Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Dennis Rodman and the Era of Unconventional Diplomacy: From Ping-Pong to Basketball

Famed basketball weirdo Dennis Rodman raised many eyebrows this week as he visited the pariah state of North Korea and palled around with its notorious leader Kim Jong Un. Apparently a huge basketball and Bulls fan, Kim received Rodman and a crew of Western documentary makers as well as players for the Harlem Globetrotters to his reticent country. Rodman and Kim hit it off, with Rodman drawing fire for calling the brutal dictator “a friend for life” and stating that he does not believe the Korean leader wants war with the US.  The statements seemed bizarre given the February 12 North Korean nuclear test, the Feb. 19 threat to bring “final destruction to the South,” and a video released just this week showing Pres. Obama engulfed in flames and a US city targeted by a nuclear attack.

Best Budz: Rodman hugs Kim. Photos courtesy of AP.

Yet in East Asia, when dealing with belligerent nations the US has employed unconventional diplomacy successfully in the past. The now-infamous “ping-pong diplomacy" that was seen as leading to a marked improvement in US relations with the People’s Republic of China played a role in the visit of Pres. Richard Nixon to the PRC. At the time, China was in a similar position to North Korea in terms of its nuclear proliferation, history of poor relations with the US, and position in the Communist Bloc. While “ping-pong diplomacy” was not the only cause of the improvement in relations, the US and China made an adroit diplomatic decision in seizing a window of opportunity in the political climate to arrange a trip that was well-received by the publics on either side and that opened the door to further negotiations.

Unconventional diplomacy has a major role to play when dealing with rogue states like North Korea. After decades of isolation, indoctrination, and proliferation, North Korea is hardly a country that is going to be open to any influence from the US, let alone a democratic transition. But US cultural exchanges have proved to be a powerful bridge to seemingly irreconcilable governments. The rest of the world delightfully consumes American music, sports, television and movies. The stars in these field may open diplomatic channels closed to ordinary bureaucrats and policymakers. Even our former Pres. Bill Clinton holds serious sway in countries that would otherwise be considered US enemies because of his celebrity, not his presidential policies.

While I disagree with Rodman’s callous and ignorant embrace of Kim Jong Un, I do see his point when he says “I’m not a politician.” It is far from Rodman’s job to understand the vast human rights abuses, system of prison camps, and mass starvation taking place in North Korea. In fact, his distance from these issues might actually make him a more effective communicator. It is, after all, an almost insurmountable challenge to come to some kind of agreement with a man you already think is a ruthless autocrat. Maybe by having an American buddy, Kim Jong Un will slowly be persuaded that his love of Western leisure activities might extend to the realm of politics as well. At worst, this will simply be another anecdote in the strange life of Dennis Rodman. At best, we may have just opened up an important, albeit unusual, channel of diplomacy.

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