“Basketball Diplomacy” – OpEd


The controversial basketball Hall of Famer, Denis Rodman, recently met with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un in a trip he has coined as “basketball diplomacy.” This growing phenomenon in foreign affairs is similar to other attempts of celebrity and philanthropic diplomacy. The impact value of sports and diplomacy has long been recognized. Even the Ancient Greeks figured it into their city-state geopolitics.

Recently, the idea of a “soccer diplomacy” was thought to be a promising form of international relations between publics, since most of the world plays soccer (international football) than any other sport. Denis Rodman’s desire to visit what has been called derisively the “hermit kingdom,” because of its strict isolation, the imposed international sanctions, nuclear militancy and absolute dictatorship, might be commendable. However, his praise of such a man might warrant concern.

One of the biggest lessons is the trend of Americans to flock to North Korea. Bloomberg cites an increase which also includes that of regional foreign leaders. CEO Eric Schmidt, from Google, and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, met Kim just weeks before Rodman, in January. Ted Turner visited Kim’s father—the previous ruler.

Not everybody has the same reasons for traveling to Pyongyang. Some might be adventurers, others looking for any business opportunities; still others are worried about human rights and humanitarian aid. For Rodman, it was gestured as basketball diplomacy.

Celebrity visits of America’s enemies can be seen in figures going back to Jane Fonda who met with Ho chi Min during the Vietnam War. What made it more controversial was her pose to sit on an anti-aircraft gun of the North Vietnamese while the regime was engaged in active war against the USA. But Rodman’s visit is nothing like the past and the US and North Korea are not engaged in a war and Rodman did not pose in front of any ICBMs.

Can this type of diplomacy help a troubled country? Does it help the USA?

Celebrity trips to Africa, for example, are a great benefit for humanitarian efforts and should be continued—like those of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. The awareness campaigns against conflict nations and genocide, as those in Darfur, sponsored passionately by George Clooney, are to be awarded the world’s sincerest gratitude. Billionaire philanthropist achievement’s like those of Bill and Melinda Gates or ex-President’s George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, work in-tandem with the advancing power of a private celebrity diplomacy and international integrity.

Nevertheless, the visitors to states like North Korea will have mixed results because of the official reception of the meetings are taken as two separate things. For the North Koreans, any high profiles going to their country are seen as de facto defectors of their government and staunch supporters of Kim Jong-Un. This gives them a great rally of their own people to further spout out propaganda regarding this now evident truth. Thus, North Korean gains greater domestic legitimacy and when Denis Rodman says that all Kim wants is a phone call from Obama, Pyongyang gains a modicum of international legitimacy.

As for the USA, are such types of acts by the VIP public treasonous, reproachable or praiseworthy? In some ways all three apply. It depends on the particular case. Treason is slippery notion of a breach in American security and a siding with America’s enemies. Rodman never swore allegiance to North Korea or their leader. Rodman the Harlem Globetrotter’s intentions might appear praiseworthy for attempting to promote a bridge between the US and North Korea—at a time of high threats and tension—they can also be condemned in language. Rodman did not have to esteem Kim politically, but could have said he was cordial and friendly. Again, this may have been a slip from a amateur street diplomat or it may have been his personal views. That is the disadvantage of having any unofficial representative. Meanwhile, the advantage is that no other American might be able to reach such a leader: the two share a love of basketball and can speak apolitically.

The result of Rodman’s basketball diplomacy is that the outcome is intended to force an official diplomatic American response: the US is now expected to act. It is expected to make a gesture for communication and outreach, but, this time, while the North Koreans have a temporary diplomatic advantage.

This could lead to a positive outcome, but either way, North Korean leadership is perceptually empowered from such visits and American policy regarding North Korea is perceptually chiseled away under a lack of efficacy—basketball diplomacy offering a cordial meeting that no official American diplomat could have achieved.

Any window of American action is very short. America may decide to continue to ignore the Rodman visit altogether. North Korea has threatened to destroy the USA with nuclear weapons and swears that it is the archenemy of the Korean people.

The US could wait until the next high profile meets the young Kim. They could send a dozen unofficial VIPs that were coached, educated and indoctrinated and start a celebrity diplomacy dialogue that communicates through unofficial channels but allows for an open door. Another option is that America officially replies and strongly reminds North Korea that Americans are committed to peace, and despite differences, a future friendship with North Korea.

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