Ryder Cup: how golf is new focus of soft power diplomacy

With Donald Trump a keen player, tournament offers chance for Europe to show united front

As the Ryder Cup tees off for the first time in France this weekend, at a vast course beyond the Palace of Versailles, golf is becoming a new focus of soft power diplomacy in an era of a US president who is not merely loves the links but owns numerous courses.

The tournament that pits top US golfers against top Europeans is the world’s most-watched sporting event after the Olympics and the football World Cup- one of the last huge athletics rivalries still limited to western nations from each edge of the Atlantic.

At a day when European relations with the US president, Donald Trump, are increasingly complicated- from US withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear arrangement, to unilateral tariffs on steel and aluminium- the fairway photo opportunity could be loaded with political metaphor.

France- where fewer people play golf than tennis, horse-riding or judo- is a newcomer to hosting the Ryder Cup and wants to showcase its facilities before the 2024 Paris Olympics. It is 25 years since an American team last won the Ryder Cup on European soil. But as well as marking a comeback for the US giant Tiger Woods, this Ryder Cup is also the last before Brexit day when the UK leaves the European Union.

” In the midst of Brexit negotiations- and a Brexit which is struggling to work out- the Ryder Cup is the chance to see Europeans together and united facing the US, that is a good image ,” said Jean-Baptiste Guegan, a Paris-based lecturer on geopolitics and sport.

” Today, sporting imagery matters for the public, and that is something that soft power is about. France is playing a lot on that. Seeing Europeans united under the same club flag is rare enough to stand out. At a few moments when populism and Brexit are making themselves heard, that’s important .”

Guegan said the Ryder Cup was also a chance for figures in diplomacy and business to mingle.” The Ryder Cup is more than athletic, it’s a barometer of the relationship between Europe and the US, a high-sponsorship event which allows you to see how the business world is faring .”

He added:” There will surely be an element of patriotism coming into play somewhere. For Donald Trump, this is one of the rare sports he plays. He’ll watch this event, he’ll make use of it .”

Trump’s interest in golf is paramount. He has expended 156 days at his golf properties since becoming chairperson, according to a count by NBC News, although it is not clear if he has actually played the sport on every occasion. Barack Obama played a total of 333times during his eight years as president.

Trump has also played with professionals such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, who will be key players in the Ryder cup, and the US president has already begun tweeting about the tournament.

Donald J. Trump (@ realDonaldTrump)

Tiger is playing great. Appears like a big win could happen. Very exciting! @TigerWoods

September 23, 2018

Asked last month about the president’s controversial posture on immigration, Woods replied carefully:” Well, he’s the president of the United States. You have to respect the office. No matter who is in the office, you may like, dislike personality or the politics, but we all must respect the office .”

Trump tweeted in response:” The Fake News Media worked hard to get Tiger Woods to say something that he didn’t want to say. Tiger wouldn’t play the game- he is very smart. More importantly, he is playing great golf again !”

In January 2017, Golf Digest publication noted that Trump is the 16 th of the past 19 presidents to play golf and, with a 2.8 Handicap Index, the best. It ranked John F Kennedy second and Dwight Eisenhower third. In France, the late Socialist president Francois Mitterrand was a golfer, while the 40 -year-old centrist Emmanuel Macron is known more for tennis. But Macron has supported the Ryder Cup organisers closely.

Golfing diplomacy matters for Trump. He has played a few rounds with the Japanese “ministers “, Shinzo Abe, who induced haste to Trump Tower after the 2016 election with a gift of a $3,800 golden golf club.

Trump owns a dozen courses in the US, including his regular summer haunt in Bedminster, New Jersey, and near his Mar-a-Lago private estate- dubbed the “winter White House”- in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Trump has another five clubs around the world: two in Dubai, two in Scotland and one in Ireland. In July he seemed alleviated to spend a weekend at Trump Turnberry in Scotland after meeting Theresa May and the Queen and dodging protesters in London, until a paraglider swooped to within about 90 metres of him with a banner that read:” Trump: Well below par .”

His weekend golfing partners have also included Republican senators Bob Corker, Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul. Corker, an increasingly vocal critic of the president, told Politico last year:” Honestly, it was enjoyable. You learn a lot about him personally .”

The American diplomat Richard Haas wrote in 2009 of what he called the ” fairway hypothesi of history “: how countries with numerous golf courses tend to be friendlier towards the US.

But Pascal Boniface, director of Paris’s Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, said the idea didn’t hold today.” Currently, there are very good relations between Kim Jung-un and Donald Trump. I don’t think there are a lot of golf courses in North Korea .”

Boniface warned against loading too much political metaphor onto the Ryder Cup:” Some might see in it a form of combat between Brussels and Washington- between European multilateralists and the US unilateralists of Donald Trump- but I doubt the different players who know each other and spend time together on the world circuit could have that antagonism .”

As for golf bridging current European and American divides, he said:” Golf has a lot of virtues but not that of changing Donald Trump’s intellect, and that is really what counts in the relationship with the Europeans .”

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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