By Ambar Aguilar Estrada-
Over the past few decades, public diplomacy has been used to foster communication among states in order to set up schemes of cooperation that build, change and renew foreign policy approaches. Nicholas J. Cull, a historian and academic in the field defines public diplomacy as “an attempt by an international actor to manage the international environment through a commitment to a foreign audience", thereby diverging from traditional diplomacy, which is understood as the conduct and management of relations between governments.
Nowadays it is within the interests of governments to diversify their international image through various soft power mechanisms such as public diplomacy. Various Latin American states, for example, have seen an opportunity to expand both internal and external development through a particular manifestation of this soft power: sports diplomacy.
In his work "Diplomacia Deportiva", Javier Sobrino defines sports diplomacy as the "use of sport as an instrument of public diplomacy for a contribution to certain objectives in a structured way and beyond the possible sporting results". Since 2014, other writers such as Stuart Murray, Geoffrey Pigman and Yuri Morejón have emphasized the need to expand research in the field of sports diplomacy on both a theoretical and empirical basis. They argue that it is essential to consult and facilitate a dialogue with sports specialists who could, in turn, use their expertise to improve international relations between states. A key example of the use of sports diplomacy in Latin America can be found in Mexico.
Mexico’s 2021 Sports Diplomacy Forum
At the end of 2020, the Mexican Secretariat of Foreign Affairs, the Matías Romero Institute (IMR), the Mexican Agency for International Cooperation for Development (AMEXCID) and the International Research Center (IIC) co-developed the “Sports diplomacy and cooperation for peace and development” forum intended to be held on the 6th of April 2021. This deliberately coincided with the 125th anniversary of the first event marking the beginning of a peace promotion strategy through sports: The Athens Olympic Games, on April 6th, 1896.
The purpose of this forum was to reflect on and discuss various questions related to sports diplomacy and how this could be used to promote international cooperation on key issues such as migration, gender, equality, health, security, sustainability and human rights. In line with these topics, presentations and discussions were held including "Diplomacy in the Olympic Movement", and "Sports Diplomacy in Mexico: Past and Future", "International Sports Diplomacy: Teachings for Mexico" which attempted to foster discussion and increase public awareness on the role of sports within the arena of international relations.
While the current health situation did not allow for face-to-face events, this was not viewed as an obstacle by the Mexican diplomatic corps, headed by Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard Casaubón who, since the beginning of his administration, has sought to strengthen Mexico’s international ties through public diplomacy. In preparation for, and during the sports diplomacy form, Casaubón made use of virtual platforms to broadcast talks held by commissioners from national and international bodies in the field of diplomacy and sports cooperation, including representatives from UNESCO and The Centre for Sport and Human Rights to name but a few. Throughout the forum, these commissioners emphasised the ways in which sports can be utilized to build bridges between citizens and states across the world, specifically, by uniting people through the common interest of playing and engaging with sports.
This is particularly important in contexts where people face social and economic exclusion, as sports participation has shown the potential to transcend barriers of class, race and gender and improve people’s quality of life, an example being through the Homeless World Cup which aims to reduce social marginalization globally. Sports diplomacy in Mexico has consequently been projected to foster international cooperation and simultaneously, combat social issues on a national level such as those mentioned above.
The 2026 FIFA World Cup: An Opportunity for Change?
In 2010, Mexico ranked 31st out of 50 in the Anholt-Ipsos Nation Brands Index (NBI - an annual global survey that evaluates the international image and reputation of 50 nations across six dimensions of national competence), placing it in a favourable category in Culture, People and Tourism. However, despite gaining a mid-ranking position, it is clear that Mexico's image as an international cultural actor has been profoundly tarnished by a number of glaring social issues over the last decade, namely the country's record on human rights, and the rampant corruption within its government linked to drug-trafficking and narco-violence. More recently, the current President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic (which has taken the lives of over 219,000 people at the time of writing) has also been deeply criticised by the international community which will no doubt, further weaken Mexico’s reputation.
Having said that, as exemplified by Mexico’s Diplomacy and Sports Cooperation for Development and Peace Forum, it is clear that Mexico is taking some innovative steps to strengthen public diplomacy and improve its reputation on the world stage- particularly through sports. This is especially significant considering that Mexico, along with its Northern neighbours, the U.S. and Canada, is set to host one of football’s most reputable events: the 2026 FIFA World Cup.
2026 is predicted to mark a new pragmatic rise in sports culture. Mexico will witness a novel coalition between the northern triad which will attract global attention and perhaps help put Mexico on track economically to amend the damages caused by the pandemic whilst simultaneously pressuring the government to address deep-rooted social issues within the country. Consequently, as well as reaffirming the importance of cultural exchange and cooperation between nations, Mexico’s involvement in hosting the World Cup, and promoting sports diplomacy more generally, may push the government to address inequalities and sue for peace within its own borders.
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