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Scotland can use sports diplomacy to advance its cultural relations

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Scotland can use sports diplomacy to advance its cultural relations

Wales had already qualified for the UEFA 2020 finals by the time Scotland took on Serbia, but despite this the Welsh left nothing to chance as, in the same week they took the first steps to launch a new strategy placing sport at the forefront of delivering global recognition for Wales.

Wales looks likely to be the first home nation to grasp the full international potential of sport by launching its own bespoke sports diplomacy strategy that will formally recognise the role that sport plays in Welsh international engagement and diplomatic activities.

Towards a Welsh Sports Diplomacy strategy presents on a plate a unique opportunity for Wales to lead the way in terms of innovative sub-state policy and Scotland should follow suit.

Indeed, the Jarvie Review of the Scottish sporting landscape, published by the Scottish Government in 2019, recommended that Scottish sport should be supported to develop its potential as a soft power asset to advance Scotland’s cultural relations. This is what Wales is on the cusp of doing.

Sports diplomacy is not new, but it is a response to the changing nature of power and responsibility in the 21st century. It is particularly suited to those parts of the UK that require more soft power because the levers of hard power, defence and foreign policy, remain primarily the ambit of Westminster and Whitehall.

Scotland like Wales possesses an embarrassment of riches in terms of its sporting assets. But it is Wales that has taken a huge step forward by thinking formally about sport policy in a way that acknowledges the importance of sport to health, physical activity and tourism but also sees how much more sport can actually deliver for a nation.

The benefits of sports diplomacy laid out in the report may equally apply to Scotland. The arguments being that sports diplomacy is low-risk, low-cost and more often than not high profile.

Informal relationships instigated through sport can lead to formal, long term relationships.

Also sports diplomacy builds familiarity, favourability and trust, amplifying a nation’s culture and values to broad overseas public audiences as well as governments.

The concept is innovative and generates public interest in international affairs at home and abroad.

Sport draws interest. It is an attractive and popular vessel through which to conduct diplomacy, with officials keen to attend events and large audiences for public diplomacy campaigns.

Bespoke sports diplomacy initiatives offer governments a comparative advantage over similar regions or countries not using sport as a diplomatic tool.

Sports diplomacy creates sustainable partnerships between government and national sports organisations, and encourages mutually reciprocal, win-win policy outcomes.

Many sports organisations already have mature and extensive international networks. In some senses government are simply aligning interests.

Many sports people are “diplomats in tracksuits”.  They represent their country on the pitch. Why not off it too? They could be trained ambassadors for their country, building trust and representing values – laying the foundations for diplomatic and business relations. Given training this could be a further post athletic career path for athletes off the track. Diplomats and civil servants should also recognise much more the full range of tools that they have in their kit bag.

Using sports diplomacy strategies raises the international profile of a nation’s cities and communities.

This case can be made without ignoring the fact that sport at times can be problematic. But on balance the net overall value of sport is not always captured. In the words of one international diplomat, sport helps because it is less aloof than more formal forms of diplomacy. 

Wales acknowledges that it has thought hard and long about what it means to be an outward facing nation today, and how sport can help deliver for Global Wales. It also recognizes that Australia, France and the USA are all maximising the power of sports envoys, sports events and sports visits on the global stage.

Scotland could join the growing list of countries with sports diplomacy strategies, offices, officers, incubators and hubs. Coupling international policy objectives with sport is a low risk, relatively low-cost method of raising a country’s international profile and further establishing Scotland as a globally responsible nation.

It is ironic that one of the lead authors and one of the international advisors to the Welsh report are Scottish. Yet, Wales is currently on track to become the first devolved part of the UK to formally and strategically acknowledge and harness the diplomatic, soft power potential of sport to help on the world stage.

Professor Grant Jarvie is Chair of Sport at the University of Edinburgh and was one of the international advisors to the Welsh report

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