• China
    Why China’s Global Image Is Getting Worse
    The Chinese government’s increasingly aggressive diplomacy has hurt its image in much of the world. It’s unlikely to improve anytime soon.
  • Olympics
    Are the Olympics Worth the Cost?
    The Olympics cost host countries billions of dollars. With concerns growing over displacement, debt, and now the COVID-19 pandemic, countries are questioning whether to host the big event.
  • Olympics
    The Economics of Hosting the Olympic Games
    The costs of hosting the Olympics have skyrocketed, while the economic benefits are far from clear. This has led to fewer states interested in playing host and a search for options to lighten the burdens of staging the big event.
  • Olympics
    The Olympics Are Hard on the Environment. Will the 2022 Beijing Games Continue the Trend?
    The Olympics are becoming less sustainable, and the winter games in Beijing are no exception. Can organizers make them more environmentally friendly as the climate crisis intensifies?
  • China
    The Debate Over Boycotting the 2022 Beijing Olympics
    The Biden administration is imposing a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. What could a boycott accomplish, and how might China respond?
  • Japan
    Here’s Why Tokyo Is Hosting the Summer Olympics Despite COVID-19
    The challenge of hosting the Olympic Games in Tokyo amid the coronavirus pandemic has confounded Japan’s government, but postponing the Olympics further does not seem to be an option.
  • International Law
    Save the Olympics, Again
    In May 1984, I published an op-ed in The New York Times entitled, “To Save Olympics.” It called for the depoliticization of the Olympics through an international treaty that would establish permanent locations for the games. During the intervening years nothing has changed to alter the political and economic risks of holding the Olympic Games in different cities, now every two years. This includes notably Beijing, which will host the Winter Olympics in 2022. In his own recent op-ed in the Times, Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) rightly argued for an economic and diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics but not a government-imposed athlete boycott. China’s genocidal treatment of its Uyghur minority population, anti-democratic governance of Hong Kong, and aggressive threats against Taiwan are reasons enough to publicly delegitimize its hosting the Olympics and its reaping any profit or political hype from the Games. Still, at this late date the Olympic athletes of 2022 must be prioritized and allowed to compete, even if Beijing remains the host city. Now is an opportune moment to consider more fundamental changes to the Olympics, so that we do not find ourselves in this kind of situation again. I spelled out my view almost four decades ago, writing: “[I]t is now clear that the Games must be depoliticized if they are to be preserved. Just as significant, the rights of qualified athletes to compete must be protected.  An ‘International Olympics Treaty,’ negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations, could prevent world leaders from routinely sacrificing athletes’ rights on the altar of nationalism.  Athletes who have devoted their lives to the goal of competing in the Olympic Games should have a guarantee that their achievement will not be snatched from them at the eleventh hour.” In the modern history of the Olympic Games, which resumed in Athens in 1896, there have been at least 11 instances where the site of the Games has given rise to political boycotts, disruptive controversies, nationalist propaganda, or human tragedy. These cities include Berlin (1936), London (1948), Mexico City (1968), Munich (1972), Moscow (1980), Los Angeles (1984), Seoul (1988), Atlanta (1996), Beijing (2008), Sochi (2014), and soon Beijing again. The economic burden imposed upon cities vying for the Olympics has increased astronomically in recent decades and burdened national economies. For example, the Greek government invested the equivalent of $11 billion at current exchange rates in the 2004 Summer Olympics, double its initial budget, and never offset the cost of the stadiums, which fell into disuse and sapped the national budget. That year, Greece’s national debt surged to 110.6 percent of gross domestic product, the highest in the European Union. As the country’s deficit ballooned, the European Commission subsequently imposed fiscal monitoring on Greece in 2005, an unprecedented step. Similarly, to host the Summer Olympics in 1976, Montreal overspent billions beyond its initial projected figure of $124 million. The spiraling cost overruns incurred during construction dumped upon the city’s taxpayers a debt of approximately $1.5 billion that took three decades to repay. In 1988, South Korean officials forcibly relocated roughly 720,000 people and demolished 48,000 buildings to prepare the city for foreign visitors ahead of the Seoul Summer Olympics. Likewise, the Chinese Government bulldozed vast tracts of poor communities, displacing more than 1.5 million citizens in order to build Beijing’s 2008 Summer Olympics infrastructure. Accounting for the city’s large-scale investments, the cost of Beijing’s exhibition surged to an estimated $45 billion. A similar scenario unfolded in London, where the government bulldozed an entire low-income housing development in preparation for the 2012 Summer Olympics. In 2014, the Russian resort city of Sochi hosted the costliest Olympic Games in history, totaling an estimated $50 billion. For years after hosting the Summer Olympics in 2016, Rio de Janeiro struggled with debt, colossal maintenance costs for empty facilities, and inadequate public services, with total costs reaching an estimated $13.1 billion. In 2017, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) refused to assist organizers to pay millions of dollars in outstanding debt. In the aftermath of the Games, the city struggled to find use for vacant sporting venues and to garner renters for the 3,600 units in the Athletes Village. In January 2020, a Brazilian judge ordered the closure of the Olympic Park due to safety concerns, describing the venue as “progressively battered by the lack of care” and “ready for tragedies.” As the world’s best athletes prepare for the Tokyo Olympics, it promises to be one of the most expensive Summer Games in history. The expected hit on Japan’s national budget to build the requisite sites is $15.4 billion. The cost overrun had already exceeded 200 percent without accounting for the additional billions in expenses resulting from the COVID-19 delay. Though in its original proposal in 2013 to host the Games, Tokyo estimated it would spend roughly $7 billion, early estimates in 2019 projected the cost would surge to more than $26 billion. Further, given the appropriate decision not to permit spectators to witness the delayed Games of “2020,” Japan will incur further financial loss. The intense competition among cities to burnish their image by hosting the Olympic Games is understandable but rarely makes economic sense. The process also is often marred by the tendency of the IOC to choose the city that submits the highest costing proposals, creating a “winner’s curse” for the country and its taxpayers. In the past, at least, it has also led on several occasions to serious allegations of impropriety or corruption involving, among others, members of the International Olympic Committee. There is a better way. The International Olympics Treaty that I have proposed could be negotiated to establish two permanent sites, one for the Summer Olympics and one for the Winter Olympics. Each of these locations would establish an “Olympic-free zone” where the designated national government agrees by treaty to govern such territory as permanently dedicated to an apolitical Olympic purpose and to comply with the operational requirements set forth in the treaty. In return, the budget of the Olympic Games every two years would be raised by the parties to the treaty and administered by a committee of auditors and financial experts set up by the agreement. This would include management of the commercial media coverage, sponsorships, endorsements, and spectator ticket sales that are major components of the revenue stream. The initial investments required to build modern facilities could be financed with bonds guaranteed by the major treaty parties (with high sovereign debt ratings) and repaid with revenue raised in connection with the Games. Those facilities need not be rebuilt elsewhere every two years and that alone would save billions of dollars in construction costs in perpetuity. The nations that initially refuse to enter the treaty regime, as I earlier wrote, “could participate in the Games under restricted conditions, including the payment of surcharges. Enough incentives and penalties could be built into the treaty to induce all nations to sign and ratify it.” The countries meriting serious scrutiny should not include any major global power or politically-stressed nation so as to avoid the vicissitudes of global politics and boycott fever.  Candidates for the permanent Winter Olympics site might include Norway, Sweden, Finland, Austria, and Switzerland. For the Summer Olympics, Greece, the birthplace of the Olympic Games, might uniquely qualify as could Jamaica and Singapore. (This assumes that seasons defined by the Northern Hemisphere calendar are selected.) Any of these nations should be able and obligated to facilitate the sports-centric Games with no political or nationalist agenda. The designated city would benefit significantly from spectators flocking to the host country every four years, the employment arising with permanent facilities built and maintained for each Olympic Games, and their well-planned use during off-years. To further avoid the enormous costs and political risks of the Games, a city that weather-wise can convene both the Summer and Winter Olympics in a politically “safe” country could be an attractive option with the bonus of Olympic events held every two years. While Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States have garnered both sets of Games and some of these nations are on deck through 2028, none of these mega-powers  likely would pass the political litmus test for the permanent Olympic site. The year 2030, for which no city is yet selected for the Winter Olympics, might be a good target date for transition to permanent Olympic status for one or two suitable cities under a freshly drawn international treaty. The practical difficulties of persuading countries to forfeit any future bid for an Olympic site, including those currently in the queue as bidders, cannot be underestimated.  But the current illogical system is far too costly on political and economic grounds, invites corruption, and burdens average taxpayers of the host nation.  Athletes should compete for the sake of sports excellence in an essentially neutral and financially-secure arena. They should know that every two years a city of ever-lasting commitment to the Games will host them for only one reason: to realize their individual Olympic spirit from which the whole world benefits. The author thanks Madeline Babin of the Council on Foreign Relations for her research assistance.
  • Olympics
    Hey, Remember the Olympics?
    Hosting the Olympics is a monumental undertaking that often leaves behind rusted stadiums and financial losses. So why do nations compete to do it? This episode examines the political history of the games, and the soft power that countries hope to gain by hosting them.
  • South Korea
    Will South Korea’s Olympic Diplomacy Last?
    South Korea must capitalize on its diplomatic push to bridge the divide between its longtime ally and its combative neighbor.
  • South Korea
    Can South Korea Save Itself?
    For much of its recent history, Korea has been caught in conflicts between powerful neighbors—an experience that provides sobering lessons for South Korean leaders grappling with their country’s vulnerabilities today. Since its independence following World War II, South Korea has recovered from war, overcome poverty, democratized, and developed into the 11th-largest economy in the world. Yet sitting astride Northeast Asia’s major geopolitical fault lines, it remains existentially vulnerable: the North Korean nuclear threat continues to grow, and the war of words between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un continues to escalate. There is no ready historical template to help South Korean leaders sidestep tragedy should words turn into military action. It is no wonder, then, that South Korean President Moon Jae-in so eagerly grasped Kim’s New Year’s olive branch and invited North Korean athletes to participate in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang as an insurance policy against disruption during the games—and with the hope that the Olympic goodwill generated would avert a return to confrontation. But with the Olympic flame extinguished at the end of the February 25 closing ceremony and the Paralympics to follow, the question is whether Moon can extend the spirit of inter-Korean reconciliation beyond a limited-time-only easing of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Making his gambit succeed, and forestalling a return to dangerous escalation, will require more than just diplomacy between the two Koreas. Moon must find a way to bridge the divide between Washington and Pyongyang. MISSED CONNECTION For Moon, brokering the Olympic truce proved surprisingly easy with a big assist from Kim. He failed, however, to connect his North Korean and American guests. The perceived overeagerness of his administration to roll out the red carpet for the North Koreans generated pushback domestically and internationally. Moon’s domestic critics charged that he had turned the Pyeongchang Olympics into the Pyongyang Olympics by allowing not only North Korean athletes and officials but also an orchestra, a cheering squad, and a tae kwon do demonstration team to come for the games. Those feelings were reinforced by the novelty of hosting Kim’s sister both at the opening ceremonies and at the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential headquarters. The symbolism of the fielding of a unified women’s hockey team also proved controversial among South Koreans: they could accept athletes marching together under a unified flag but were reluctant to sacrifice South Korean competitiveness on the altar of political symbolism. Read more on ForeignAffairs.com.
  • Diplomacy and International Institutions
    February 15, 2018
    World leaders convene for the annual Munich Security Conference, the Winter Olympics continue with all eyes on the Korean peninsula, and South Africa undergoes a controversial transition of presidential power.
  • South Korea
    The Pyeongchang Winter Olympiad and South Korea’s Diplomatic Goals
    South Korea branded the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics as the “Peace Olympics” as part of its campaign to win rights to host the games. Just months ago, the phrase seemed empty as Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un engaged in a war of words, and the United States and North Korea appeared set to careen toward military confrontation. But Kim Jong-un has launched a momentary charm offensive with his New Year’s offer to join the Olympics and lower tensions on the peninsula for the duration of the games. The immediate challenge for South Korea's Moon administration is how to be a good host to the world, navigate fierce domestic political divisions over how to deal with North Korea, and identify an exit ramp for the U.S.-North Korean nuclear confrontation. Read more on The Hill.