his approach.

EA: “A tough stand” is one way to put it. Here’s another: Cruz is preventing the confirmation of vital nominees to the State Department and elsewhere—keeping those agencies critically understaffed—to try to force the Biden team to capitulate to his demands on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia. Even though the administration has already struck a deal with Germany on the pipeline, Cruz is trying to force it to impose sanctions on Germany instead. It’s utterly irresponsible.

Sanctions like this are also a great way to place U.S. companies at risk. An article in Foreign Policy this week from columnist Elisabeth Braw, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute—not exactly known for its dovish foreign policy!—made the excellent point that the inclusion of insurance companies among those targeted by Nord Stream sanctions sets a dangerous precedent. And as I’ve repeatedly argued elsewhere, the more the United States uses sanctions, the more other states like China embrace them, and the higher the risk of them boomeranging back onto U.S. companies.

MK: Nord Stream 2 is one of President Joe Biden’s early foreign-policy mistakes, and his administration’s attempts to explain it away have been embarrassing. Biden’s own State and Defense departments were reportedly surprised by the move. Congress has a legitimate role to play in checking the executive branch, and Cruz is making it costly for Biden to pursue misguided foreign policies that don’t enjoy bipartisan support.

I, too, worry about the administration not having its team in place, but, unfortunately, Congress has few tools to exercise influence over U.S. foreign policy, and this is one of them.

The arguments about a coming backlash for overuse of U.S. sanctions glosses over an important point: The United States sits at the center of the global financial system, and there is no serious alternative to the dollar as a global reserve currency. The dollar makes up 60 percent of global currency holdings, compared to the Chinese yuan’s 2 percent. The U.S. sanctions will continue to have a global reach that other countries simply cannot match.

Will the United States sit at the center of the global financial system for much longer if it continues to push sanctions so aggressively?

EA: But will the United States sit at the center of the global financial system for much longer if it continues to push sanctions so aggressively? Look, there are two issues here. The first is the method. I agree that Congress has few concrete ways to push back on the administration. But even if we accept that individual senators can hold up nominations they don’t like, I think the idea that a single senator can halt all confirmations over a pet issue is really problematic. I didn’t like it when Rand Paul did it over drones, I didn’t like it when Elizabeth Warren did it over ethics rules, and I don’t like it here.

The second issue is the question of Nord Stream 2 itself. For a long time, hawks in Congress—both Democrats and Republicans—have pushed for the United States to take a tougher line on the pipeline. But the pipeline is nearly completed, sanctions are very unlikely to compel Germany to stop at this point, and there are more effective ways to safeguard energy security in Eastern Europe. Plus, do we really want the precedent of sanctioning America’s closest allies just because we dislike their choices?

MK: It’s not just a matter of dislike. Germany is undermining European security so it can save on energy bills. It is shortsighted. It is moments like this when a superpower needs to show allies the bigger picture, not follow the path of least resistance.

To be fair, the Biden administration inherited a bad hand and Washington, and Berlin should have never let the pipeline get this far. I suspect that Cruz’s move is meant to send a signal but that he will eventually allow the nominees through and, alas, the pipeline to continue.

EA: At the cost of derailing all nominations to the State Department for months? That’s an absurd cost.

And describing it as “undermining European security” is hyperbolic. It may make some countries in Eastern Europe slightly more vulnerable to Russian manipulation of gas prices, but the European Union has already taken significant strides to improve energy integration in Eastern Europe, and it is expected to do more. Nord Stream 2 is far less of a concern than it would have been a decade ago.

If Cruz actually cares about energy security in Eastern Europe, he should lift his hold on the nominees, abandon the notion of sanctions, and push the administration to work to minimize any potential impacts: improving resiliency in European gas networks, integrating Ukraine into European networks to facilitate reverse flows of gas, and encouraging diversification away from transit fees in the Ukrainian economy. These are far less sexy solutions, but they’re far more useful.

Let’s shift to another gas-rich state that’s having problems lately. Tunisia is just a small producer of oil and gas, but it was far more important as a symbol: the only true democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring. Sadly, that progress seems to be increasingly in jeopardy.

MK: Yes. Tunisia has been a success story. Freedom House ranks it as “free,” meaning it is more democratic than Mexico or India.

But last week’s news is troubling, as the country’s president has declared a state of emergency and assumed greater personal powers. So far, the reaction from the major powers has been muted.

It is still early days, and the president swears that he remains committed to a free Tunisia, so I hope that things get back on track. But I am worried.

EA: I’m surprised by how little reaction there has been in Washington. I worry that it’s a sign of how Americans view Tunisia and much of the rest of the Arab world: through the lens of counterterrorism first. Coming out and declaring what’s happening a coup would have implications for how much aid the United States can provide, so there’s a strong disincentive to acknowledge it’s a coup. We’ve seen this before, most notably in Egypt and Thailand.

Of course, unlike those situations, this is a lot more complicated. President Kais Saied is widely popular and was responding to mass protests against corruption when he took the step to dissolve parliament. And while I’m no constitutional lawyer, some of them seem to think this might still be legal, at least if he calls a new election soon.

And the underlying causes of the crisis are even harder to resolve. Western countries have done remarkably little to help improve the economic troubles that initially led a fruit-seller to set himself on fire over a decade ago, sparking the Arab Spring. Instead, the government has taken an increasingly heavy-handed approach to counterterrorism, but it failed to meaningfully improve the economy or people’s lives. It’s hardly surprising the country is now seeing protests and democratic backsliding.

Unfortunately, a move to a more authoritarian model might only make it less likely that Tunisia undertakes necessary economic reforms and could jeopardize needed international assistance.

MK: Tunisia has had troubles with terrorism, including a mass casualty attack on foreign tourists at a coastal resort in 2015. It is hard to build a thriving democracy or economy without security. The Tunisian government and the United States have been right to prioritize counterterrorism and security-sector reform. Security cooperation with Tunisia is an unsung success in the U.S. global war on terror.

But I agree it is not enough. There needs to be economic reform, and, for a country that depends heavily on tourism, the COVID-19 pandemic hit hard.

Unfortunately, a move to a more authoritarian model might only make it less likely that Tunisia undertakes necessary economic reforms and could jeopardize needed international assistance, including a pending IMF loan.

EA: And yet: some Tunisians actually seem to be supporting the president’s actions in the hope that he can bring economic change where a deeply divided parliament could not. Unfortunately, the problems of simultaneous economic and political transitions are something political scientists have studied broadly and have found few solutions for. Democratization often fails for lack of economic reforms, while economic reforms are harder to accomplish in a democracy.

Let’s wrap up today by talking about Iran, which has often faced similar problems. Ebrahim Raisi, the winner of recent Iranian presidential elections, was inaugurated on Tuesday. He pledged in his inaugural address to lift U.S. sanctions, but outgoing President Hassan Rouhani has accused Raisi of sabotaging talks aimed at restarting the nuclear deal. Should Washington be worried?

MK: People spend too much time worrying about the divides between the so-called hard-liners and moderates in Iran. They share the same goals and the same methods. They want a nuclear weapons capability and sanctions relief, too. To get there, they engage in hard-nosed negotiations and brutal terrorist tactics—like attacking an Israeli tanker and killing two sailors on board this week.

Raisi’s foreign policy will not be much different than Rouhani’s. The supreme leader is calling the shots.

EA: I don’t understand this fixation on arguing that all Iranians have the same opinion. There are divisions internally in every country over how to pursue foreign policy, even if elites broadly agree about the national interest. You and I debate how to pursue U.S. foreign policy in every column! Why would Iran be any different from the United States?

But I am worried. Not necessarily because Raisi is more of a hard-liner—he still has incentives to try to talk to the United States—but because events in the Gulf continue to escalate. The Iranians no longer seem to be pushing to get back to the nuclear deal, and U.S. negotiators do not seem hopeful.

Hopes that the U.S.-Iran relationship would improve due to Obama’s nuclear deal were always delusional.

This week, two tanker ships were attacked by unidentified—but potentially Iranian—forces: a hijacking and a drone attack. The tit-for-tat strikes between Iran and Israel continue. In short, Raisi’s inauguration feels like it may be a watershed moment, marking the end of hopes to improve the U.S.-Iran relationship, and a return to the contentious pre-Barack Obama status quo.

MK: Hopes that the U.S.-Iran relationship would improve due to Obama’s nuclear deal were always delusional. The relationship is contentious because of Iran’s bad behavior. Returning to the deal—which was flawed in 2015 and with limits that soon expire—does not make sense as the centerpiece of U.S. Iran policy in 2021. If you are right, then it sounds like good news to me—a return to a more realistic U.S. approach to Iran.

EA: The nuclear deal was working just fine until Donald Trump stuck a stake through its heart and left it for dead. If Washington cannot dial down the tensions and find some potential deal with Iran, it will be a disaster not just for U.S.-Iran policy but for anywhere else that the United States hopes to make a credible international commitment. Why would any other country trust Washington’s word after what it did to Tehran over the last few years?

MK: Other countries trust Washington’s word every day on a wide range of issues. And if tensions don’t dial down, Iran is the only country courting disaster.

I suspect, however, that Iran badly wants the sanctions relief and we will see a return to the deal. There was an interesting piece in FP this week from Wang Xiyue about how Tehran sees the “China model” as a template for Iran—maintaining autocratic control and a growing economy.

The author—who knows a lot about Iranian elites’ thinking, having been imprisoned by them for several years on trumped-up charges—argues that it won’t work. I agree, but for a more fundamental reason: The China model doesn’t work even in China. Free markets and autocratic politics don’t go well together over the long run. We’ve seen more evidence of that this week as Xi Jinping continues his crackdown on China’s private technology and education sectors.

The Chinese government is cracking down on precisely those companies—mostly in the tech sector—that post the biggest risk to their social and economic control.

EA: Autocrats gonna autocrat, I suppose. The Chinese government is cracking down on precisely those companies—mostly in the tech sector—that post the biggest risk to their social and economic control. There’s no doubt in my mind that China’s economy could do more if it weren’t hobbled by the Communist Party. That said, China has already overtaken the United States in several key economic metrics, so it is certainly doing well enough.

I’m more concerned about the hostile reaction that Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman received on her recent trip to Beijing. Chinese diplomats took a strong line against the Biden team’s embrace of “great-power competition” and were generally dismissive. Again, not a good sign for future U.S.-China relations. For all his promises to return to the status quo in foreign policy, Biden is finding himself hamstrung by the legacy of Trump’s foreign-policy choices on Iran, China, and elsewhere.

MK: Was Sherman’s reception in Beijing icy because of Trump or because China is engaged in a decadeslong strategy to overturn the U.S.-led international order? I opt for the latter interpretation.

Some criticized the Biden administration for being too desperate for talks with Beijing, but I think it makes sense to try to engage, even while emphasizing competition. The more the world sees of Xi’s Chinese Communist Party, the less they like it.

EA: Well, I know one area where we’re definitely losing the competition. The Chinese have several more Olympic gold medals than the United States. Can’t the Biden administration do something to improve our competitiveness in the modern pentathlon?

MK: Comparing the U.S. and Chinese Olympic performance by looking at only gold medals instead of total medal count? I bet you measure GDP using purchasing power parity too.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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