The Nexus of Diplomacy, Sport, Politics and the Media: Parallels, Paradoxes and Pitfalls

Loughborough University London

Campus building

The Academy of Diplomacy and International Governance and the Institute for Sport Business, in collaboration with the Institute for Media and Creative Industries, the Institute for Design Innovation, Institute for Digital Technologies, and the Glendonbrook Institute for Enterprise Development, Loughborough University London, will be organising the 20th International Symposium in the Series of Diplomacy in the 21st Century, on the theme of: The Nexus of Diplomacy, Sport, Politics and the Media: New Perspectives on Parallels, Paradoxes and Pitfalls, on 22nd May 2017.

Thematic Overview

The aim of the 20th International Symposium is to parse and interrogate four apparently distinct fields of professional practice - diplomacy, sport, politics and the media. At first glance, this might seem a rather daunting, if not ungainly enterprise. Upon closer inspection, however, the organisers will make the case that there exist not only significant parallels, but also intriguing paradoxes and potentially consequential pitfalls.

In an increasingly globalising and heteropolar world imperilled by a new threat set of wicked  Science and Technology (S&T) - driven issues for which there are no military solutions, diplomacy has never mattered more. Soft power has a demonstrable comparative advantage over the international policy alternatives.  Today, the time honoured tools of dialogue, negotiation, and compromise have been reinforced with knowledge-based, technologically enabled problem-solving and complex balancing. Diplomacy alone is capable of resolving differences and securing win-win outcomes through complex balancing and by positively affecting behaviour on all sides of the exchange. This stands in stark contrast to hard power, which relies on the use or threat of armed force to compel or coerce adversaries to submit. The exercise of persuasion and influence through non-violent political communications aimed at winning over others through the power of attraction, is, or should be, diplomacy’s strongest asset.

Unfortunately, all three elements of the diplomatic ecosystem - the foreign ministry, foreign service and diplomatic business model - are in crisis. They have not adapted fully or well enough to the challenges of the 21st century; marginalized and side-lined, they are facing a perilous performance gap. If progress is to be achieved, this chasm must be bridged.

In its essence, sport, with its highly competitive animus and zero sum orientation, more closely resembles war than it does either diplomacy or politics. Hard power rules. The overarching purpose of sport is to win, and, although there are occasionally ties, typically the only other option is to lose. That said, and not unlike diplomacy politics and the media, although the contest is central, organised sport brings together otherwise hostile opponents who share a devotion to the game. Sport also features fierce competition, stars and teamwork, as well as action in concert to achieve identified goals.

For all of these domains, recent times have brought significant legal battles with charges of improper conduct, accepting payoffs and bribes and behaving in an improper or an immoral manner.  Athletes have been banned from participating due to use of illegal performance enhancing drugs and gambling on the outcomes of games in which they are participating. The commercial media is frequently biased and inaccurate. And in politics, we have observed too many examples of the truth of the words of 19th century British politician Lord Acton "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

At that point resemblance largely ends. In sport, players are hired or drafted, whereas in politics, at least in democracies, the members are elected, and their success or failure is often tied to the policies adopted by their party. Unlike much of diplomacy, sport is played out almost entirely in the public eye, and does not turn upon earning the confidence, trust and respect of interlocutors. Media celebrities often resemble contestants in a beauty pageant engaged in a race to the bottom. And politicians too often reach for the gun when responding to perceived threats.                          

Organised sport diverts even as it entertains. Sport is a mainly commercial enterprise- owners, sponsors and investors exercise influence accordingly. While political decision-making and direction is not without relation to the objectives of corporate donors, in most jurisdictions this relationship is closely scrutinised and regulated. Diplomacy, although not practised in the absence of important financial and budgetary dimensions, is with the notable exception of political appointees, several dimensions removed from immediate private sector influence.

Politics is architectonic, and is in many respects the over-arching function under examination today. The political process in most Western countries, not unlike sport, is highly contested. Heads of state and government, ministers and legislators are responsible for shaping the rule of law, crafting the content of diplomacy (international policy) and for regulating important aspects of the media. Yet in many instances, the political and democratic process is facing very hard times.

Developments such as Brexit, the Trump ascendency, and the generalised rise of right-wing populism have defied rational analysis, public opinion research, and the considered opinions of most experts. Today there are fewer freely elected governments in the Middle East, Africa, or Latin American than was the case a decade ago. Notwithstanding the outcome of the recent Dutch elections, the rise of right-wing populist leaders and parties in Europe, Latin America and the USA have shaken established patterns of belief and behaviour to their foundations. We are now in political terra incognita, and the way forward is anything but clear.

Diplomacy, politics and sport all make intensive use of, and are in considerable part dependent upon the media, both conventional and social. However, as is the case with diplomacy and politics, the mainstream media’s business model has broken down. With the rise of the Internet and the revolution in information and communication technologies, conventional journalism has taken a terrible hit. Papers have closed, foreign bureaus have been shuttered, investigative units disbanded, reporters sacked, and journalism schools cut back. This has deprived diplomats of some key intelligence contacts in the field, robbed the citizenry of a key source of analysis and truth-seeking, and removed from public access a critical driver of scrutiny and ventilation.

Governments everywhere are now less closely watched, even as the surveillance state (as detailed in the Snowden revelations) grows by leaps and bounds. Now that everyone with a hand-held digital device or computer has become a reporter and analyst, professional standards related to fact checking, objectivity, fairness and balance have been degraded. Infotainment, sensationalism, “alternative facts” and fake news, in contrast, are flourishing. The public interest has suffered a body blow.

To conclude, provisionally, we have seen the parallels: the four principal symposium components - diplomacy, politics, sports, and the media - are in varying degrees of crisis. We have observed the pitfalls. Democracy, governance and the public good have suffered significant setbacks. And the paradoxes? Among others, even amidst the gathering gloom, there just may be a strategic opening here to turn adversity into opportunity. The symposium is a call to break the habit of regarding diplomacy, sport, politics and the media as distinct fields of practice, and instead to find ways to rearticulate their synergy and to search for alternative perspectives and new ways of seeing.

What better time for a searching discussion of the possible ways forward?

The Symposium will examine a number of key questions, including:

  • What attributes best characterise the relationship between diplomacy, sport, politics and the media?
  • What lessons and insights can be learned and applied by comparing each of these enterprises?
  • What is the role and place of the public interest?
  • How has the migration towards social and digital media affected diplomacy, governance and public administration, business and civil society?
  • What types of media training are needed to increase awareness and heighten sensitivity to the new communications environment?
  • What constitutes best practice in social and digital communication, and in response to “bad press”, “negative reports”, crises and emergencies?
  • How important are issues of image projection and reputation management in diplomacy, politics, communications and sports?
  • How can world governing bodies in effectively manage negative developments including doping, bribery, corruption, and sexism?
  • To what extent is the erosion of democratic process and the rise of right- wing populism related to the issues under discussion.
  • In that respect, what will be the impact and consequence of Brexit, the Trump ascendancy, Executive Orders, and the savage cuts to funding for diplomacy, development, UN contributions and environmental protection?
  • In the post-facts, post-truth era, what are the implications of the emergence of “alternative facts”, fake news, and the triumph of emotion, conviction and ideology over evidence, data, and empirical methods?
  • How does professional sport influence or inform diplomacy, politics and the media?
  • Is there a sustainable business model for traditional media?
  • Given the crisis in the diplomatic ecosystem, what are the prospects for effective reform, and what might that entail?
  • Can the degradation of national politics and democratic process be reversed, and if so, how?
  • How can world governing bodies in sports work to combat the negatives in international sports, including doping, bribery, corruption, and sexism?
  • What are the issues of security in mounting a major sport event?
  • Is the practice of science diplomacy relevant to advancing the goals of sport, politics and the media? 

Further details from Professor Nabil Ayad:
or Rosalie Rivett:    

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