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Carrying a Torch For Both Policy and Sport

Victor Cha

Victor Cha, the director of Asian studies at Georgetown, never imagined he could mesh sports with his long-held scholarly pursuits until Condoleezza Rice unknowingly showed him the way.

August 4, 2008 –Condoleezza Rice may be known as many things in the United States -- secretary of state, a political science scholar and even a gifted musician. But to Victor Cha, she stands as one of the main reasons he can combine his great passions in life -- sports and foreign relations.

Cha, director of Asian studies at Georgetown, says his native-New-Yorker background bred a die-hard love of all things sports, from Giants football to stickball. Yet, as Cha became a scholar and educator at institutions from Oxford and Harvard Universities to Stanford and Georgetown Universities, he never imagined he could mesh sports with his long-held scholarly pursuits until Rice unknowingly showed him the way.

In 2006, Cha, then the director for Asian Affairs for the National Security Council and on sabbatical from teaching at Georgetown, accompanied Rice on one of their many trips abroad. Rice has a tradition of hosting off-the-record dinners for the traveling press corps during her trips.

'We're all sitting around the dinner table in Indonesia and the conversation moved to sports. Condi Rice is a huge sports nut. I was completely floored by how much she knew. She’ll put any ESPN junkie to shame," Cha recalls. "And I thought if someone this powerful knows so much about sports, it has to matter."

Though Cha had already written books on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and trilateral relations between the United States, Korea and Japan, the conversation at the press dinner inspired his upcoming book, Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia (Columbia University Press, 2008). Tracking how sports is utilized in foreign relations, Cha examines the 2008 Beijing Olympics in particular, arguing that political change, thanks to the games, is inevitable.

Already in the face of international pressure, China has altered its policies on Burma and Darfur, Sudan, something Cha believes wouldn’t have happened outside of the Olympic spotlight. But, he says China’s goals rest with making these games the biggest, most successful Olympics to showcase the country’s power and growth.

That has come at a price, both financially to the tune of $40 billion and by lessening total party control over the messages and images that the world sees of China.

"China wants the limelight of the Olympics to show what a great country they are, but you pay the price for that limelight," Cha says. "If they don’t heed the pressure to change policies, then all of these attempts to show China is a great, responsible country are undercut."

The Summer Games will prompt long-lasting changes in China, Cha predicts, despite rumblings to the contrary. The environment, for one, may be altered for the better thanks to the 200 million trees planted to soak up carbon dioxide.

"The aspect of change no one is focusing on is Chinese nationalism," Cha adds. "That sort of populist nationalism is not easily controllable. Today, it could be directed against the West, but tomorrow, it could be easily directed against the government. We’re really not going to know how much change it will create until long after the games."

Sports have long been used to engineer diplomatic breakthroughs, such as the "pingpong diplomacy" between the United States and China in the 1970s. China invited Americans into the country for the first time in decades and athletes squared off. The events contributed to President Richard Nixon visiting China and the country opening up to the West.

Yet, much of the past scholarship focusing on the influence of sports on politics examines Europe and soccer or sports during the Cold War. Cha believes Asia holds the future. Chinese basketball player Yao Ming has loyal fans in his home country. Japan and Korea hosted World Cup Soccer for the first time in 2002, prompting leagues to start in those countries. Plus, 60 percent of major league baseball’s revenues come from Japan, Cha adds.

The Bush Administration Beckons

Cha’s take on the Summer Games has garnered attention, from national newspapers to ESPN interviews. It’s a far cry from the career he originally embarked on after his undergraduate study in economics at Columbia University.

"Like lots of people in the Reagan era, I went into banking for a year, but I didn’t really like it. I went off to Oxford to find myself," he says.

What Cha found turned into his future career. While studying for an international relations tutorial, he read a piece by noted foreign relations scholar Robert Jervis, who teaches at Columbia University.

"At that point, something clicked, and I realized I wanted to do a Ph.D. in international relations," Cha says. "I came back to Columbia and had Robert Jervis as my main adviser. Overall I found him to be a very congenial, accessible professor with very high standards, and that’s the model I’ve set for myself as a professor."

As a doctoral student at Georgetown, Mira Sucharov (G’01) says she was privy to Cha’s approachable style of teaching. The Georgetown alumna studied under him while working toward her doctorate in government and co-authored an encyclopedia piece with him.

Cha insisted she get top billing, something she says boosted her confidence.

“He helped me learn how to take focus from a single region -- in his case Asia and in mine Israel and Palestine -- and place it within the broader discipline of international relations,” recalls Sucharov, now an associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Jervis and Cha kept in touch during Cha’s post-doctoral positions at Harvard and Stanford universities, the latter of which is where he first met Rice. Cha would go on to join the faculty at Georgetown in 1995. By 2004, Rice came calling to see if he would join the Bush administration.

“I thought about it for about five seconds before accepting,” Cha laughs. “Particularly in a place like Georgetown where we focus on the theory and practice combination, when the opportunity came up to work on the policy side and to also serve the president, you can’t really pass that up.”

The position also gave Cha and his mentor plenty to chat about as the two frequently and congenially sparred over government policies with which Jervis disagreed.

“It really speaks to his independence. He’s one of the few people I put absolute trust in that he can move from the abstracts of academics and be equally good at working on real-world problems,” Jervis says.

Cha certainly faced enough of those problems. His government service began as a trial by fire -- the 2004 tsunami occurred only days into his tenure -- and included the sensitive six party talks on nuclear proliferation. Cha served as the deputy head of the U.S. delegation. The hours were grueling and the travel nonstop, but Cha, who returned to Georgetown in 2007, sees himself as a better teacher because of it.

“I have a lot more war stories I can tell, and the students enjoy that. It gives you a much better perspective on ivory tower debates in the field. In most cases, what makes sense conceptually makes sense in terms of policy, but not always,” he explains. “Having done three years of policy experience, you have a much better ability to weed out what is serious and useful scholarship versus what is merely academic naval gazing.”

Back in the Classroom

Given his experience, Jennifer Hoar (G’09), a student in the foreign service master’s program, says Cha has the right to parade his knowledge and experience, but instead finds him as a modest intellectual who listens to his students.

“I appreciated the fact that he was always able to distill our class discussions, which often became heated debates, down to the essential concepts and frameworks of international relations,” Hoar says. “One thing I loved about his class is that he wouldn’t hesitate to pipe up and give us a proper lecture, but he also ceded the floor to the students so that they could express themselves … Most importantly, I feel that professor Cha taught us how to think, rather than what to think.”

Hoar’s appraisal of Cha follows how the professor describes his philosophy on life. It is simply to be a role model, whether that means showing his children the benefits of working for the White House or inspiring students toward public service.

“Students appreciate the sacrifices that people make in public service. It’s not something you can really teach,” he says. “You can only tell about the experiences and how rewarding it felt to you, and hopefully students will learn from that.”

Thanks to his high profile and being the first Korean-American to direct Asian affairs for the White House, Cha receives many cold calls from students looking to follow his path. His best advice: be open to all possibilities.

“I can’t tell them what to do, I can only tell them how it happened for me. I never, ever planned on doing this. I tried a variety of directions and ended up as an academic,” Cha says. “That’s what I want to be, that’s what I enjoy being and that’s what I’ll be for the rest of my life.”

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