04/06/2015 09:21 BST | Updated 03/06/2016 06:59 BST

The Fifa Affair: A Test of Moral Courage

If there was a quote of the week competition, Chris Bryant, the shadow culture secretary, would have won it last week with his question "Is it not a bit embarrassing?" He was referring to the fact that it was the American FBI which took on Fifa and not one of the football-loving nations. Fifa is not, of course, a US institution and so the FBI has justified its involvement by alleging that meetings about bribes were held in the US and that the American financial system was used to make corrupt payments.

The Americans rely on links with the US to cut back on international fraud in other contexts. Take tax evasion as an example. Their 2010 Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act charged punitive withholding tax on income from the US unless the identities of those who ultimately benefitted from that income (or other income of the recipient) was clear. The result: a huge reduction in international tax evasion. The link with US: the fact that most institutions will need to invest either directly or indirectly there.

By pursuing these sort of links to pursue organisations abroad the US protects its own revenues and prevents international crime using its facilities. It also has a wider interest. As the US fights to eliminate corruption internally it needs to discourage similar malpractice elsewhere if it is to remain competitive. It is for this reason, and no doubt because of a certain morality, that it needs to act against institutions beyond its borders and to use the relevant links as an excuse to do so, even if others have stronger reasons to intervene.

There are many examples of one country using "links" to justify involvement in another country's affairs and one of the most celebrated is the Don Pacifico affair in 1850. At the time the British foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, wanted to "send a message" to the Greeks - possibly to prevent them interfering in the politics of the Ionian Islands which were at that time under British control. The ideal form of message was a squadron of battleships so naturally he cast around for a link which would enable him to send them. His efforts were rewarded when he learnt about Don Pacifico, a Portuguese Jew whose house had been destroyed with the complicity of the Greek police and who had not received compensation. Luckily for Palmerston, Don Pacifico was a British subject. From there it was easy. Don Pacifico's rights had to be protected; battleships had to be sent; Greek assets had to be seized; and the Port of Piraeus had to be blockaded. The message had been sent.

It would be quite wrong to compare the Americans' thoroughly respectable attempts to clean up football and international commerce with a cynical piece of gunboat diplomacy which, even in Victorian times, was widely regarded as disreputable but the use of a link to deliver a wider objective is the common theme. Actually, there is another one as well


For a country to interfere with the affairs of another takes a certain sort of courage. Palmerston in his Victorian confidence exercised it for rather reprehensible ends. The Americans use it more nobly when they try to police the world against criminals, against jihardists or against dictators. Each time they do so someone will sneer. Fifa should have been left to the Swiss. It was wrong to interfere in Iraq. How dare they force reporting requirements on the City of London? Often, of course, they get things wrong but if you use your leverage to struggle for international order you will sometimes end up doing damage. The alternative is to do nothing and to leave it to others.

Perhaps in the end there are two types of country just as there are two types of person. The one will blunder in to remedy a perceived wrong and will sometimes come out with egg on face. The other will let things fester but at least avoid the risk of being blamed. In the Fifa affair the US has reinforced its claim to be in the first camp. Once we would have been too but in these days of defence cuts, withdrawal and the fear of being politically incorrect one really does wonder.