(Photo by Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images)
The 2016-2017 season, commencing with the Brexit vote and then carrying on through the election of Trump as President and the French and British elections, was a political and emotional roller-coaster. Macron’s victory has brought a sigh of relief to many. It gives hope for enhanced progress and stability in the long run and a more relaxed summer break in the short term.
We provided analysis for the year in review, the current state of the world and its prospective future from multiple perspectives during our recent GLOBSEC 2017 Bratislava Forum (here, here, and here). While campaigns and elections headlined the 2016-2017 season, there were other captivating events and developments that, although seemingly disconnected, reveal much about global political processes.
Some matters are as true about world politics as they are about ice hockey.
1. The U.S. is still the global power…
Despite its power being increasingly contested, the NHL (National Hockey League) and the U.S. by extension is still the global superpower. There is no other entity in the world today that would be similarly revered and similarly powerful.
Outside of hockey in world affairs, many have a premonition of the United States sharing the power space with rising China or Russia in a multipolar world. For now, however, the U.S. is still in a dominant position as the preeminent superpower and will be able to handle aspiring contestants if it acts wisely.
2. … but that would be impossible without others.
Behind every great country there are great allies. The prominence of the United States would hardly have been possible without close cooperation with allies who are imbedded in the same – primarily U.S. led – institutions and act towards shared goals.
The casual hockey fan from outside of North America probably does not know that the NHL is not originally and exclusively an American achievement. What many – especially outside of North America – see as a US-led enterprise was in fact founded in Canada and originally included only Canadian teams. No Canadian club has won the Stanley Cup (the main NHL trophy) since 1993 and there are only 7 Canadian teams in the League versus 24 U.S.-based teams. Canadians still make up the majority of team members across the League though (45% v. 27% of U.S. nationals). And there are more Europeans recruited by the NHL teams than there are American nationals.
The U.S. is not the best at everything – others might have better international outcomes (try to beat Canada when they play as a nation) or better youth training programmes. But what the U.S. proved to be better at is establishing institutions, sustaining them, streamlining private funds and spreading the addictive, contagious, and entertaining notion of having ambition and achieving it. Importantly, this success in hockey as in other domains is in many ways based on the U.S. ability to draw from a wide global pool of talent.
I’d send everyone advocating for American isolationism to see the next game of their favorite NHL team from this perspective. The U.S. cannot do it alone. And the U.S. deciding to do it alone would be a great loss for everyone.
3. America First.
After years of aversion to international competitions, in spring 2017, the NHL announced that it will stop the practice of halting its season for the NHL players to be able to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. The main rationale behind the decision is that there are “no tangible benefits” from participation and that the clubs suffer losses from players being away and exposed to the risk of injury.
This is not to say that there is a casual relation between the new motto of the U.S. President and the NHL decision, the latter being a privately-owned enterprise. And this is in no way to attribute the practice of retrenchment and protectionism to all American businesses.
But this coincidence in timing reflects the spirit of the season and how it is seen from the outside. It seems that the U.S. decision to abandon international institutions like the Paris Agreement and skepticism over the value of the U.N. and NATO is because they do not offer clear and immediate benefits or domestic profit commensurate with the money and effort invested.
In both world politics and hockey, these decisions were criticized for lacking foresight and ignoring the equally important but not necessary immediate tangible benefits. The “Olympics ban” eliminates the lost profits for League team owners and the additional risk of injury. But it harms the prospects of popularizing hockey in the countries outside of its traditional fan base at a time when the League needs to seek growth opportunities outside North America. And it also hinders the prospects of further developing the tradition of international competition with its illustrative emphasis on globally acceptable values – team work in combination with individual skill, fair play, and graciousness both in victory and defeat.
4. And there have always been Russians.
Although no longer the same formidable USSR “Red Machine”, the Russian team is not a rival to be taken lightly. The number and quality of Russian players in the NHL is impressive and includes superstars like Alexander Ovechkin.
But the prowess of Russian players or the national team is not the only mirror to the world of global affairs; a resurgent Russia has aspiration to redefine the current power structures.
When the KHL (Continental Hockey League) was formed in 2008, few took its ambition seriously. But political support and funding poured into the League, ensuring rapid growth and attracting elite-players. It now has 27 teams including from China, Slovakia, Finland, Latvia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Still considered inferior to the NHL, if the level of the game is maintained and further developed it has a chance to eventually pressure the NHL.
The story and ambition of KHL might very well belong to the textbook of case studies in international politics and Russia’s relations with the world. The League is a brainchild of Putin who felt that the game lost its sharpness and that re-creating the Soviet era West-East hockey rivalry would bring back the vibe. Make hockey great again! thinking also envisioned more ties between Russia and Europe uninhibited by politics or administrative hurdles.
However, the 2014 Crimea geopolitics marred the 2008-2009 free-of-politics vision of the game. The aggressive expansion of the League into European countries was often met with criticism and suspicion, particularly in Scandinavia and the Baltics. The idea of regional cooperation driven by Russia has become harder to sell. European fans and sports authorities acquainted with the concept of hybrid war have grown weary of propaganda and Russian state influence. The heavy funding of the League by Russian state enterprises and energy giants and the League’s ties with Kremlin do not help assuage these fears, regardless of whether they are grounded or not.
The popular mood, in hockey and in politics, is to acknowledge Russia and its power but also to treat it with great suspicion.
5. China has ambitions
Any hockey regular would laugh off the idea that China could become a country to watch. Yet, China has proclaimed an ambition to be like the U.S., Russia, or Canada. Both in politics and in hockey.
While China’s rise in international politics and economic relations is widely discussed, it’s tenacious determination to conquer the world of hockey is even more impressive. With only a handful of ice hockey players and no high-level game experience, the country is investing heavily in the development of the sport – recruiting Russian and European coaches, entering a Chinese team into the KHL, building skating rinks, or hosting games and trainings of NHL teams in China.
Preparing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, China is determined to stand toe-to-toe with anyone. If China wins a game against the U.S., Canada, or Russia just in five years, it will be a miracle. But for the country that has already proved many international observers wrong with its unprecedented rise and economic growth, five years might be just enough.
6. In the rapidly changing post-truth world, clear rules and fair play are as valued as never
Allegations of dirty moves, parties loathing each other, alternative facts, conspiracies, support based on emotions rather than reason – these topics can headline a discussion about politics or hockey alike.
What differentiates hockey from politics is the current level of trust towards its institutions and experts. Anger and discontent of the public with the political establishment has been seen as a driving force behind many recent elections results. And the public has had enough of experts.
In hockey, judges can be seen as biased and players can be accused of foul play. But the system itself is rarely seen as rigged due to its ability to indiscriminately impose rules, adjudicate disputes based on video evidence or other methods, or review appeals. Nor are the sports experts and commentators declared irrelevant even when they are hated by some for the alleged lack of partiality. Hockey also holds up in comparison to other sports that are increasingly facing corruption charges and disputed doping allegations, from FIFA to athletics to the Olympics.
Trusted institutions with clear rules and principles are increasingly difficult to find in the world of politics – not in the least because they are contested or abandoned by the powers that once were their biggest proponents. It is not surprising hence that disheartened citizens might find refuge and indulge in the still more trusted world of hockey with its sense of order, stability, and relative fairness.
Deputy Research Director
GLOBSEC Policy Institute
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