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To Russia With Love? In Praise of Trump the Includer

The soccer World Cup opened in Russia on June 14. The 32 competing national teams are hoping to lift the coveted trophy on July 15. Two hundred ten teams from six regional confederations vied to qualify for this global event. The last World Cup, in 2014, reached over three billion people through the media with more than one billion watching the final of the planet’s most popular and prestigious team competition.

Not one country has boycotted the 2018 event. Not one country refused to send its national team to Russia under the guise of criticizing the Russian “annexation” of Crimea or “interference in the internal affairs of Ukraine.” Not one country refused to send its team to a qualifying event or said that if its team qualified it would not attend the finals in Russia. All countries dreamed of having their team’s captain lift the trophy.

The recent G7 meeting of the bloc of leading western nations and Japan took place in Canada without the Russian Federation. Originally it was called the G8, but Russia was suspended in 2014, and the scheduled summit in Sochi was consequently moved to Brussels.

According to then President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, as long as Russia was “flagrantly violating international law and the order that the G7 has helped to build since the end of the Cold War, there is no need for the G7 to engage with Russia.”

The 2014 G7 communique calling for Russia to be suspended said that Moscow’s conduct towards Ukraine was inconsistent with the group’s “shared beliefs and responsibilities.”

Reports from the recent G7 summit indicate that the leaders spent considerable time discussing Russia. “You, know, we spend probably 25 percent of our time talking about Russia, and I said wouldn’t it be better if they were here,” President Trump said in an interview. He had suggested before the meeting that, “They should let Russia come back in because we should have Russia at the negotiating table. Why are we having a meeting without Russia being in the meeting? …Whether you like it or not, and it may not be politically correct, we have a world to know.”

Italy’s new populist prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, supported inclusion. “I am in agreement with President Trump,” Mr. Conte tweeted. “Russia should re-enter the G8. It is in everyone’s best interests.”

Other leaders were more circumspect about Russia’s return to the G8. “I can imagine Russia’s return,” suggested Chancellor Merkel. “But first of all, we need to make progress in implementing the Minsk agreement,” she told ARD, Germany’s publicly owned television channel.

(From the Russian perspective, Russia “never asked to be allowed back” to the G8, according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. “When our western partners decided to return to the G7 format, we accepted their decision and have been working on other platforms since then,” including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, BRICS, and the G20.)

Why should countries compete to send soccer teams to Russia while the leading western countries and Japan continue to suspend Russia from attending their economic summit? Given that President Trump has spoken with the international pariah North Korean President Kim Jong-Un, does it make sense to continue to exclude Russia from this important meeting?

The obvious answer is that politics and sports do not mix. But there are several counter-factuals, such the barring of South Africa from the 1964 Olympics over apartheid and the boycotts of the 1980 Moscow Games by the United States and the retaliatory boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games by the Soviet Union. The joint North-South delegation to the recent Olympics was an important step towards restoring peace to the peninsula.

Indeed, it is puzzling that at the same time Russia continues to be outside the economic summit it has hosted the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014 and now the World Cup in 2018.  Remember the original justification for the United States to boycott the Olympics of 1980 was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Is the annexation of Crimea or interference in eastern Ukraine any less a justification to not send teams to Russia for the World Cup? Is it hypocritical to continue to leave Russia out of the G8 while sending athletes to Russia for the Olympics and World Cup?

Whatever else President Trump is criticized for, he is not criticized for meeting with the North Korean dictator. He is praised for reaching out to relieve tensions that appeared to foreshadow nuclear disaster. Despite some hesitation, the meeting did take place; its justification was to be inclusive.

If we can be inclusive with the leader of North Korea and the World Cup and recent Olympics, what makes the G8 so exclusive? It seems superficial and petulant to continue to exclude Russia from this summit.

If Germany wins the World Cup – it is one of the favorites – will Angela Merkel attend the final game in Moscow? I bet she will. So, if she attends the final in Moscow and sits near President Putin, why couldn’t she invite him to Canada?

“If you’re part of the problem, you are also part of the solution,” it is often said. A solution to tensions on Russia’s borders following the breakup of the Soviet Union will not be solved by exclusion. Here, at least, Donald Trump has a point.

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