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Do the Olympics promote nationalism — and international conflict? Here’s the research.

Real-world rivalries often play out in the Olympic arena

- July 26, 2021

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are in full swing, delayed a year by the covid-19 pandemic. This two-week spectacle of athletes competing under their national banners inevitably launches conversations about nationalism.

Nationalism is woven into the fabric of the Olympic Games. Host countries spend millions to spotlight their national achievements during the opening ceremonies, from China’s extensive fireworks in 2008 to the 2012 tribute to England’s National Health Service.

Nationalism captivates citizens, too. Athletes compete for national pride and spectators drape themselves in flags to cheer for their compatriots — and bask in their country’s victories.

The Olympic truce invites countries to pause conflicts and pledge to build “a peaceful and better world through sport.” But nationalism-fueled competition raises concerns about whether the games might spark tensions between countries. After all, the Olympics pit political adversaries against each other. The 1980 Lake Placid Games put the Cold War on real ice, as the United States and Soviet Union battled for the gold medal in ice hockey.

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This year, China faces the United States and Japan in women’s rugby 7s — and could match up against Taiwanese competitors in table tennis or judo — just snippets of the contentious real-world rivalries that may clash in the Olympic arena.

Here’s what we know about whether nationalism exacerbates international conflict.

Some research links nationalism and hawkish sentiment

Political scientists use many definitions for nationalism, but most political psychologists agree nationalism denotes a commitment to one’s country and its superiority.

Surveys typically measure nationalism with questions about whether people believe their country is better than other countries. Some even ask whether people value winning in the Olympics or other international sports. With rare exceptions, scholars treat this competitive mind-set toward international sports as an indicator for nationalism — with victory on the field implying national superiority.

Public opinion data shows nationalism heightens international threat perceptions and correlates with support for international conflict. For example, U.S. nationalists supported nuclear armament and “hard line” policies toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Data from the U.S. and Italy shows nationalism increases militaristic attitudes in the general public.

Nationalism can increase the risk of international conflict

In turn, some research indicates nationalist surges raise conflict risks. As research by John Ciorciari and TMC’s Jessica Chen Weiss shows, nationalist protests in Thailand and Cambodia raised the specter of violent escalation over a small but historically important territory.

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There is some evidence that sporting events or national celebrations can also raise the risk of violent conflict. Citizens in El Salvador and Honduras turned from cheering for their home teams to direct aggression during the qualifying rounds for the 1970 World Cup, sparking the 1969 “Football War.”

Research suggests simply participating in the men’s World Cup or celebrating a national independence or remembrance day raises the chance of international conflict — though scholars debate whether nationalism bears responsibility for these effects.

But not all nationalisms are created equal

So is a grand international competition that feeds nationalist sentiment a recipe for conflict? Not necessarily.

In my forthcoming book, “Nationalisms in International Politics,” I argue that equating beliefs about national superiority with the desire to dominate by military force misses an important point: People have different ideas in mind when they celebrate national greatness.

My book shows that priming people to think about their nation as a group of peers or equals committed to fairness weakens nationalism’s effect on support for conflict escalation and militarism, compared to when people think about their nation as a unified family. This is because who “we” are shapes what “we” think about politics and foreign policy. If “we” as Americans or Canadians commit to fairness and reciprocity, we adopt a more measured approach to conflict. Nationalist norms affect whether we should expect more support for conflict when nationalism surges.

Other researchers reach similar conclusions about nationalism’s fickle effects on foreign policy attitudes. When sociologists used survey data to classify four types of American nationalists, they found that what they call “ardent” and “creedal” nationalists endorsed ideas about national superiority at similar rates. But ardent nationalists placed more value on claims that Americans should have common traits, like language or Christianity. Ardent nationalists, the research found, supported pursuing U.S. interests using war at greater rates than creedal nationalists — who pair national pride with liberal democratic principles and inclusive views about what makes someone a “true” American.

Indeed, one study shows watching a video featuring the 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremonies increased nationalism among Chinese participants. But that video failed to raise support for taking a hawkish stance in China’s territorial dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Olympic achievement primed nationalism — but not all nationalist sentiments drive support for conflict escalation.

Collectively, this research suggests that whether the Olympics trigger nationalist hawkishness depends on the values, norms or ideas people contemplate when they praise their country’s athletic performance. People can celebrate national achievements without demanding conflict.

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We know less about whether nationalism promotes cooperation

Even if some Olympic-inspired nationalism discourages simmering tensions from boiling over, reducing conflict and promoting diplomatic cooperation are other matters entirely. Nationalists can oppose war without submitting to international organizations like the U.N., for example.

Political science scholarship includes some promising hints about the connection between nationalism and conflict resolution. Affirming their own national identity increased the trust between citizens from South Korea, Japan and China — helping to overcome historical rivalries. Study-abroad student trips increased Americans’ national pride — including pride in U.S. sporting achievements — but reduced their foreign threat perceptions.

Moreover, some nationalists may seek superiority via moral authority, like the Norwegian policymakers who enact their identity as a peace-loving nation to advance gender equality and help resolve global conflicts.

Still, research on nationalism and foreign policy tends to prioritize questions about war and conflict. So while we shouldn’t leap to conclusions about how the Olympics fuel international antagonism, we also shouldn’t assume they will help reduce it. There is still much to learn about whether or when nationalism paves the way for peace.

Kathleen E. Powers (@ke_powers) is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College and the author of “Nationalisms in International Politics” (Princeton University Press, 2022).