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Playing the game of golf diplomacy

Golf is known to be a way of negotiating politics, but it has also resulted in failure

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull conducted golf diplomacy to make a personal connection with US President Donald Trump. The two leaders had a friendly chat on the phone in November and Mr Turnbull congratulated Mr Trump on his electoral triumph.

The rewards of the Turnbull initiative were short-lived, however, as the two men have had a serious falling out over a critical matter of foreign policy.

The game of golf is part of US political tradition.

Woodrow Wilson played on doctor's orders. John F. Kennedy was obsessively secretive about his love for the game. Dwight D. Eisenhower found the sport necessary to release tension.

Now, some foreign leaders are trying to forge personal connections with Mr Trump through the game, knowing his fondness of it and his ownership of 17 luxury golf resorts.

Mr Turnbull enlisted the help of former Australian golf world champion Greg Norman - who is Mr Trump's golfing friend - in order to speak to the president-elect following his victory last year.

Mr Trump's connection with the golf champion enabled Mr Turnbull to get ahead of other world leaders waiting in line to speak to the president-elect on the phone.

Mr Turnbull said at the time: "In diplomacy and politics, you use lots of networks. All I can say is we have great networks, great connections and Greg Norman is a great Australian."

He added: "(Norman) is a great advocate for strengthening the Australian-US alliance."

But the gains of golf diplomacy were lost faster than expected.

On Jan 21, Mr Trump yelled at Mr Turnbull and reportedly slammed the phone on him.

TRUMP TEMPER

He lost his cool when the Australian leader pressed him to honour a refugee deal under which former US president Barack Obama pledged to accept 1,250 refugees from an Australian detention centre.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also used the sport to create personal chemistry with Mr Trump. When he met the US leader in New York in November, he presented him with a golf club, and Mr Trump gave him a golf shirt in return. As golf diplomacy involves presidents, it is different from sports diplomacy conducted by sportsmen either independently (such as when US tennis superstar Arthur Ashe pressured South Africa to end apartheid) or on behalf of their governments (US Major League Baseball organising games in Cuba).

Golf, however, may become an embarrassment for the US.

There are concerns that foreign governments could pressure Mr Trump, or curry favour with him, as their countries host his international businesses.

Equally worrying is the question of whether his projects should get additional security, and whether foreign host governments should bear this unnecessary cost.

At other times the sport can backfire.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak faced off criticism at home for playing golf with Mr Obama in Hawaii in December 2014 at a time when his country faced massive floods.

Mr Najib explained that he was conducting "golf diplomacy" with the US president.

MIXED RECORD

Golf diplomacy has had a mixed record of success.

Former US president Lyndon B. Johnson played because he viewed the game as a great way for political negotiations.

It was on the golf course that he secured the votes he needed to pass the Civil Right Act of 1964.

Other initiatives of domestic diplomacy, however, did not fare so well.

In June 2011, Mr Obama held a "golf summit" with then House Speaker John Boehner to improve frosty relations and strike a deal on raising the US debt limit before the US defaulted in August, but Mr Obama's summit failed to prevent the crisis.

The US used ping-pong diplomacy with China in the 1970s to pave the way for normalisation of diplomatic relations.

Mr Trump can employ golf diplomacy with China, and with other countries, the next time a crisis arrives.

In forging close personal relations, golf diplomacy is usually a winner.

But in the actual attainment of political goals, this form of diplomacy has delivered both success as well as failure.

The writer taught the history of American Foreign Relations at Canadian universities and regularly conducts research at the US National Archives. This article, published in The Business Times yesterday, was edited for length.

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