By Benjamin L. Schmitt, June 7, 2023
(Editor’s note: The author will be testifying on June 8 at the Commons Committee on Canada’s Sanctions Regime.)
This year’s major championship golf season is upon us, and besides showcasing the world’s top players it has also provided a massive stage for the debate over sportswashing; the inclusion of players from a startup golf league backed by Saudi Arabia has reignited the debates over the kingdom’s alleged motivation to sponsor the league to distract attention from its human rights record.
Last month, the PGA Championship wrapped up at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York, while the Masters closed out its pine-straw and Azalea-drenched tournament at Augusta National Golf Club just a few weeks prior: “a tradition unlike any other” as legendary CBS Broadcaster Jim Nantz has declared for decades.
This year, however, the on-course pageantry of who would don the champion’s green jacket wasn’t the only tradition on display: an all-too-common debate on the role of foreign influence in the political and popular culture of global democracies flowed as an undercurrent to the tournament, much like the waters of Rae’s Creek which wind through Augusta.
The 2023 Masters Tournament was the first to allow the participation of professional golfers who last year abandoned the PGA Tour to sign lucrative contracts with a new rival tour – LIV Golf, bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, a regime-controlled pot of hundreds of billions of dollars. And with one of the LIV stars – Brooks Koepka – returning to win the PGA Championship, the saga of the rival, foreign-funded circuit will only continue to grab headlines.
During 2022, the Saudi-funded venture lured some of golf’s biggest names away from the PGA, the celebrities accepting eye-popping contracts despite the kingdom’s human rights reputation. Earlier this year, LIV’s CEO – polarizing golfer Greg Norman – said he believed Riyadh had learned from the “mistakes” of its past human rights abuses, including the brutal murder of The Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi, adding that “golf diplomacy is something I’ve been extremely passionate about for more than a quarter of a century.”
LIV Golf’s inaugural year has seen a nonstop discussion on the role that foreign influence has in sports and politics. POLITICO recently characterized LIV’s critics as seeing the rival tour’s richly-paid golf stars — including Koepka, Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau and others — working “to make Americans see Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a cheerful golf caddy rather than the despot behind Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder”.
In a sport known for obsessing over statistics or scrutinizing the athletic mechanics of a golfer’s swing, the Saudi-backed league’s arrival has suddenly thrust the issue of foreign malign influence into the living rooms of millions of golf fans. Some of the strongest criticisms of LIV have come from former pro golfer and Golf Channel commentator Brandel Chamblee, who forcefully argued to golf fans last October that, “it’s lost on them (Mickelson and Norman) that they’re working for a dictator”, ending his heated intervention with a stinging rejoinder to the LIV players: “Congratulations. You’ve been bought.”
LIV’s own press conferences haven’t been free of geopolitical questions, with members of the sports media asking the tour’s field about the morals of working for a league funded by the Saudi regime. “If Vladimir Putin had a tournament, would you play there?” one reporter asked a stunned-looking Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter last June, months after the Russian Federation’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine began. “That’s speculation – I can’t – I’m not even going to comment on speculation,” Poulter clapped back.
While interchanges like these might be new to the world of golf fans, for those studying trends of influence-peddling across Western democracies over the past decade, the parallels are stark. The exchange rhymes with refrains heard over the years by supporters of the Kremlin-backed Nord Stream 2 pipeline, who dismissed concerns about Russian energy weaponization as hypothetical, and characterized the project as just a commercial deal.
Early last year, before Russia unleashed its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, concerns about foreign influence – especially how authoritarian regimes use networks of lobbyists, public relations firms, and even former government officials to sway democratic policymaking – was still something of an afterthought.
Not that it was ignored, per se. Thanks to high-profile issues like Russia’s 2016 U.S. election interference, and the embarrassing behavior of former senior European officials working on the boards of Russian state-owned-enterprises (which I highlighted along with Casey Michel in an article for Foreign Policy just a week before the Kremlin’s 2022 reinvasion of Ukraine), there was at least a baseline awareness of the threats that can be posed by unchecked foreign lobbying campaigns.
Thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion, however, the threat of these kinds of influence campaigns suddenly exploded in public relevance – and, thankfully, in response. The United States, for example, has seen an unprecedented burst of proposed solutions to bring transparency and accountability to lobbying and influence networks which have for decades been operating legally on behalf of foreign dictators.
In one case, a bipartisan slate of U.S. legislators issued a landmark bill – dubbed the Fighting Foreign Influence Act (FFIA) — that could set the bar for other pieces of like-minded legislation aimed at forbidding former senior government officials from representing American adversaries, imposing “a lifetime ban on former senior U.S. military officers, presidents, vice presidents, other senior executive branch officials, and members of Congress from ever lobbying for a foreign principal.”
This mirrors legislation, introduced last year in the U.S. House of Representatives, called the Stop Helping Adversaries Manipulate Everything (SHAME) Act, which would effectively end the ability of former officials and lobbyists to represent America’s authoritarian rivals. (This is a bill I first proposed with Mr. Michel in the same Foreign Policy article last year and that I called for last June in testimony before the U.S. Senate and House Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.)
Furthermore, the most recent U.S. National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes language that now places post-employment restrictions on Senate-confirmed officials at the U.S. Department of State. The ban would “prohibit former senior State Department officials from representing or advising adversary governments like China, Russia, Iran, Cuba, and Syria, and ban former secretaries and deputy secretaries from advising or representing any foreign government.”
Still, for all these impressive pieces of legislation out of Washington – both passed and proposed – in the past year only the NDAA provision has been passed into law. The FFIA and SHAME Acts never made it out of committee and still await reintroduction into this year’s Congress – but both are urgently needed, as now only former senior State Department officials must be barred from this practice.
Beyond Washington, even though many of the most prominent former European leaders who had served on the boards of Russian state-owned enterprises (such as former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and former Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl) eventually resigned those posts following Russia’s assault on Ukraine, there is still no overarching legislative push in nations of the transatlantic community to outlaw former officials from resuming work on Russian boards should hostilities suddenly cease.
And all the while, foreign autocracies continue to innovate in the foreign influence space more broadly — whether it be new tactics, or even industries (like LIV’s so-called “sportswashing” in professional golf) — in their efforts to launder their reputations and potentially tilt western policy in the process. Lawmakers have scrambled to catch up, including calls from Texas Representative Chip Roy for the Department of Justice to look into potential Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) violations around LIV.
Just last week it was revealed that a firm containing two consultants for long-shot Republican Presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy was fired from the campaign after it became public that the consultants had been simultaneously working for LIV Golf, after registering as foreign agents “retroactively on May 25.” According to the FARA filing, the firm, Gitcho Goodwin, felt compelled to register after it became apparent that the Saudi Public Investment Fund “occasionally oversaw its public relations activities” while working for LIV. And in a bombshell announcement this week, reports emerged that the PGA Tour and LIV golf will end pending litigation, to instead form a merged entity with form to be determined – a shocking twist that is likely to spark even more concern from critics about the efficacy of alleged sportswashing campaigns.
All of these trends illustrate the need for global democracies to act now to set norms – while the public understanding of the threat of foreign malign influence is still at its apex – and pass legislation curbing the ability of authoritarian regimes to capture elites and influence policy in the process. Such action is vital to ensure that new laws and regulations are on the books before public interest begins to wane – and in the case of Russia, before inevitable calls begin to mount for a return to “business as usual” with Putin’s Kremlin as the war in Ukraine drags on. With reports that the likes of Schröder attended the Russian Victory Day celebration at the Kremlin’s embassy in Berlin just a few weeks ago, the threat of backsliding is all too apparent.
This is why an international norms-setting process with like-minded democratic states is more necessary than ever – from Washington, to Ottawa, to Brussels, and beyond – in order to stifle authoritarian influence campaigns globally. I’ve pointed out that American leadership on these curbs can inspire democratic nations worldwide to pass similar laws.
For example, testifying last September before the Canadian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, I called for Ottawa to pass a Canadian analog to the SHAME Act. Action in Ottawa can’t come soon enough after bombshell revelations of Beijing’s interference in Canadian politics, and the surveillance of Canadian MP Michael Chong and his family in Hong Kong by a Chinese diplomat in order “to pressure him.” Add to this, recent headlines that the chairman of the Trudeau Foundation – a Canadian “scholarship organization created to fund doctoral researchers” – was forced to resign after it came to light that the charity accepted donations from two Chinese businessmen allegedly “orchestrated by Beijing.” It’s clear Ottawa needs action to counter foreign influence as well.
Action is needed now on both sides of the Atlantic to bar the capture of elites in democratic states by authoritarian influence – making it much harder for the “it’s just a commercial deal” bloc to succeed in normalizing networks of authoritarian influence.
Meanwhile, if the discourse around the PGA Championship last month at Oak Hill was any metric, the public debates on foreign influence in golf will continue to flow like the waters of Allen’s Creek, which winds through Oak Hill’s iconic design.
There is no time to lose – global democracies must make sure their response is up to par.
Dr. Benjamin L. Schmitt is a Senior Fellow at the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, an Associate of the Harvard-Ukrainian Research Institute, a Senior Fellow for Democratic Resilience at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a fellow of the Duke University “Rethinking Diplomacy” Program, and a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. (Twitter: @BLSchmitt).