US primacy is relegated to the sidelines at World Cup
Yesterday, the 22nd FIFA World Cup kicked off in Qatar. Following the expectedly grandiose opening ceremony at Al Bayt Stadium, the Qataris themselves got the tournament started, falling to Ecuador 2-0 in a rather disappointing start for the Gulf hosts.
The lead-up to this massive global spectacle has been rife with controversy, with much of the attention on the Qatari government. While such spotlight is certainly warranted, it has also become an unfortunate diversion from the event itself, one set to draw over five billion viewers from across the globe.
Looking beyond the host country, this World Cup comes amid a changing global environment. We increasingly see the emergence of a multipolar world, defined in part by the ascendance of the Global South, the disparate assortment of countries across Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
The landscape of soccer captures this dynamic well. Argentina and Brazil stand as two of the heavy favorites to take home the World Cup crown, with Senegal, Mexico, Uruguay, and Ecuador all fielding strong teams as well that could make deep runs in the tournament. The diverse composition of some of the European rosters — including the formidable French and Belgian teams, which have many players of African descent — also vividly illustrate the global nature of the game.
The grouping of teams highlight geopolitical tensions as well, both contemporary and historical in nature. In particular, the pairing of France and Tunisia certainly raises some eyebrows, considering France’s colonial rule over the African nation from 1881 until 1956.
Another group brings a more current controversy to the fore: In Group B, Western heavyweights England and the United States will square off against arch-geopolitical foe Iran, setting up a rather bitter dynamic both on and off the pitch. Add to that the fact that anti-Islamic Republic protests, springing from the state killing of a woman for alleged indecency, continue to shake Tehran to its core. The tensions between the regime and its citizens bled onto the field Monday morning, when Iran’s players stayed conspicuously silent as their national anthem blared before their first match.
Clearly, the competition extends beyond strictly that of the sporting realm, adding a political dimension to the pomp and circumstance.
Temperate American expectations also demonstrate soccer’s multipolarity. After the U.S. failed to qualify for the last World Cup, the American public is undoubtedly excited to at least see their team compete in Qatar. A young, talented group with lots of upside, the United States ought to advance to the knockout round, in which sixteen teams remain. But a loss there seems like a reasonable prediction, and any potential run beyond that point would be a strong showing for the Americans.
With such modest expectations, the United States remains a rather dispensable player in the world of soccer. To use a term from the modern lexicon, the World Cup has become a hubris check for the United States, an event that forces us to curb our otherwise conceited impulses on the world stage. We recognize that we are not close to the likes of perennial powerhouses such as Brazil, Argentina, or Belgium, and that is fine.
We have responded to the global reality of soccer with restraint and a moderation of our goals. It would be refreshing to see this ethos extend beyond the pitch to how we approach the world in general. Rather than continuing to operate in a domineering manner, it is time for a sober recognition of the limitations of our power, be it cultural, economic, or military. To otherwise maintain a primacist mindset risks eroding ties with the nations of the Global South, made worse by the United States’ refusal to come to terms with a changed global landscape.
Take the admiration for Brazilian and Argentinian fútbol and extend it to the general geopolitical realm. Discard the enduring paternalistic mindset and accept the multipolar reality. Consider diplomatic engagement over sustained military intervention. Establish realistic trade and investment goals with countries of the Global South, without forcing them to choose a side between us and China. This restrained mindset would be met with widespread approval, from your diehard soccer fan in Senegal to the newly-elected president in Brazil.
This World Cup represents a great opportunity for the United States, particularly for those amongst the D.C. establishment who tune in to watch. Humility is a virtue, in soccer fandom and foreign policy alike.
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