Considering the Consequences

There has been considerable talk in recent weeks that the United States should consider boycotting the 2014 Olympic Games, to be held in Sochi, Russia.

Supporters of the idea contend that a boycott, if staged, would send a clear and urgent message to the world:  Russian President Vladimir Putin is a jerk.

While the fact of Putin’s jerkitude has been evident to all for quite some time, the most recent manifestation is the Russian Republic’s disturbing and consolidated effort to rid itself of public homosexuality, from putting down gay rights marches and locking up gay activists, to prohibiting gay foreign couples from adopting Russian children and instituting a law against “gay propaganda.”

None of these developments is good news for the democratic world, and may well deserve a response from the United States and any other country that takes pluralism and human rights seriously.

But an Olympic boycott?  Let us think this through.

I recently sat on a jury in a civil lawsuit.  The judge, upon sending us to the deliberations room, included in his official instructions that, should we rule in favor of the plaintiff, we were to award “damages” without considering the consequences of our decision.

For instance, if we concluded that the plaintiff had suffered $1 million worth of pain, we should not be deterred from ruling accordingly by the possibility that the defendant would be unable to pay it, or that the plaintiff would spend it unwisely.  Justice had to run its course.

The world of politics and diplomacy does not function in quite the same way.  Public officials tend to behave with the likely effects of their actions very much in mind, even if this means betraying core principles in the process.

Indeed, as a general rule, we can reasonably establish that a typical politician will act on principle if doing so will yield positive or neutral practical results, and will act against principle for the same reason, but will almost never willfully do the right thing if it produces the wrong outcome.

In pondering whether an Olympic boycott is a good idea, we must first decide whether we care about its consequences, and then ruminate on what those consequences might be.

We certainly have plenty of history to draw upon.

In 1980, the United States led an 80-nation boycott of the Summer Games in Moscow, to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan the previous year.  (Some of the boycotting countries allowed their athletes to compete by marching under the Olympic Flag.)

In 1984, the Soviet Union returned the favor by orchestrating a boycott of the Games in Los Angeles, joined by numerous members of the Eastern Bloc and a handful of other countries as well.  While some participants of this boycott cited particular United States offenses as their justification—Iran, for instance, condemned American policy in the Middle East and Central America—the action was generally understood as simple retaliation for 1980.

For 2014, should we not concern ourselves with the possibility that today’s Russia will also not take an Olympic boycott sitting down?  That our act of principled belligerence will not yield an act of retaliatory belligerence that we might find distinctly unappealing?  That our well-intentioned scheming will not produce blowback and prove itself counterproductive in the long term?

Certainly, we can only speculate as to what President Putin might do in response to America withholding its athletes from Sochi.  What is more, even if Putin told us in advance precisely what he would do, we have reason to regard him as slightly less than a man of his word.

Should this make us more or less willing to throw caution to the wind and boycott away?  So long as we don’t know with any confidence where our actions might lead, is it not prudent to err on the side of the moral high ground?  How much are we prepared to gamble on the values we hold dear?

The reason this is a difficult quandary is because, as we know, the answer to that last question is, “A whole lot.”  What makes the United States different from, and superior to, many other countries is that we will preserve, protect and defend—sometimes to the death—the characteristics that make us great in the first place.  Included among these is the right—nay, the duty—to register one’s displeasure when others fail to do so.

The trouble is that sometimes the best way to ensure justice in the long term is to tolerate injustice in the short—a fact that is of little comfort when one reflects how often such thinking, known as “realpolitik,” has failed to produce the former while succeeding in the latter.

Resolving this debate is an Olympian task, indeed.


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