We live in an age when foreign affairs pundits like to bemoan the crumbling of existing order and ponder whether the United States’ best days are in the past, when rising powers seem more comfortable throwing their weight around than the U.S. government. These are days when American scandals and dysfunction and economic stagnation seem to wrongfoot U.S. foreign policy aspirations at every opportunity.
But then there are days when the United States is the greatest country in the world, because it makes stuff like this happen:
Swiss authorities conducted an extraordinary early-morning operation here Wednesday to arrest several top soccer officials and extradite them to the United States on federal corruption charges.
As leaders of FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, gathered for their annual meeting, more than a dozen plain-clothed Swiss law enforcement officials arrived unannounced at the Baur au Lac hotel, an elegant five-star property with views of the Alps and Lake Zurich. They went to the front desk to get room numbers and then proceeded upstairs.
The charges, backed by an F.B.I. investigation, allege widespread corruption in FIFA over the past two decades, involving bids for World Cups as well as marketing and broadcast deals.
Or, as The Washington Post’s Michael Miller and Fred Barbash explain:
Among the “alleged schemes,” said the Justice Department, were kickbacks to FIFA officials by executives and companies involved in soccer marketing and “bribes and kickbacks in connection” with “the selection of the host country for the 2010 World Cup and the 2011 FIFA presidential election,” the Justice Department said. . . .
Swiss prosecutors, in a related announcement, said they had opened criminal proceedings against unidentified individuals on suspicion of mismanagement and money laundering related to the awarding of rights to host the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Now there are multiple ways to react to this. I do like Deadspin’s headline “Justice Department Brings The Goddamn Hammer Down On FIFA.” I like Josh Barro’s tweet even more:
But there’s also something to be said for Miller and Barbash’s perfect degree of understatement in their story with this sentence: “The indictments don’t reflect well on the incumbent.”
That incumbent would be FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who is poised to be elected to a fifth term as FIFA president this week. According to a FIFA spokesman, neither the U.S. nor Swiss investigations will affect Friday’s scheduled election or the scheduled World Cups in Russia and Qatar.
This is par for the course for FIFA. The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has long enjoyed reporting on the grotesque nature of Blatter’s governance. Under Blatter, FIFA has raked in the bucks despite a bevy of corruption scandals. But as Foreign Policy’s Gigi Alford and Sam DuPont noted recently, Blatter’s style of governance enables bad real-world consequences:
Blatter has adopted the methods of the modern dictator: working hard to look like a democrat while perverting liberal institutions to illiberal ends. With its monopoly over the global game, FIFA is a powerful international institution, and when it takes these tactics, it serves as a dangerous model for the countries and peoples of the world.
Indeed, this problem had grown so acute that, in essence, authoritarian countries have begun to monopolize the hosting of large sporting events.
Last fall, I humbly suggested the following approach to corrupt international sporting bodies:
Maybe the solution is not to try to outbid authoritarian countries in dealing with corrupt international sporting bodies, but make those sporting bodies somewhat less ridiculous. If FIFA, the IOC, or even the Federation Internationale des Echecs were more transparent, it might be harder for authoritarians to politically profit and more palatable for democracies to pony up the hosting costs.
I didn’t think that Justice Department indictments would be the lever for forcing greater transparency, but this looks like it has some promise. If nothing else, this will highlight FIFA’s authoritarian-friendly practices, tarnish their practices, embarrass their cronies, and perhaps suggest even more robust actions to heal a long-festering pustule in the world of global governance.
Which, in the world of international politics, counts as a win.