Privatizing Diplomacy – Dennis Rodman Style

The verdict is in. All civilized people must hate Dennis Rodman. Politicians from John McCain to John Kerry, and pundits from Bill O’Reilly to Chris Matthews are outraged that any American, let alone the eccentric Rodman, would travel to the land of the third member of the Axis of Evil. Earlier this week, Rodman, along with six fellow former NBA players, left for North Korea where they played an exhibition basketball game against a team of North Koreans. The game took place in front of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, as part of Kim’s birthday celebration. American politicians and pundits across the board are aghast, and most Americans are not far behind them in their hysteria. The atmosphere evokes George Orwell’s "Two Minutes Hate" sessions from 1984, where citizens of Oceania are forced to watch daily video shorts depicting scenes of Oceania’s enemies in order to keep the Oceanic people frenzied with war fever. Similarly, any deviation from McCain’s or Clinton’s hardline hatred of our mortal enemy North Korea borders on treason. The nightly headlines detailing Rodman’s idiocy are constant.

Is Rodman’s trip really that bad? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it’s an extremely positive step in the right direction if one is truly concerned with the freedom of North Koreans. For one thing, can anyone name a single thing that the State Department has done to normalize relations between our feuding governments? Have Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, or any other so-called diplomats spoken with their North Korean counterparts, let alone traveled there to show solidarity with North Korean citizens? Not that I know of. I don’t care if the North Korean government is "unreasonable" or "insane". That’s a state diplomat’s sole job, to forge peaceful and harmonious relationships with other state actors, no matter how difficult they may be.

How any government official could call herself a diplomat when her first instinct in statecraft is to issue harsh condemnations, threats and ignite cold wars is beyond me. Diplomats are supposed to be peacemakers, not antagonists. If I didn’t know better, I’d think the State Department & Co. are more interested in maintaining preselected foreign enemies than they are in peacemaking. But the State Department’s propensity for feuding is part of a larger problem — government’s utter inability to give repressed foreigners their freedom. Governments have only one arrow in their quiver: Force. When there is a problem, foreign or domestic, force is the government’s only answer.

For what tools does a state actually have in foreign policy? Sanctions. Threats of war. Actual war. Foreign aid. That’s it. All involve violence, real or threatened, and in the case of foreign aid, theft and grotesque cronyism. Of course, a Secretary of State could travel to a foreign country just as Rodman has done, but what good would such a visit do? At the end of the day, a politician’s visit would be nothing more than one master telling another master how to treat his subjects. North Koreans, and all other unfree persons, need less masters and more experience. The experience that comes from seeing other cultures and from learning that there is an entire world outside their own small country. No, Rodman and six old NBA players may not be the major dose of culture that’s going to set the North Koreans free. But it’s a start. A start at opening up North Korea to outsiders who bring with them a diversity of appearance, lifestyle and opinion, all things that are celebrated here in the United States.

I’m encouraged by the Rodman crew’s trip, and applaud their effort. Had I not seen it happen, I probably would’ve been led to believe that North Korea had a strict No Americans Allowed policy. I don’t pretend to have the answer on how to free North Koreans from their government chains, but it doesn’t take great imagination to envision annual American basketball games blossoming into something larger. People are creative and doors get opened where least expected.

And no, I don’t love seeing someone of Rodman’s stature palling around with someone as nasty as Kim Jong UN and singing him happy birthday. I don’t like seeing any government official bowed to, praised or celebrated, North Korean or otherwise. But think about it. If you had the prominence of Rodman and desired to take the first step in opening up a walled-off country, would you make any progress by dissing the country’s iron-fisted leader, whose invitation you depend on? Not a chance. Perhaps Rodman’s admiration for Kim is genuine, but his motivation shouldn’t matter. His warm behavior towards Kim has allowed Rodman an opportunity that no United States government official has been able to achieve. At times, one wonders whether the United States government is merely angry with Rodman for striking a blow against its monopoly on diplomacy.

Only shifts in culture and attitudes bring about freedom and progress. Governments are reactive, and more Rodman outings in North Korea means more knowledge for North Koreans, and a resulting hunger for information about the world beyond their state borders. Who knows when North Koreans’ cultural curiosity will turn into a demand to freely interact with the world.

Chad Nelson is a practicing attorney based out of Providence, RI. He is a devoted market anarchist and peace activist. Follow him on Twitter @cnels43.

13 thoughts on “Privatizing Diplomacy – Dennis Rodman Style”

  1. "Only shifts in culture and attitudes bring about freedom and progress."

    But for the State Department, arriving at a state of normalising relations with North Korea would mean having one less country to have as the 'bogeyman' that can incite fear amongst the populace that allows the military industrial state to continue. For McCain, Clinton, ODroner & Co, endless war is the only norm as there's so much money & power to have because of it…

    1. That's is exactly right. In order to justify the absurd amount of money and resources the U.S. puts into the war machine, it needs enemies. Not that North Korea isn't a horrific totalitarian regime, but the eternal standoff is a defense contractors wet dream. Threat of force and stale macho diplomacy aren't serving an inch of movement toward peace.
      Rodman, for all his decadence and attention seeking, is creating movement. Weird movement, but still, acknowledging Kim Jong UN as a person (separate from his horrific political practices) and creating human connections around something as benign as basketball, what is the harm? I don't understand why people automatically associate recognition of a human person as synonymous with advocating that persons actions and beliefs. How else do you move toward peace? More threats? More double and triple political speak that has to be filtered dozens of times so as not to offend this or that ally? Not likely. As weird as it is, I like what Rodman has done.

  2. Do not expect any shifts in cultural attitudes. This trip was grossly irresponsible self indulgence. Lawyers often argue for the sake of arguing. Is that you, Mr Author? The Washington North Korean so called experts do not even speak Korean. You can watch B.R. Myers , a Korean speake'rs opinion on C SPAN for free. His analysis. The American political right,wing,and center do not have a solution for North Korea. The weakness days of Clinton, and the S Korean 'sunshine' policy made them worse. The US gave them food in large quanties, it did not change them one bit.
    My opinion:Rodman is like a clown that rich people hire for their children at Birthday parties. Like I said study all you want.

    1. Worse than that he is a moron.. with no more idea than a fish what the hell he is doing or why. It is simply another case of stupid self indulgence with no thought to consequences or purpose outside his love of the limelight.

  3. I like what Rodman was doing. He taught how to communicate and deliver something in a fun way that everybody loves. There is no war of word at all. Very nice diplomacy…

  4. The American public is generally clueless about the modern history of Korea, or the origins of the Korean War. Nor does it ever get much reliable narrative about that country, even when information about various provocations and military incidents is known to the MSM. Do Americans know that the Korean war began as a civil war, or that US military planners and the State Department was complicit in the suppression of the popular movement in the South and in the establishment of a puppet South Korea dictatorship (with the eventual hope of reunification), as part and parcel of the Department's plan to rehabilitate the economy of a demilitarized Japan as a buffer against the Soviet Union? In the course of the war, every North Korean city and most of its villages were decimated by US aerial bombing, and millions of Koreans died. Moreover, the U.S. actually placed atomic weapons in South Korea and at various times threatened the North with overflights of bombers believed to be carrying nuclear warheads. Furthermore, from 1950 through 2008 the U.S. imposed economic sanctions on North Korea under the Trading With The Enemy Act. There was some hope in the 1990's that there might be some progress toward a final peace between the North and South and that economic relations between the North and South might be established between the two Koreas, though that was dashed after George Bush became President. This is not to justify what has also been a highly repressive government, but it would be a mistake to discount or minimize the effect of our military policies in Korea.

    So, I agree that, if our government has been reluctant to exercise diplomacy, Rodman's efforts have been welcome. As for other cultural exchanges, I'm reminded of the video of the New York Philharmonic's visit to North Korea and some of the most inspiring playing of that orchestra in this listener's memory. And, you could feel the impact of the music on the audience. Furthermore, I've been told that serious American students enrolled language programs in Beijing sometimes are afforded the opportunity to visit North Korea. So what Rodman has done is not unique, though the way he has done it probably has been.

    Ultimately, anything that will increase people to people exchanges as a way of better understanding the people on the other side, including their needs, thinking and motivation, and that could lay the groundwork for some form of rapprochement between the two countries would only be positive. So, again, yes, I applaud what Rodman’s visit and his attempt to reach out to the North Koreans, especially where our diplomats have failed to do the job.

    1. You are correct that the American people are clueless about the "forgotten" Korean War. They do not know that the US was the aggressor, destroying North Korea and killing millions of its citizens for no good reason (the discredited "domino theory"). Another war crime by ultra war criminal Harry Truman. The Vietnam War was the Korean War 2.0.

  5. Does anyone remember the "ping pong" diplomacy in the 1970's between the US and China. After that, it wasn't long before Nixon went to China and made nice with Mao, eventually opening up relations with them. If it could happen when Mao ruled that country with an iron fist, killing millions of his own citizens, why can't it happen with North Korea? The reason it won't happen is because the US doesn't want it to, just like it refuses to lift the sanctions against Cuba, although they are what has kept Castro in power all these decades.

    Although Rodman is inarticulate and a very flawed vehicle, I applaud him for at least raising this issue with the American people. Too bad that most of them have been brainwashed by their government and the MSM.

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