Jeffrey Reeves is vice-president of research for the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and an expert on economics, politics, and security in Asia.
This week,Canada’s House of Commons formally called for the International Olympic Committee to move the 2022 Winter Olympics from Beijing. Policy makers will now have to figure out what to do with this declaration – and in doing so, they should look south to Washington for a cautionary tale. There, calls are swelling for the United States to boycott the 2022 Games, and the Biden administration is now facing a highly public and fundamental dilemma Canada would do better to avoid.
At the heart of the matter is the United States’ debate over whether Mr. Biden should apply a “values-driven” policy approach to the question of the Beijing Olympics, or an “interest-driven” one. A values-driven approach would prioritize normative issues including human rights, democracy, and international law, while deprioritizing material issues such as trade and security; conversely, an interest-driven policy approach would prioritize material exchange.
Pressure is currently mounting for a values-driven approach to the Olympics question. That stems from the current domestic political headwinds in the U.S., where there is increasing congressional support for a boycott because of the allegations that China systematically violates human rights and undermines democracy through its policies in Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Hong Kong. Coupled with the growing Republican talking point that Mr. Biden is ”soft” on China, domestic opposition to U.S. Olympic participation will undoubtedly deepen.
Mr. Biden has himself prioritized human rights in U.S. foreign policy, most clearly articulated in the his recent candid phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Along with the administration’s decision to accuse China of acts of “genocide” in Xinjiang, and it is difficult to see how the Biden team – having drawn such a deep line in the sand – can possibly participate.
Internationally, more than 180 human-rights organizations have called for a Western boycott of the Olympics. If international pressure grows, the Biden team may decide to demonstrate values-based leadership and support for the liberal rules-based order by boycotting the Games, a move which may prove politically expedient for the White House.
Ironically, however, this would make it less likely that the Biden administration achieves its strategic ends with China, whether they be defined in normative or material terms.
One lesson we can draw from past Olympic boycotts – whether the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, or the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles – is that they are ultimately ineffective in driving policy change in the host country. Rather, boycotts generally serve to foster strategic distrust between the host and non-attending states that leads to a further deterioration in state relations and a breakdown in communication and co-operation on broader political issues.
Ultimately, Western states such as Canada must weigh the symbolic gains of politicizing the Olympics against its strategic costs. In the case of the Biden administration and China, the costs in terms of the broader U.S.-China relationship clearly outweigh any benefits. Should the Biden administration boycott the Games as a values demonstration, it should know that its ability to work with China on bilateral and transnational issues – including trade, climate change and pandemic response and recovery – will be severely damaged.
The lesson here for Washington (and, indeed, for Ottawa) is that it should opt for an interest-driven approach to Olympic participation if it is, indeed, interested in advancing its national interests with China and maintaining the ability to communicate on issues including human rights and democratic preservation.
An approach of this type would include a declaration that the U.S. would participate in the Olympics, alongside clear messaging to the U.S. public that the White House sees the Games as apolitical and that it is responsible to its own athletes to be part of the competition. Further, it would enable continued engagement with China on bilateral and transnational issues in line with U.S. national interests.
This type of approach will likely lead to a domestic backlash. But it is equally likely that public opposition would quickly recede once U.S. athletes start winning gold medals.
Canadian policy makers should take note of what the U.S. does next. Ottawa’s decision over whether it should or shouldn’t politicize the Games will have significant repercussions, both domestically and for Canada-China relations. If Canada’s strategic end goal is real change within China around the values Canada holds sacrosanct, the best means to achieve this objective might be to stay focused on broader national interests. In this instance, those interests are served through Olympic participation, not politicization.
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