How FIFA explains the world: America is the only country that could take down Sepp Blatter.

How FIFA Explains the World

How FIFA Explains the World

Events beyond our borders.
June 4 2015 12:43 PM

How FIFA Explains the World

It’s a much better place because of American hegemony.

Blatter World.
A better-dressed Noriega, a smoother Qaddafi: Above, FIFA President Sepp Blatter talks to the press on May 30, 2015, in Zurich.

Photo by Alessandro Della Bella/Getty Images

Last week’s indictment and arrest of seven FIFA officials on corruption charges has been hailed around the world as a much-needed step in cleaning up international soccer. For years even casual observers of the league could not help but notice that there was something deeply awry in the dealings of this organization, ostensibly committed to promoting “the beautiful game.” The awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia had the stink of corruption to it right from the start, and the granting of the 2022 tournament to Qatar was downright insane. The Gulf kingdom has no soccer culture, is sweltering hot in the summertime (when the World Cup takes place), and boasts some of the worst labor conditions in the world. Hundreds of barely paid, shabbily housed migrant workers have already died in World Cup-related construction projects, and a report by the International Trade Union Confederation warns that some 4,000 could perish by 2022. 

While the explosive events of the past week confirm what many suspected about the international soccer bureaucracy, they also tell us something deeper about international relations: The world is a much better place thanks to American hegemony.

It’s no accident that the indictments were delivered by the U.S. Department of Justice, which found “rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted” corruption spanning decades. That FIFA was corrupt was one of the biggest open secrets in the world. Yet for years this organization proceeded with business as usual. Had a majority of its members wanted to do something about it, they would have. Like that other august and effective international body, the United Nations General Assembly, most major FIFA decisions (including the election of its chairman and the location of the World Cup) are determined by a “one country, one vote,” process. This means that, also like at the U.N., dictatorships, thugocracies, and other illiberal regimes—what the late U.S. Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan referred to as the “jackals” of Turtle Bay—have disproportionate sway over FIFA business.

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Soccer does indeed “explain the world,” as a book of that title claims. Its governing body is a place where might makes right, where dark dealings and shady associations win the day, where the bullies and the cheaters win, where the world’s only Jewish state is singled out for abuse—and it’s all presided over and funded by venal Swiss bankers. That is, it will be until Sepp Blatter, the FIFA chairman who ruled for 17 years with an iron fist, exits the chairmanship sometime later this year, having announced his resignation on Tuesday amid swirling rumors that he had a role in the corruption. FIFA is a microcosm of the world order in its default state—anarchic and unjust—its way of operating emblematic of the “transnational” “global governance” structures so fetishized by liberal internationalists.

Blatter himself resembles nothing more than one of the tin-pot dictators America overthrows every decade or so; he is a better-dressed Manuel Noriega, a smoother-than-silk Qaddafi. Not for nothing has Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man who knows a thing or two about payoffs, come to Blatter’s defense. A mere two days after police descended upon a luxury Swiss hotel to arrest the indicted officials, a defiant meeting of the FIFA executive committee re-elected Blatter with all the brio of a Soviet Communist Party Congress endlessly applauding its general secretary. It behaved exactly as you would expect a dictatorship—which acts with impunity and flouts global norms—to behave. Blatter’s re-election to a fifth term, after a token opponent dropped out after a contrived first round, was about as legitimate as a presidential election in Kazakhstan.

Point to almost any conflict in the world and it is impossible to solve without American leadership. No one is going to save the benighted Syrian people from Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bombs unless the United States decides to act. NATO, which has kept Europe free and at peace for nearly seven decades, does so with a budget 75 percent of which is paid for by the American taxpayer. When natural disaster strikes somewhere in the Third World, it’s usually America that responds fastest and with the most generosity. And as was the case with the machinations at FIFA, no other country had the means—never mind the wherewithal—to take on this ugly beast.

The reason for this is not so much an inherent American goodness—although I would argue that our motives in world affairs are generally more altruistic than those of most other large nations—but because of our unique position as a liberal democratic superpower that embraces an aspirational, rather than ethnic or confessional, national identity. Ever since it assumed its hegemonic role in the ashes of World War II, America has played the part of what Josef Joffe calls the “default power” in maintaining global peace and security. It’s why Israelis and Palestinians both trust America, and not, say, Russia or Saudi Arabia, as an “honest broker” in peace negotiations, why the Europeans long ago consented to American security dominance on their continent, and why nearly all Asian countries appeal to us in containing an expansionist China.

Our allies in this struggle against the FIFA monster, not coincidentally, are fellow democracies that respect the rule of law. London Mayor Boris Johnson confessed a few days ago that, when his city was auditioning for the role of 2018 World Cup host, “we made sure their traffic lights were always on green, like a series of invisible butlers holding open the doors of a palace” for visiting FIFA executives. In light of what we now know about how FIFA really works, the admission of such petty enticement from the fairness- and queue-obsessed Brits would be endearing were the stakes not so high. The fact is, as Johnson writes, this football-creating and -loving nation whose honest efforts to win the World Cup were dealt the cold shoulder by FIFA for refusing to pay bribes “never stood a chance.”

Writing in Politico Magazine, author Zachary Karabell laments the indictments as another example of American imperial overreach. “Why is the United States taking it upon itself to go after a soccer organization domiciled and largely functioning outside of U.S. borders?” For the same reason we take upon the burden of maintaining the liberal world order: because nobody else will.

James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative, a correspondent for the Daily Beast, and a columnist for Tablet.