It’s a much loved sport and a much hated sports association.  Last week, FIFA’s many enemies had a wonderful morning.  The long arm of America’s law went to work on the grubby men who have long been suspected, but never convicted, of a litany of corruption.

This may seem like a click-bait article, hitting on a very popular news story and then glossing it over with geopolitics, but bear with me.  Reason, as the Gang from Philadelphia used to say, will prevail.

So why are we talking about this?  Isn’t geopolitics just about tanks and wars and power?

  • FIFA in and of itself is geopolitically irrelevant, but it has become a way for upstart powers to try to challenge the established world order through what’s called “soft power.”
  • In an ideal world, a World Cup would only be hosted in an established, secure, and lawfully organized nation-state; those conditions are only present in the most developed of countries.
  • Since national development is a slow, generational process, elites wishing to short cut their status from “developing” to “developed” use relatively cheap soft power tactics to get there.
  • Elites of developing nation-states want to do this because being seen as developed is safer than being seen as developing.  A developed nation-state gets better trade deals, better security guarantees, and overall better treatment than a developing one.
  • The World Cup was used by both Qatar and Russia to try to jump-start their countries towards that coveted developed status; alas, the methods they were forced to employ reveal the weaknesses of both states.
  • Now the established, secure, and lawfully organized nation-states are striking back, wiping the sheen off the prestige Russia and Qatar hoped to gain from hosting the World Cup’s and thwarting their attempts to challenge the world order.

Okay, so what’s soft power, and why does it matter?

Soft power is insidious; it’s inside a Coca-Cola, a music track, a movie theater, a website.  It’s very hard to measure and even harder to control.  It can be seen in laws, diplomatic meetings, religious gatherings, and even the way cities are organized.

Soft power is a nation-state utilizing its economy, culture, legal system, diplomatic apparatus, religion, and language to wield influence over other nation-states.  It is the largely peaceful form of geopolitical competition, and its much harder to stop than an invading army.

Hard power, conversely, is a government’s military prowess, its nuclear capabilities, and the size of the big stick it carries.  A nation-state may have a great deal of hard power but virtually no soft power, like North Korea.  As their example shows, vast stocks of military hardware don’t always get a nation-state what it wants.  In the nuclear age especially, the best you often get from a big military is stalemate.

That leaves soft power as a means to achieve security and prosperity.  Unlike the violence of hard power, it’s much harder for a nation-state to combat the forces of soft power.  When Germany used its soft power to force Greece to austerity, it humbled the Greek state with very little risk of blowback to German power.  Germany got Greece to not only agree to restructure its economy for Germany’s benefit, but forced the Greek state to enforce German edicts through the EU.  Fighting back against German control of Greece’s economy has required several elections and years of wrangling; a counteroffensive is only beginning.  All the while, Germany has accomplished national goals while exposing itself to much less risk.

Compared that with the last time Germany imposed its power on Athens during World War II.  Almost immediately, a resistance movement siphoned German power and undermined the Nazi state.  This required more and more German power, in the form of troops and treasure, to subdue Greece.  Inevitably, defeats elsewhere forced Germany to withdraw entirely from Greece.  Germany, in other words, got very little from militarily occupying Greece and suffered a large amount of hassle.

Soft power may not be this blunt, but states do try to spread their national identities as much as possible. (Source:

Soft power is also different than hard power in that it’s much harder to measure.

Often, a state has soft power if other states believe it does; much like fairies, a state’s influence can vanish if others don’t believe in it.  It’s partially based on the reputation of a country to succeed.  America’s overwhelming power was deeply undermined by its war in Iraq; when hard power could not accomplish American goals, American soft power was eroded throughout the world.  That made it harder for America to get things done short of war; one reason Iran has felt confident in the nuclear negotiations is that it knows America has no appetite for yet another long war.

People do, however, try to measure their soft power anyway, most often with money.  If a state is debt-free and flush with cash, its elites often equate that with soft power.  To a certain extent, that’s true.  A state that can throw around bags of money can accomplish a lot.

Using money, soft power can be expressed through prestige projects, which is exactly where the World Cup falls.  Prestige projects are often white elephants or so close as to make no difference; they are expensive, economically dubious mega projects that put a nation-state on the map.  By earning a bit fame, they gain attention and normalize the status of their host nation-states in the international community.  The more normal they seem, the safer they are, and the more likely they are to earn favorable security agreements or trade pacts.

Case in point is Dubai.  In 2006, Dubai Ports World put in a bid to manage several American seaports.  Because nobody had ever heard of Dubai, and because Dubai was Arab, the deal was sunk for no other reason than Dubai lacked the soft power to protect itself from the inevitable slander in the United States.

Since then, Dubai has been working hard on its soft power through careful image management.  It built the world’s tallest tower and earned the corresponding fame, culminating in music videos and movies that have gone a long way in making Dubai a “normal” city.  Now that its flagship airlines, Emirates, is seeking to push further into American markets, its soft power has, thus far, protected it from the same level of hysteria that accompanied the DPW affair.  Americans now know Dubai as a real place and aren’t immediately assuming Arab-piloted airlines will be used to attack their cities.

I genuinely hate these “keep calm” memes, but this accurately reflects how much attitudes have changed about Dubai.

And this sort of success is why both Russia and Qatar sought the World Cup.

Both Russia and Qatar hoped to capitalize on successful World Cup games to short cut their status from developing states, and the accompanying treatment, to developed.  If they could hold world class games – in Russia’s case, on top of the Olympics – then they would be normalized in the world’s eyes.  It would allow Russian elites greater ability to write trade deals and wield influence by softening the edges of Russia.  Forces that might unite against an obviously aggressive Moscow would instead be confused by memories of happy international games.  It would also provide a morale boost to Russia’s citizens, unifying them behind state power.

Qatar, meanwhile, sought to out-Dubai Dubai itself.  If they couldn’t build the world’s tallest tower, they’d be happy to host the world’s largest sporting event.  The accompanying boost in Qatar’s prestige would make Qatari diplomacy, which back in 2010 seemed rather successful, all the more so.

Alas, a major sporting event like the World Cup requires the skills and economies of a developed state to be carried out well.  Russia is further along that road than Qatar, but nevertheless, as revealed by some of its Sochi debacles, can’t sometimes manage to install a decent toilet.  In both cases, the decision by FIFA to allow developing states to host the World Cup raised eyebrows at best.

And since both Russia and Qatar could not make the case that they were ready from a development standpoint, they could use their ample cash reserves to buy success.

FIFA’s own technical team warned against using a place as rough as Qatar for such an advanced project.  Herein the soft power of money attained a short term success.  It seems increasingly likely that both states used cash to bribe and manipulate the votes to bring the World Cup to their borders.  To them, this was an appropriate use of their soft power; the risk of being caught was outweighed by the benefits of earning international prestige.

However, by doing so, they irked a nation-state with the resources and soft power to undo everything: the United States.

The U.S., as the West’s sole superpower since 1945, has been the center of the international legal system since World War II.  American lawyers are well-versed in it because they’ve been intimately involved in building it.  When accusations of dodgy transactions emerged about FIFA, the U.S. was the country best poised to act.  Its overwhelming soft power meant its lawyers could earn the cooperation of even recalcitrant nation-states like Switzerland.

Here now is how geopolitical necessity helps shape behavior.  On a grand strategy level, the United States desires stability and predictability; when states try to change their pecking order, whether in soft power or hard power, it is a threat to American domination.  But it’s unlikely in the extreme that any American investigator was thinking that as they sought to bring FIFA’s top lads to justice.

Instead, the geopolitical system built by the United States encouraged their behavior by providing them with all the means to arrest FIFA’s executives.  The nation-state of the United States, as a mass of people, has been using its soft power slowly over the past 70 years to cement an international system that favored Americans.  When an upstart nation-state like Qatar tried to go against that grain – without earning the permission of the system America had been instrumental in establishing – it put itself in the crosshairs.

With all their progress, China still remains behind in soft power. (Source: Pew Research)

None of this was an intentional act or a conspiracy, as Putin now alleges, but it was a geopolitical need being satisfied by individuals who don’t think about things geopolitically.  A system had been built to protect American security needs by putting as many things as possible under a predictable international order.  That international order encompassed sporting events like the Olympics and the World Cup, which have grown in such scope and scale that they can only be successfully accomplished in the nation-states that established them.  For states seeking to use them to short cut development, the system left them no option but bribery and scandal, since they could never compete in the meritocracy set up by the West.

With that in mind, the counterattack was predictable.  The system had been deliberately designed as meritocratic, and anyone who tried to ignore that would draw the ire of its many enforcers.  The very moment Qatar’s name was pulled from that card in 2010, these enforcers knew something had to be very, very wrong.  Order had to be reestablished; now, it seems, it is beginning to be.  Neither Qatar nor Russia will be able to save these FIFA executives; as American soft power is brought to bear on their respective tournaments, influential sponsors in addition to European leagues might pull out, gutting the games of any meaning.

That would be a success for the American-led international system and a slap in the face for those who want to change it.  It would also be a prime example of how soft power is used to maintain a nation-state’s domination.

For elites in Doha and Moscow hoping to spend their way to rapid influence, it will be a sore disappointment.  For many Americans, and soccer fans in general, it will seem like justice.  But in fact, it will be the hegemon jealously protecting the system it has worked so hard to establish.