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Paul Johnson: Upholding international law

Exposing corruption within Fifa could be America's show of strength

Published: Jul 18, 2015 06:33:50 AM IST
Updated: Jul 17, 2015 05:54:56 PM IST
Paul Johnson: Upholding international law

Under the languid and feeble Obama Administration US power and influence have continually contracted. NATO has become ineffectual. Terrorist groups such as ISIS have advanced from strength to strength. North Korea has possessed itself of rocket delivery systems it claims can reach the American mainland. Communist China is carving out a new empire for itself in the South China Sea. And Russia has been engaging in provocative acts toward the West. Vladimir Putin has been threatening Ukraine and the Baltic states with outright invasion, daring Barack Obama to respond and knowing full well that he’s hesitant, fearful and dithering. Putin behaves like another Hitler—and is reasonably sure that he can get away with it.

What’s to stop him? German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a shrewd and capable woman but not a Cold War leader. She’ll never take a firm stand at the risk of conflict with Russia. French President François Hollande is best described as a wimp presiding over a country in visible economic and military decline. Britain has a more vigorous economy, but Prime Minister David Cameron’s priority is balancing the budget and reducing the deficit, not standing up to Russia. Cameron continues to cut defense spending, with Putin taking due note.

The US won’t make good on any shortfall in Europe’s contribution to the defense of the West. Obama’s line is that the US already provides 70 percent of NATO’s military expenditure and won’t contribute any more. Thus, the West is falling back into a posture of 1930s-like appeasement.

There is, however, one exception to this response of retreat: US Attorney General Loretta Lynch. She is a vigorous, persistent and single-minded woman, determined to uphold the one aspect of international order that she’s in a position to influence—the law.

For many years the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), which supposedly supervises the conduct and legal morals of world football (soccer), has been a disgrace. Under its elderly administrator, Sepp Blatter, who has held four consecutive terms in office, Fifa has used its financial power to buy support from the 100 or so small nations that constitute the majority of its members to keep the Blatter machine in control.

After huge efforts by Lynch, over many years when she was US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, the Department of Justice has issued a series of indictments (with more to come) and has arrested some of those named. Blatter’s initial reaction was to dismiss the clean-up attempt and set himself up for a fifth term. But because of hints that his own freedom could be in peril, he’s had second thoughts and resigned.

The corrupt machinery of Fifa now lies at the triumphant feet of Lynch. Subsequent legal actions will doubtless take many years, as is the nature of international justice, but the ultimate result can’t be much in doubt.

Powerful Play
No one should underestimate the significance of sports. Thanks to TV, it’s now the most important activity for a great majority of people, especially the young. And the most popular international sport, by far, is soccer. Nothing can demonstrate more effectively the reality of US power in the world than its ability to bring soccer’s administration under the aegis of the American legal system.

Nor does the lesson end there. Of the two countries that were beneficiaries of FIFA corruption, Qatar and Russia, Qatar could easily be stripped of its right to host the World Cup in 2022. This was a contentious decision, with the fraud particularly blatant and disgraceful. Under a purified FIFA it shouldn’t be difficult to expose the bribes in detail.

Rescinding Russia’s right to host in 2018 may be a more difficult and explosive matter. The corruption was far less obvious though probably far more deep-rooted. Its ramifications go right to the heart of Russia’s regime and may possibly involve Putin. All the more reason, then, that the US attorney general persist in her efforts to get to the bottom of the scandal and reveal how Russia won the right to host the World Cup.

America may have an ineffectual President, but its attorney general has shown that the US is still capable of upholding the international rule of law.

Paul Johnson is an eminent British historian and author

(This story appears in the 24 July, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Tiger Tom

    Always love Paul Johnson\'s perspective. He hit the nail on the head with this one. Thanks, Paul

    on Aug 4, 2015