A look at Dennis Rodman’s basketball diplomacy

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. ~ Albert Einstein

Last week was an interesting week in United States foreign policy. Dennis Rodman visited North Korea and met with its leader, Kim Jong-un … and the meeting wasn’t even planned. Rodman was over there with a group of Harlem Globetrotters doing a VICE Media sponsored filming for a newsmagazine show that will debut next month on HBO. But after finding out that Rodman was “in town,” Kim Jong-un invited him to his palace, spent two days and attended a basketball game with him. Upon arriving back in the states, Rodman announced he had a message for President Obama from the North Korean leader: ” 

He wants Obama to do one thing: “Call him,” Rodman said. “He said, ‘If you can Dennis, I don’t want to do war.’ He said that to me.”

Dennis Rodman

Needless to say neither Obama nor the State Department were impressed. Nor was the mainstream media, who seem to have been ridiculing him in unison. “The United States has direct channels of communications with the DPRK. And instead of spending money on celebrity sporting events to entertain the elites of that country, the North Korean regime should focus on the well-being of its own people who have been starved, imprisoned, and denied their human rights,” responded Jay Carney, Whitehouse spokesman.

However in reality, this direct channel of communication is nothing other than one minion talking to another minion, posturing. As Rodman also disclosed, Kim Jong-un is a man obsessed with power – obviously. To attempt a dialogue with him using someone other than a leader, someone other than Obama himself, someone he feels his equal … is nothing other than a slap in face and show of disrespect.

Obama indicated he has no desire or intention to pick up the phone and call the North Korean directly. And he also has no intention to talk to Rodman to gain possible insight into this illusive leader. In theory this is all good and well. But in reality, aside from Dennis Rodman, there hasn’t been a government official or any other United States citizen that’s even met Kim Jong-un during the two plus years he’s been in power. It’s kind of hard to establish a diplomatic relationship with someone when you don’t even sit down and talk face to face.

For the past seventy years since the days of MacArthur, the United States foreign policy has been governed from the perspective that America is exceptional and any objection to that should be dealt with the iron fist of force. American interests abroad, public or private, must be protected and American ideals must be propagated. Every administration, Democrat or Republican has continued this practice. It’s like we have a “moral authority” to impose.

Now I’m not a diplomat, but I am a marketer. And it seems to me that diplomatic negotiations are not a lot different from marketing or selling. The first step to marketing is understanding “the person on the other side of the table.” Only then can you determine if your product or solution is right for them or should be modified to fit their needs. The “kiss of death” in any sale or negotiation is coming in with a set agenda and try to ramrod that agenda down the throat of your counterpart. Yet this is exactly the modus operandi of our foreign policy. All in the name of “moral authority.” In most situations this intimidation works. But sometimes it doesn’t, as with North Korea. In fact even as recent as today they are threatening nuclear war over recently imposed sanctions.

Now I don’t condone the behavior of the North Korean government. Their civil rights record is probably the worst in the world. Their nuclear testing is alarming. And their threats towards the United States and most other countries of the world are worrisome at best. But we are now fifty years into this policy of imposition. And up to this point, we have no better relations with North Korea than we did in 1960. Or as Einstein so aptly put it: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Now I ask, what do we really want to accomplish? Do we want North Korea to curtail its nuclear program or improve its relationship with its people? Or do we just want them to be better citizens of the world? Regardless, shouldn’t we try an approach that might just work, rather than doing the same thing that has been proven not to?

Kim Jong-un

Regardless, before we do anything, shouldn’t we take a look at who we’re really dealing with. North Korea is not the United States or any other democracy. North Korea is essentially a dictatorship, run by twenty-nine year old Kim Jong-un. He is the third of his family to run the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. His grandfather, Kim Il-sung founded the country after the split from what is now South Korea.

To say that Kim Jong-un has lived a privileged and sheltered life is an understatement. Aside from going to college in Switzerland, he has spent his life living like a prince in the royal palace overseeing his serfs. One has to take his background and world perspective into account when dealing with him.

Also, even though Kim Jong-un may technically be a dictator, he does not govern in a vacuum. His government is by no means united behind him. In fact many power players were not happy with him being put in power in the first place. The military holds an incredible amount of power in North Korea. These generals are one if not two generations older than he is. To have someone who could be their son of even grandson dictating to them does not sit well. This cannot be an easy environment for Kim Jong-un to rule in. The old guard wants things as they’ve always been. Having United States foreign policy not taking this into account, is vastly erroneous.

But his sheltered life has not prevented him from being exposed to western culture and its influences. In fact, just the contrary. Both Kim Jong-un and father, Kim Jong-Il (since deceased) are and were avid basketball and movie fans. It’s an obsession that often overshadows their concern for the welfare of their country’s citizenry. For years Kim Jong-Il tried to get Michael Jordan to visit him in North Korea. In steps Dennis Rodman … the next best thing.

Does our State Department really look at foreign governments as people, people with lives – public and private. Or do they just believe they are negotiating with some nefarious psuedo-being incapable of human thought and activity. They act like it’s the latter. Wouldn’t they want, like any good marketer, to know as much as possible about the person they’re dealing with? Maybe not if they don’t believe they’re dealing with a person.

Not wanting to de-brief Dennis Rodman is bewildering to me. Here is someone who has obviously made a connection with Kim Jong-un. Wouldn’t they want to gather as much information as possible about the Korean leader? They don’t even know the extent of his command of English. They’ve never sat down with him to find out. Rodman has! Why is Obama and his team so reluctant. Are they scared the Korean leader might actually be a human being rather the reincarnation of the devil he’s been portrayed as? Or is it they’re prejudice against Rodman because of his bizarre looks and eccentric behavior. Would they have de-briefed Bill Richardson or Eric Schmidt from Google when they were over there if they had been able to meet with Kim Jong-un?

I don’t understand our government’s arrogant behavior. Do they believe only those that work inside the beltway are capable of being intelligent enough to converse with international leaders. I could make a case just the contrary. They haven’t really proven to be very adept at doing their job recently. In fact they’re the laughing-stock of the world. Not being from Washington might actually be an asset. Isn’t the goal here conducting a dialogue that produces results?

Or is it just this obsession with being right above all else, even if being right might not, well … be right.

I used tell my daughter when we’d crossed a street to not automatically step into the cross walk just because the light turned green. You may have the right-of-way, but a car making a right turn may still run you over. You’d be right … but you’d be dead.


You can find me on Twitter at @clayforsberg


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One thought on “A look at Dennis Rodman’s basketball diplomacy

  1. I’m not sure where you’re getting your info, but great topic. I needs to spend some time learning much more or understanding more. Thanks for great information I was looking for this information for my mission.

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