Truman National Security Project

The Case For B-lister Diplomacy

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By Lionel Beehner | 3.6.13
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The awkward embrace of a dictator and B-list celeb is not new, though it never fails to delight the foreign policy community. Dennis Rodman recently paid a visit to Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea as part of a goodwill basketball tour, raising the question: Why do reclusive strongmen love celebrities past their prime?

In 2011, the warlord in charge of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, who incidentally keeps a caged tiger as a pet, brought Hollywood actors such as Jean-Claude Van Damme and Hilary Swank to help him celebrate his 35th birthday (the Muscles from Brussels ended his speech by declaring “I love you, Mr. Kadyrov!”). And Kim Il-Sung, the grandfather of North Korea’s current leader, once invited the professional wrestler Ric Flair.

Part of me, of course, can’t help wonder if the Rodmans of the world are willing pawns in this propaganda charade. He told the North Korean leader, “You have a friend for life” and called him “an awesome kid.” Then again, these goodwill visits probably do very little to secure these dictators’ footing at home. Kim Jong-Un’s ability to ward off a coup is hardly strengthened by hosting a basketball player nicknamed the “Worm.” There’s also the bleeding-heart liberal in me that thinks it is silly that a state starving its people and building nuclear bombs should get to host the Harlem Globetrotters.

Another part wishes these cultural ambassadors would put their talents and access to better use. Maybe we can’t expect them to hector dictators on their human rights records, especially not when they are being feted with fine wine and caviar. But as Korea expert Victor Cha told the New York Times: “Maybe we should have given Rodman the denuclearization brief.” I doubt these visits really detract from diplomatic relations that are going nowhere in the first place. It seems silly for the U.S. government to describe a recent visit to Pyongyang by Google’s chairman as “not particularly helpful.”

If anything, our diplomats should be taking notes. After all, if a few VICE producers and a cross-dressing former NBA star can get a sit-down with North Korea’s “Supreme Leader,” can’t we conjure up some other way than the six-party talks to get these guys to the table and to renounce their nukes? Maybe I’ve seen Argo too many times, but I would hope there is someone at the State Department thinking about this.

A favorite quip of Foggy Bottom is that the marching band of the Defense Department is larger than the whole foreign service. Well, we have no shortage of out-of-work B-list celebs to spare for diplomacy junkets that could put their acting chops to good use. Let’s get Lindsay Lohan on a plane to Belarus (if it’s a one-way flight, all the better). How about Kim Kardashian as our next ambassador to Cuba?

I don’t care if Carrot Top is negotiating our nuke terms in North Korea, or the actor who played “Screech” gets a “bilat” with Iran’s mullahs. Whatever works is preferable to the long-held U.S. view that somehow ignoring states is so painful a snub that they would hand over their nuclear football and turn their labor camps into shopping malls. Burma opened up with engagement, not turning a cold shoulder. Richard Nixon went to China, and so forth.

We have to remember that dictators are not like you or me. (Or maybe they are: a fetish of Nikita Khrushchev’s, after all, was Mickey Mouse). You try being surrounded by yes men all day and told you have a perfect golf game. Why not play on these idiosyncratic wishes to wrestle concessions out of them. We’ll give Pyongyang an NBA team — just put the kibosh on those nuclear tests.

This is not to trivialize a serious thing — these states are impoverished places with appalling human rights records. Celebs, no matter how hard up for cash, should not be cashing checks from murderous regimes to perform at their birthday bashes.

But track-two diplomacy requires some creativity. We’ve tried using sports and “ping-pong diplomacy” in the past to mixed success (A basketball game between a Chinese team and Georgetown literally ended in fist-a-cuffs a few years back, and we just got our butts whooped in wrestling by Iran, on their own home turf no less).

Why not send in the Steve Guttenbergs of the world to take a crack at it?

Lionel Beehner is a Truman Security Fellow. This article originally appeared on USA Today.