America embraced big-stick diplomacy under President Roosevelt, dollar diplomacy under Taft and shuttle diplomacy under Nixon -- a wide range of international relations strategies. Now, it's time for America to introduce a new tactic for a specific region of the world: "basketball diplomacy."
Last week, the five-time NBA champion Dennis Rodman visited North Korea to train its national basketball team for an upcoming exhibition game against a cast of retired American all-stars. Though they did not meet for a third time during the trip, Rodman was in communication with his friend, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.
Many have denounced Rodman's trip as condoning North Korea's egregious conduct -- both towards its citizens and other countries -- especially in the wake of Kim's public purge of his uncle in a power struggle. However, Rodman's efforts should be considered a step in the right direction for American diplomacy.
Keep in mind: Kim Jong-un is not the archetypal dictator; he's a womanizing (or so they say), Xbox-playing, gambling thirty-year-old who's familiar with Western society. Rodman is among the first Westerners to meet with Kim since his father's death two years ago. Although he will not single-handedly lift sanctions or establish diplomatic relations, Rodman serves as a foot in the door, a means of first contact for America, which has lacked diplomatic ties with the North since the Korean War.
Basketball is the ideal method for such initial contact, considering how sports have been historically utilized to make political statements. The late Nelson Mandela, for instance, used the Springboks national rugby team, one of the most polarizing embodiments of apartheid, to unite a modern South Africa. Even President Obama recently employed this strategy by appointing two lesbian athletes to the U.S.'s delegation for the Sochi Olympics -- an implicit slap-in-the-face to Russia's anti-homosexual law.
Those who oppose Rodman's relationship with Kim cite North Korea's outrageous actions. They refer to instances like Kenneth Bae, a U.S. missionary now serving a 15-year sentence in a North Korean labor camp, and statistics such as four of five North Koreans being hungry, according to the U.N. World Food Programme.
"Why even grant North Korea and Kim Jong-un the light of day?" they'd ask. The answer: Because it's the only way conditions will improve. North Korea is already the world's most isolated country, as the U.S. State Department advises Americans to refrain from traveling there. Further ostracizing them will accomplish nothing.
Any progress -- for both the North Korean people and American diplomacy -- is contingent on some form of initial contact. And as of now, only Dennis Rodman has the potential to serve as that ambassador and begin working on America's diplomatic ties with the North. So perhaps next time Rodman publicly requests it, President Obama will give him a call and give basketball diplomacy a chance.
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