Pascal Boniface: “Football helps ease national and religious antagonisms”

18 June 2012, 11:53

Dr. Pascal Boniface heads IRIS, which is one of the largest French centres for strategic research, and also teaches at the Institute of European Studies at the University of Paris VIII and works as a consultant to the French Federation of Football. These are just a few of the positions held by this renowned French geopolitics expert who periodically finds himself in the centre of ideological scandals and whose polemic fervour instills fear in thinkers of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s calibre. Within the framework of a joint project by Ye Bookstore and the French Institute in Ukraine, Boniface gave a lecture on “Football and globalisation” (his book with the same title was published by Armand Colin in 2010). He spoke about the results of his original studies of sports and about contemporary geopolitical science in an exclusive interview for The Ukrainian Week.

U.W.: You are developing a fairly non-traditional area of research – the study of the globalisation processes in sports, particularly football. What is the integrating role of this sport in forming “one human family”? And why is football particularly suited to performing this function?

The saying “The empire on which the sun never sets” can be modified to “The sun will never set in a country where football is played”. This aristocratic collective game originated in Great Britain in the 19th century and turned into the most popular mass sport in the 20th century. British sailors spread it across the world. Television completed football’s conquest of the world and now makes it possible to broadcast to an audience of over two billion football fans. And today, thanks to the Internet, this sport has achieved universal appeal and has become a true globalisation phenomenon.

There is no continent now that has been able to resist the charm of football. Proof of this game’s globalisation may be found for example in Qatar’s purchase of Paris Saint-Germain. To the French, this football club is the same kind of symbol as, say, the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It should be noted that the globalisation of football preceded the formation of the EU.

An important contributing factor is that it is a simple sport that can be played by anyone, regardless of physical ability. It does necessarily require special playgrounds and can be played anywhere.

The popularity of football stars is comparable to that of film stars. Football has turned into a true show, a theatrical performance. What threats may the empire of football face? Other sports may be a threat. Another danger is that money may decide the outcome of games. We need to be careful not to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

U.W.: What role can football play in consolidating and cementing national identity? What is the link between football and the national idea?

Globalisation is often blamed for eroding national borders between countries. In contrast, football strengthens national markers — and more powerfully than any other sport at that. For example, football was a kind of channel for the “national spirit” in Soviet Ukraine when Dynamo Kiev beat Spartak Moscow. Under dictator Francisco Franco in Spain, Barcelona FC was a mouthpiece of discontent with official Madrid's policies.

When a national team plays, the entire country unites and differences (social, economic, religious or political) recede into the background. Football performs this function with regard to both old members of the international community and new countries. On the international level, this collective game is a clear marker of a country next to its national symbols. Algeria offers an interesting combination of football and the national idea. Even before it became independent, it formed its own national squad to show it was aspiring to independence.

U.W.: In other words, football can be a factor in international relations?

Football is not a magic wand that can overcome unemployment or solve other social problems, but it does help a country unite. This can be seen in matches between the national teams of Armenia and Turkey, which are attended by the presidents of both countries, or between Iran and the USA. Football helps ease national and religious antagonisms. Violence is not frequent in football, because the sport itself channels aggression; it is a form of reconciling both groups. No loss is a final loss; there is always a chance to start all over and win. At the same time, football is a means of democratisation, because this sport does not have any hierarchy. You cannot have any predefined advantages in it. Moreover, it is a tool for promoting social equality.

U.W.: A lot is being said in Europe about the crisis of NATO. In your opinion, what are the underlying causes, and what future will the Alliance have?

Back in the 1970s, Henry Kissinger spoke about a “transatlantic misunderstanding” – this difference between America and Europe is as old as NATO itself. But its current crisis lies not only in different views on the Alliance’s mission that America and Europe have. New problems add to this traditional one. We were looking forward to the NATO summit that took place in mid-May in Chicago. Among numerous problems that had to be resolved at the summit, I would single out Afghanistan as a top priority. Evidently, NATO’s war in this country has not been victorious by any means – the word ‘victory’ has become almost euphemistic there. It has been 10 years since the Taliban regime was overthrown, but Afghanistan still is not a quiet, unitary and peaceful state. Finally, NATO members do not know how they can pull out of the country without losing face. This is a serious defeat for the Alliance — the world’s greatest military power cannot overcome some insurgents. Another problem is that NATO as a military union is inclined to view political problems from a military viewpoint. The Alliance has greatly expanded its tasks, wanting to preserve its raison d'être after the Soviet threat was removed. At the same time, it expanded geographically. That was too difficult for the organisation. In this geographical and conceptual expansion lies a threat to NATO — it may end up being perceived as a military arm of the Western world, a military tool in the war of civilisations. The more the Alliance expands and affects other countries, the more difficult it will be for NATO to govern itself.

U.W.: If America reduces its presence in Eastern Europe, will France and Germany step up their policy in the region? Or will they sit back and watch Russia regain control over territories it often considers its own?

These are two different questions. The fact that France, Germany, Great Britain and other European countries are increasing their influence does not depend exclusively on an American presence. It has to do just with the will of the European countries themselves. In President Barack Obama we have a White House leader who is not hostile to the idea of building a more powerful Europe. His predecessors spoke about it but in fact resisted it in every possible way. Obama is acting differently. The common defence system in Europe was developing, but it came to an important stopping point with the war in Iraq which divided countries into two camps: supporters and opponents. Moreover, even though the EU’s rapid expansion increased its capacity, it also exposed the divisions inside the Union, because its new members had other views on cooperating with Russia and the USA. But Europe keeps moving ahead at its historically slow pace.

Still, the current situation is much better than what we had 5-15 years ago. The European defence system is not instant coffee; it cannot be made in a split second. It is a lengthy process that takes time.

So we have a kind of vicious circle here: Russia perceived NATO’s expansion as a threat and reacted accordingly. For example, we see that the USA's attempts to deploy its antimissile defence shield near Russian borders were perceived by Russia as aggression rather than a defensive measure. Moreover, the policy of George W. Bush Jr. was aimed at confrontation with Russia. So the Kremlin’s policy was about showing power in response. This is perceived as aggression by NATO itself, and thus we have a truly vicious circle. It should be noted that there is an excessively strong sense in the Western world that the cold war was a defeat for Russia, but this is not so.

U.W.: In your opinion, is Obama's policy of rebooting relations working?

It worked initially but was soon discontinued. Obama took the first steps to improve relations with Russia but stopped against the background of aggressive discourse on the Russian Federation and announced a project to deploy elements of the antimissile defence system in Eastern Europe. The main reason is that the pressure of the military-industrial complex is too strong. So he abandoned the reboot, just like many other of his initial promises, and began to set goals that were less innovative and ambitious than those the world expected of him, because Obama had to confront Congress and keep elections in mind. It can be hoped that if he is re-elected, he will return to his earlier promises.

U.W.: Poland’s Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said there is fear that as the West continues to be weak and crisis-stricken, the Kremlin may try to regain control over post-Soviet countries. How seriously is the political class in the EU prepared to react to such claims on Russia's part?

Of course, Russia will not occupy Ukraine, Georgia and Poland in a military way. It will apply political pressure. But if the Kremlin tries to impose its will on post-Soviet countries, it will be counterproductive. The will to independence in these countries is too strong for them to dance to Russia’s tune. Moreover, threats and intimidation tend to work against Russia itself.

U.W.: How likely is the Moscow-Paris-Berlin triumvirate, a concept that Vladimir Putin suggests, become the future model for organising European space?

Today this triumvirate does not exist, because Russia is not part of the EU. But we are talking about the future, the very distant future, in any case. There is no such cooperation today. Regarding the war in Iraq, yes, indeed – Russia, Germany and France had a common position. But Europe will not have this kind of three-headed Directory. Such fears are groundless, because France, Germany and Russia sometimes agree but at other times are deeply at variance, such as on Syria. And even when they agree, it never comes at the cost of Ukraine. There is no alliance between France and Russia against Ukraine. Ukraine is a large country, similar to France in terms of the size of its population, and we need to develop many common projects in which Russia should never stand between us, neither as an obstacle nor as a mediator.

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