People wear protective masks as they walk front the logos of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics at Yanqing Ice Festival on February 26, 2021 in Beijing, China.

People wear protective masks as they walk front the logos of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics at Yanqing Ice Festival on February 26, 2021 in Beijing, China. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Boycott the Olympics? Cancel the Saudis? How Woke Can Biden Really Get?

Classic international relations realism and wokeness are two different things.

Boycott the Olympics? Cancel the Saudis? Don’t even fire back at Iran-backed militias who wound U.S. troops and kill personnel? How woke should President Joe Biden really get? 

In the first few weeks of the administration, cancel-culture warriors on the left and right are coming hard at the White House on several key foreign policy fronts. Sizable portions of the electorate are pushing for ground-shifting changes in U.S. foreign policy, wanting it to evolve into something different, less tolerant of dictators and their games, more willing to stand up to them on principle, but with less violence, so as to break decades-old cycles of conflict. It’s a brewing culture clash, laced with hardball politics, to which Western security leaders should give serious attention. 

Take the Olympics. It’s been four decades since the Western world boycotted the Moscow Summer Games over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, and a dozen since America sent its team to the Beijing Olympics hoping to influence China’s leaders for the better. Now some politicians and human rights leaders are reconsidering Team USA’s attendance at next year’s Winter Games, hosted by the ever-more-repressive Xi Jinping. 

Last year, more than 100 human rights groups called for the International Olympic Committee to strip Beijing of the 2022 games. Last month, a mix of 180 campaign groups urged world leaders not to send their winter-sports Olympians to a country that is stamping out freedom in Hong Kong and committing genocide against its Uighur population

And last week, some Republicans added their voices. On Fox News, which generally inveighs against “cancel culture,” personality Laura Ingraham joined the boycott calls, inviting former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on her show to say, “We shouldn’t honor the Chinese Communist Party with this.” Pompeo even likened the Biden administration, which said on Thursday it has not made a “final decision” on a boycott, to Clinton administration officials who “walked away” from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. 

And on Saturday, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley tweeted, “We must boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics in China. It would be a terrible loss for our athletes, but that must be weighed against the genocide occurring in China and the prospect that empowering China will lead to even greater horrors down the road.”

Why have Republicans latched on to the Beijing-boycott idea? They may be sincere bedfellows, but it’s also the latest play by Biden’s opponents to paint him as weak on China. As a result, some Biden supporters are rejecting boycott cries as thinly-veiled partisan opportunism, especially when coming from a Trump flip-flopper like Haley. 

In any case, Western world leaders have been slow to join the stance. Last week, the UK’s Boris Johnson rejected a boycott, and the British Olympic Association said in a statement: “As we saw in Moscow in 1980, sporting boycotts don't work. They penalise the athletes whilst leaving the greater political problems unaddressed or unsolved.” It’s hard to imagine the United States and all NATO allies not coming to the same decision on the games. 

China is not the only authoritarian government slated to host the world’s largest sporting events. The world has known for years that Qatar has used slave labor to build the venues for next year’s FIFA World Cup soccer tournament. Last year, organizing officials announced that three dozen stadium workers died building the venues. Last fall, Amnesty said that worker conditions had not sufficiently improved. And this week, The Guardian reported it found that 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar in that time, highlighting a well-worn criticism of the tiny Middle Eastern country. 

And yet early calls for a boycott of Qatar’s World Cup have almost completely disappeared. Why? One reason is foreign policy. For the past three years until January, Qatar’s regional rivals, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, enacted a real-life boycott of Qatar — a literal blockade of items, including food. Doha received Western sympathies and drew Washington to coordinate on issues like Syria, hostages, and Iran. All three countries are important partners for U.S. military and intelligence, and they host thousands of U.S. troops with intelligence and strike aircraft that Washington says are crucial for fighting terrorism and deterring Iran. 

All three countries also have become targets of Americans wanting to cancel the distasteful diplomatic ways of the past, including looking the other way from the Middle East’s human rights violations and wealth-hoarding monarchs. Last week, Qatari officials were forced by professional women’s volleyball players to walk back an attempt to ban their bikinis. No boycotts were necessary, but then on Tuesday news also broke that Qatar’s al-Jazeera is launching a right-wing news network inside the United States, seemingly eager to profit off the division that is tearing Americans apart. And next door, the United Arab Emirates’s ruling family was accused of holding its own Princess Latifa hostage for being a public critic of the regime, considered a serial human rights abuser

Then there’s Saudi Arabia. The Biden administration last week released the long-awaited intelligence report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi that the Trump administration hid from public view. It’s safe to assume the White House expected good press for it. But instead they met harsh call-outs for not cancelling Mohammed bin Salman outright. 

“He’s imposed no travel ban, no asset freeze, no criminal charges, and most important, no sanctions on the crown prince himself. Why not?” said CNN’s Dana Bash, pressing White House press secretary Jen Psaki in a Sunday interview. Psaki said that the administration is pressuring Saudis in many ways Trump would not, including sanctioning other officials and withdrawing support for the war in Yemen, and there’s a history of not sanctioning heads of state. 

“Isn’t punishing them like punishing the hitman and not the mob boss who actually put out the hit?” Bash said, as Psaki’s face visibly dropped as the interview went on. Psaki tried to defend the White House, but Dana shook her head, “Jen — but Jen — Jen. I hear you, you say ‘hold them accountable,’ but it just doesn't look like that when it comes to the notion of justice.” 

This is just the first example of the kind of old-fashioned international diplomacy Biden wants struggling to regain footing in the age of wokeness and cancel culture sweeping America’s political scene. The new president used his first global-leader moments in traditional ways: projecting unity with NATO and the G-7, addressing a high-power security conference, promising a Summit of Democracies. But America’s progressives, after the #MeToo and #BLM upheavals, overwhelmingly threw Trumpism out of office and are seeking historical reckonings and policies toward greater equality. A series of world-stage sport and pop culture events offer the administration chances to demonstrate a more modern form of leadership and influence that would reach more people and improve opinions of the United States at home and abroad, more than any policy conference, arms control agreement, or Iran deal.

I love the Olympics. It’s still a marvel to observe so many young adults at the peak of sport come together to compete for their nations and become friends in a two-week spectacle that actually can undercut the politics that tries to prevent them. That said, the International Olympic Committee is making it hard to keep loving the Games. The Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, were bad enough. It was a horrible decision to grant China another games after all that Xi’s regime has done in the past few years: Uighur concentration camps, Hong Kong gone forever, forced labor, total information control, the murder of CIA assets, global industrial espionage, cyber warfare, holding Western academics goes on and on. And yet, one year from now, the United States is going to send its athletes to march through a stadium, smile and wave, and play games in a country committing genocide? 

Would boycotting the Olympics be better than beating Xi in his own house? The history of sport being used to build bridges between geopolitical rivals — or as propaganda to undercut them — is as old as sport itself, from runners — Harold Abrahams beating anti-semitism in the 1924 Paris games, Jesse Owens defying Nazism in 1936 Berlin, Tommie Smith and John Carlos throwing a Black Power fist into the Mexico City air — or the Israeli hostages murdered in Munich in 1972. 

The heat is on. Tokyo’s 2020 Olympic organizers stumbled last year, saying they wanted to keep political activism out of the games. One year later, their own organizer was forced to resign after making sexist remarks against women. They underestimated how times have changed. 

But what about China? Politicians and human rights groups are speaking out, but it’s unclear whether today’s activist stars like the NBA’s LeBron James know what they want to do about China, if anything. Fox’s Ingraham has previously told NBA players to “shut up and dribble” instead of levying racism accusations at conservatives. One would imagine she’d welcome James as a China-basher, yet so far he has chosen to stay out of it, recognizing the issue is more complicated than being “for” or “against” the entire country of China. 

The USA Basketball star may not be able to sit on the sidelines much longer. Last week, when international soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimovic unexpectedly criticized James’ political outspokenness, James fired back, saying, “we will definitely not shut up and dribble.” To that, UFC fighter Colby Covington jumped right in and called James a “Chinese finger puppet.” 

LeBron James has a significant financial stake in China’s market, and he has been dogged by critics to get educated and speak out. It will only get louder as the 2022 games approach. But LeBron James does not decide U.S. foreign policy. If Washington wants more Americans to participate in the great power competition with China, they’ll need to convince far more cultural icons like LeBron James, and far more corporate executives, to stand up against Beijing in more ways than a boycott. If they need inspiration, perhaps they could turn to the words of another Olympic legend who once said, “I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs.” His name was Muhammad Ali.