How shrewd is Vladimir Putin? In his bid to host a World Cup—an event that would inevitably turn into a grotesque advertisement for his regime, if one reasonably assumes that he’ll still be repressing Russia in 2018—Putin feigned contempt. He called the whole process of bidding for a World Cup an “unfair competition,” suggesting it had been rigged to favor his western European competitors. Then, of course, he turned around and entered the unfair competition in the ruthless manner it was meant to be played. That’s how it works in FIFA—the reductio ad absurdum of a bloated, corrupt international governmental body.
The United States used to be masters at this sort of scheming. We knew how to navigate the (often) grubby byways of global institutions; we could cut details to win the allegiances of smaller countries when we needed them; we rhetorically positioned ourselves for triumph. But today we failed in our bid to host our second World Cup. (We were angling for the tournament in 2022, not competing directly against Putin.) In this classic instance of hard-nosed soft-power diplomacy, we were badly outplayed by … Qatar.
(Click here to read Jim Downie’s description of Qatar’s expensive methodology.)
It is fitting that this failure came in the same week as the Wikileaks revelations. They both seem to capture this bleak moment for the United States—and not just because of the whiff of incompetence that accompanies these episodes. (Click here to read all of TNR's obsessive coverage of the juicy State Department cables.)
They both highlight the paradoxes of American power. Yes, the world still badly needs us. In the State Department cables, foreign leaders are constantly whispering their agreement with American policy—on subjects from Iran sanctions to Pakistani nukes—and, for the most part, seem happy to have us playing an outsized role in the world. The same is true for the world of soccer, where the relatively well-heeled American consumer remains the biggest prize for the game’s marketers. But neither the foreign heads of state nor the rulers of FIFA cared to publicly express their longing for American leadership. We have power without prestige, and allies who are reticent to closely identify with us.
One interesting side drama to the American bid was the role played by Bill Clinton, who in recent months has become a great champion of soccer. He flew to Zurich to make the closing American argument. This set up an implicit and inevitable comparison with Barack Obama, his foil in what will likely be an everlasting game of one-upmanship. Obama, you’ll recall, travelled to Copenhagen to press the case for the Chicago Olympics, and was painfully rebuffed. This was trumpeted as evidence of his impotence and narcissism.
Those of us who desperately crave bringing the World Cup back to the U.S. were banking on global nostalgia for the nineties—the last time the world truly adored us—to walk us over the line. Clinton’s slick presentation to FIFA (which, full disclosure, name-checked my book) hit all the right notes. It paid obeisance to American humanitarianism; it subtly pressed the case for healing the Bush-era cleavages separating us from the world. And it was ultimately doomed. In both bids, however, the failures had nothing to do with the messengers. They were doomed before the big guns flew in at the last minute. They died because American power without prestige is a debilitating condition.