Haass: What Golf Teaches Us About Geopolitics

The final and decisive round of the PGA Championship in mid-August unfolded in a manner few had predicted. Tiger Woods, the American who firmly occupies the top spot in world rankings, lost his lead and came in a disappointing second. Padraig Harrington, the defending champion and arguably Europe's best golfer, was in contention until he scored a quintuple bogey 8 on a par-3 hole. And the unheralded Y. E. Yang of South Korea, ranked 110th in the world, came from behind to win. In other words, America faded, Europe collapsed, and Asia emerged.

These trends should sound familiar. Asia is coming out of the economic crisis relatively unscathed; the region as a whole is likely to grow this year by 5 percent, while China booms at 8 percent. The U.S. economy, meanwhile, continues to contract; growth rates won't turn positive until later this year at least, and even then any improvement will be modest. More golf courses closed than opened in the United States in 2008.

Europe is struggling even more: some countries are eking out negligible economic growth, and others are still shrinking. Strategically, the region's demise is even more pronounced. Europe was at the core of 20th-century history; it will not be so in the 21st. Harrington's recent showing is a harbinger.

Golf, in fact, provides more insight into politics and economics than most people realize. Years ago the columnist Thom-as Friedman propounded the "Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention," namely that countries with McDonald's franchises don't fight one another. (Alas, some do—Russia and Georgia, Israel and Lebanon—but Friedman's observation is still useful.) Big Macs, however, are not the only indicator worth noting. Countries that have numerous golf courses tend to be friendlier toward the United States. Governments closing golf courses tend to be the most anti-American of all. Think of it as the fairway theory of history.

Anyone doubting this need only compare Vietnam and Venezuela. Vietnam, for years a bitter foe of the United States, is now a friend. The clearest evidence of how far things have changed may be the Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail, a route that connects more than a half-dozen luxury golf courses and resorts. (Like its namesake, the golf trail runs north-south, but presumably the resemblance ends there.) On the other hand, Venezuela—led by the ever-hostile Hugo Chávez—has closed several golf courses and is threatening to shut down others. Chávez recently delivered a tirade against golf on national television, deriding it as "bourgeois"—an outlook consistent with his repressive policies, which are driving many middle-class Venezuelans to leave the country. Or take the two Koreas: the closed North is reportedly home to just three courses, while democratic South Korea, a U.S. ally, boasts no fewer than 234.

Chávez is right about one thing: golf is an expression of increased economic and political openness. Ironically, Fidel Castro, the leader Chávez claims to admire most, appears to be moving in that direction. Cuba is developing golf courses, presumably to attract a larger number of tourists if and when the U.S. economic embargo is rescinded and Americans are free to travel to Cuba. If the fairway theory is right, it is only a matter of time before the island becomes more open and more favorably inclined toward the United States. Several other formerly communist countries (or countries less communist than before) are also building golf courses with abandon. China now has more than 300 courses, including no fewer than 12 at one club, the world's largest. The small number of golf courses in Russia and Ukraine is worrisome in this regard.

Golf is also a sign of normalcy. For some two decades, one of the most dangerous pieces of real estate to be found anywhere was Kashmir, the disputed territory that separates India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed countries with a history of going to war. Five courses are now open in the beautiful valley. Peace may not be quite at hand, but things do seem to be inching in the right direction.

Why is golf associated with so many positive trends? It is not just that the game tends to flourish in countries that welcome tourists, who can bring new ideas along with their bags of clubs. Large numbers of golf courses reflect the emergence of a domestic middle class, the traditional foundation of democracy. And they suggest a society where citizens not only enjoy leisure time but take basic security for granted.

What should all this mean for Washington? President Obama has created high-profile envoys for trouble spots like the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Iran. But perhaps he should spend more time working on his golf game.

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