The not-so-subtle art of diplomacy

Peter Kammerer says any diplomacy that eases tensions between two nations has to be a good thing, whoever is breaking the ice

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 March, 2013, 4:25am

Diplomacy is a skilled art. To be good at their job, diplomats need years of experience in negotiation, political analysis and protocol. A balanced personality, intelligence, tolerance, open-mindedness and patience are essential traits. But if such a person is unavailable to handle a delicate situation between rival nations, someone of the calibre of flamboyant American former basketball star Dennis Rodman may do instead.

Rodman and three players from an exhibition basketball team visited North Korea last month to film a television show. They were feted by the country's young dictator Kim Jong-un, a huge fan of the game. It was the first time since Kim took power 15 months ago that he has met so high-profile an American, despite the North being one of Washington's biggest diplomatic thorns. Rodman returned home declaring Kim to be his friend.

The orange-haired, pierced and heavily tattooed Rodman is an unlikely diplomat. Americans are not taking his time with Kim seriously. Subsequent interviews show he has limited understanding of the state of relations between the nations. But no matter whether he is being used as a propaganda tool by the North, as many commentators believe, there is a simple truth: he has broken diplomatic ice that has been frozen for most of the past six decades.

Such was similarly the case in 1958 when the American pianist Van Cliburn won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. The US and Soviet Union were at the time in the depths of the cold war and, as with Rodman, Cliburn's trip was frowned upon by Americans. But so skilled was the piano player that he gained admiration and respect for himself and his nation. Some analysts claim that his performance kept the Soviets from declaring war on the US.

Cliburn's death at his home in Texas on February 27, while Rodman was in North Korea, was a reminder that diplomacy does not have to be only about negotiations. Understanding is essential for peacemaking and it can come about in all manner of ways. A concert or sporting event that brings together people from rival nations also achieves that aim. It is an aspect that is too often overlooked.

Rodman's trip prompted media headlines of "basketball diplomacy", a reference to the table tennis games between Chinese and American teams in 1971 that led to a meeting between leaders Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon in Beijing the following year. Popularly referred to as "ping-pong diplomacy", the contact between the arch-enemies put in place foundations for the restoration of diplomatic ties in 1979.

Instead of laughing at Rodman, the US should be using his trip as a building block for improved relations. China and Japan should also pay attention. The perfect person for the Rodman role is already well-known in China: Japanese porn star Sola Aoi, who has 13 million followers on her Sina Weibo account. She tried to calm tensions over the Diaoyu Islands last September with a posting that the two sides should be friends. Her crossing the East China Sea to express the sentiment in person to China's new leaders would have a far greater impact.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post




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