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Obama ought to take up cricket

December 11, 2008 12:20 IST

Experts muse about whether Mr Obama will swing for the fences like President George W. Bush or play small ball like President Bill Clinton. Will he look to hit a home run on climate change or just try to make contact with the ball? Should he go after the Israeli-Palestinian issue early or let the first pitch go by -- and can the president of the United States ever afford to let a pitch go by?

But baseball is President Bush's game, not Mr Obama's. If the new administration is going to achieve change we can believe in, a good start would be to junk the baseball references -- not least because baseball is an exceedingly dangerous metaphor when it comes to foreign policy.

Mr Obama ought to take his lead from a more complex and demanding game than baseball. When it comes to foreign policy, he should take cricket as his text. There are seven lessons about the international system that Mr Obama could learn from cricket.

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  • The first lesson derives from the fact that, like foreign policy, cricket is played outside the US. It is followed by perhaps one or two billion people. Unlike baseball's World Series, cricket's World Cup actually involves the world.

    To succeed in cricket, you need to understand the different approaches of the various cricketing nations. After all, the cricketing world contains multitudes: an emerging great power, India; awkward powers such as Pakistan and rogue regimes such as Zimbabwe; fading imperial powers like the UK and regional metropoles such as South Africa.

    Rich countries such as Australia play cricket but so do poor countries such as Bangladesh. It is even played in Kenya, Mr Obama's ancestral homeland. The International Cricket Council is located in the cockpit of geopolitics, the Persian Gulf.

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  • Why does all this matter? Because the US needs to get much better at understanding other countries and cultures. With bloody conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, nuclear programmes in Iran and North Korea, a cooling economy and a warming planet, America can ill afford its usual self-absorption. Mr Obama needs to be deaf to the siren songs of protectionism and isolationism and alert to the voices (both the cheers and the jeers) of the world.

    Second, as Americans often complain, cricket is a long game. A Test match often takes five days – and ends in a draw. Things are opaque in cricket, as in life: sometimes a draw can be a win. Cricket requires patience and discipline, which are not virtues we normally associate with the US. They were, however, on display during Mr Obama's impressive campaign and they are exactly the qualities his administration will need in order to prevail in the war in Afghanistan.

    Third, in the game of cricket, the condition of the pitch is critical. The ball usually bounces before it reaches the batsman, which introduces extra unpredictability into the contest. The ball does not just swing in the air, it turns off the seam. It can come at your head, not just your chest. In foreign policy, too, the decision-making environment is fast and fluid. It is difficult to see the choices before you, let alone make the right ones.

    Fourth, in foreign policy as in cricket, you cannot win a match with a single swing, regardless of the beauty of your cover drive.

    The invasion of Iraq demonstrated a baseball player's mentality. Mr Bush thought he could fix all the problems of the Middle East at once: displace Saddam Hussein and the regimes around him would tumble like dominoes, tyranny would end, the Palestinians would make a deal, the price of oil would fall and the US would acquire new bases in the region.

    Perhaps if Mr Bush had coached a cricket team rather than owning a baseball franchise, he might have taken a different approach. He certainly would have understood that a match-winning innings is built over the course of many hours and hundreds of shots.

    Fifth, the captain's role is crucial. He sets the strategy and places the field. But he has to work through his players: he cannot deliver every ball and score every run. The captain is not the decider: he is first among equals. So it is with foreign policy, too. America's allies and partners are tired of American unilateralism – but they are ready for American leadership.

    Sixth, toughness has its place. Very few cricket matches are won through sweet reason alone. It is commendable that Mr Obama has cast aside Mr Bush's prejudice against talking to America's adversaries, but he needs to ensure those adversaries do not mistake his reasonableness for weakness. On the other hand, assertiveness comes in different forms -- spin bowling as well as pace, forceful diplomacy as well as force.

    Finally, the primacy of no cricket team is assured forever. Australia has dominated international cricket for the past decade through its brilliance, aggression and athleticism -- but that period may now be coming to an end. The commonly heard claims of America's decline are surely premature, yet nothing should be taken for granted. Much depends on the calibre of the new management in Washington.

    There has been talk that Mr Obama may build a basketball court in the White House basement. He would be better off using the South Lawn as a cricket pitch.

    The writer is the director of the global issues programme at the Lowy Institute in Sydney and a visiting fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution

    Copyright: The Financial Times Limited 2008

    Michael Fullilove, FT.com
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