Quick: what do ping-pong, baseball and basketball have in common?
Of course they are all sports, but the point is: they are sports used at crucial times in contemporary history for major US diplomatic offensives.
It was after some ping-pong matches – until then unheard of – that in the early 1970s the American administration stretched a friendly hand toward China. Then in January 1999, the visit of a US baseball team to Cuba inaugurated a new era in the relationship between Washington and La Habana.
Now it’s basketball’s turn.
As the Los Angeles Times puts it: “Dennis Rodman tests out ‘basketball diplomacy’” and it is only natural to think that nothing but a diplomatic twist could explain all-time basketball star Dennis Rodman’s recent arrival in Pyongyang, along with a select crew of the Harlem Globetrotters, in which he now plays.
Formally, ‘bad boy’ Rod and his mates are in North Korea to shoot part of a documentary on the history of the Harlem Globetrotters for an American TV show. But they should also be visiting a children’s sports camp in the secluded communist country and may possibly compete with North Korean athletes in an exhibition match which may even be attended by the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. Kim is known to be fond of basketball fanfare and pop culture.
The world of international political observers and commentators was taken by surprise last July when – at a public show attended by Kim and most of the generals who make up the core of the ruling Korea’s Workers Party – a central part of the programme was performed by a host of Disney characters, with Mickey Mouse playing the role of a sort of dancing master of ceremonies. A thing which must have taken by surprise also the citizens of North Korea, accustomed to seeing anything typically American as politically incorrect and morally unbecoming.
Mr. Rodman and the Harlem Globetrotters’ visit may have also come as a surprise at a time when tensions between North Korea and the US are running very high. Only a few weeks ago Pyongyang attracted international censure for staging a nuclear test openly meant to mark a further step in its military nuclear program. While the United Nations sanctioned the test, Japan and South Korea – with which the North is technically still at war – loudly condemned the move. Even China, a close ally of the communist neighbour, complained that the test might compromise the halting, tug of war-like dialogue in which the international community has tried to involve the Pyongyang regime over the past decade.
That said, under the leadership of president Barack Obama, the White House has clearly shown its willingness to keep all dialogue options open with North Korea. At the same time, despite the fiery declarations about the determination of his country to proceed with its nuclear program, and notwithstanding his unclear position towards reviving the stalled six-party talks at the centre of negotiations with the international community (involving the USA, Russia, China, South Korea and Japan) Kim too has left some doors open for dialogue and, unexpectedly, in early January, he allowed Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt to visit Pyongyang. A few weeks later the very first maps of North Korea, including the sites where some political prisoner camps are located, appeared on the Internet.
It is very hard at this stage to tell what’s behind the invitation of the Harlem Globetrotters. Upon his arrival in Pyongyang, where he was greeted by a cluster of reporters, Mr. Rodman, clearing his throat now and then, insisted that “we got invited and we just came over to have some fun.” Soon thereafter, replying to the question of when the team had received a formal invitation, Mr. Rodman seemed at first a little unsure but quickly replied that his team had received the invitation “about a month ago.”
That is to say, some time before the much-contested nuclear test was carried out, which may explain why, until the last minute, the visit was “up in the air” with “50-50” chances of falling through. If one can say that diplomacy is not Rodman’s forte, his teammate, Will Bullard, seemed more prepared to state what was expected of him by declaring that he “always loved Korea. No matter North, South. I have always loved Korea.” Should there be any doubt about the aim of the Globetrotters’ trip, sources from VICE, the Brooklyn based youth media company which sponsors the initiative and is co-producing the TV documentary with HBO, openly spoke of a mission of “basketball diplomats.”
Basketball diplomacy has, after all, also been used by Washington to open a new venue of dialogue with Myanmar. Less than a year ago, some time after the military junta, which has ruled the South East Asian country for half a century, opened to reforms and to democratic elections, the White House formally decided to restart diplomatic relations. One of the first initiatives sponsored by the State Department was to send, in August, a team of basketball players and coaches to Myanmar.
Soccer should be added to the sport disciplines favoured by American diplomacy. In 2009, after meeting then Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva during a G8 summit, Obama made it known that he had not talked only about international politics with his counterpart. While the issue of the friendly relationship between Brazil and Iran was the core of their meeting, Fox TV stressed that the American president had engaged in “soccer diplomacy”, by commenting at length with Lula on a recent match between the American and Brazilian national teams.
Soccer has been used as an excuse to ease tensions between countries on other occasions and by other countries as well. Last year, before the start of the yearly Euro championship, hosted in part by the Ukraine, Russian president Vladimir Putin made sure to sooth the tensions which have characterized the relationship between Moscow and Kiev after the fall of the Soviet Union, by declaring that “one must not, under any circumstance, mix politics, business and other such questions with sports.”
In 2008, soccer served as a tool to ease long-standing tensions between Turkey and Armenia. As a sign of goodwill, then Turkish President Abdullah Gul attended the first match between the national teams of the two countries, which less than a year later established formal diplomatic relations.
Being probably the most popular sport the world over, soccer has attracted particular attention in Washington.
Building upon former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton vision of “smart power diplomacy,” as a 2011 press release states, the State Department has officially assigned the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs the duty to spearhead “a global initiative that fuses international exchanges and soccer.” A first timid attempt at engaging Iran in “soccer diplomacy” was actually made by the US prior to the 2010 Soccer World Championship, when the US soccer federation invited the Iranian national team to a friendly match. Back then, American media talked at length of a soccer diplomacy initiative.
Nothing seems to have come of that, but it may be safe to say that if any change at all is to be seen in the relationship between Washington and Tehran, this will likely take the shape of a soccer match.