The Upside to Dennis Rodman’s Bizarre North Korea Visits

From Apple to Beyonce to the NBA, American culture still reigns supreme

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Wang Zhao / AFP / Getty Images

Former US NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman waits to check in at Beijing's international airport on December 19, 2013.

On one level, Dennis Rodman’s latest stunt-visit to North Korea is bad news for the United States. Washington wants to isolate North Korea’s looney-tunes dictator, Kim Jong Un, including by depriving him of luxuries, entertainment and the other trappings of his near-absolute power. The goal is to make him unhappy enough to negotiate with the outside world, and maybe even give up his nukes. Visits from a former NBA star don’t further that goal. Nor does it help that Rodman humanizes Kim, showing the world a side of him that doesn’t involve, for instance, denouncing his his own uncle as “despicable human scum” and executing him.

But there’s a positive lesson behind the surreal theatrics. In a sense, Rodman represents America’s secret weapon: our soft power.

A burning question for America today is whether we’re in a state of decline — and especially whether we’re destined to be overtaken by China as the world’s leading power. Our economy is weaker than it was. We’re cutting our military. Anti-Americanism is running high thanks to the Iraq War, Guantanamo, drone strikes and NSA spying.

And yet, while there may be resentment toward the U.S. government, the world still tends to love Americans, and our cultural exports. That means everything from Will Smith movies to Beyonce records to iPhones and iPads — and even washed-up former NBA stars. That matters: Cultural influence is a key element of soft power, making people around the world think better of us.

The numbers tell the story. When Pew asked people around the world for their views on the U.S. last year, the results were mixed to bad — and have gotten worse in recent years — on policy issues like drone strikes and unilateralism (Edward Snowden dropped his NSA bounty after the poll, and the fallout has probably done more damage). And on the question of who is the world’s dominant economic power, China is blowing us away.

But when it comes to American cultural and technological exports, the trend is moving in the other direction: Most people around the world say they admire American music, movies and television, as well as our scientific and technological exports. And unlike the other category, that number grew from 2007-2012 (It’s not clear how much is thanks to the fact that Nickelback hasn’t made an album for a while).

Pew didn’t ask about sports, but there’s clear evidence of the NBA’s growing popularity in places like Africa and the Middle East. The 2011 NBA Finals were televised in 215 countries in 46 languages. The league is booming fastest in China, where 300 million now play basketball. Kobe Bryant is a kind of demigod in the country, where one glimpse of the the Lakers superstar can make a grown man weep.

And what does China offer the outside world, apart from cheap goods often designed by others and assembled in its factories? Precious little. Companies like the WeChat and the telecom giant Huawei are making inroads in Asia and, in Huawei’s case, Africa. But China doesn’t really innovate. And China’s aggressive economic expansion abroad has engendered suspicion in Africa and central Asia — where a few years ago a Kazakh protester angry over Chinese encroachment beheaded a toy panda.

China knows it has a problem, which is why its government has made a goal of becoming a “culture power.” That remains very much a work in progress, however. One of its best-known cultural figures, the artist Ai Weiwei, is a political dissident. Even South Korea, with an economy about 1/7th the size of China’s, has Psy. Whose your favorite Chinese pop star? (Crickets chirping.)

To be sure, American culture isn’t seen as an unquestioned good. Our sexual mores, among other things, upset Islamist radicals. And Pew found widespread concern in other countries about American “culture and values” taking hold in their societies. What’s more, cultural exports only get you so much. Even Joseph Nye, who coined the phrase “soft power,” once wrote of Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, that his “penchant for Hollywood movies is unlikely to affect his decision on developing nuclear weapons.”

That proved true. Likewise, Dennis Rodman probably can’t convince Kim Jong Un to abandon nukes, not even if the State Department lined up a $10 million endorsement deal for the apparently cash-starved ex-star. In fact, when it comes to North Korea, China’s cultural and economic ties are what matters most. But that’s mainly because the two nations share a border.

When it comes to the rest of the world — and the future of the global competition between China and the U.S. — Rodman is a reminder of why American power is alive and well. So long live The Worm, or at least what his travels abroad represent.

22 comments
coloradobob1976
coloradobob1976

I would think the most obvious upside here is that he's out of OUR country.

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

Call it bizarre but Dennis the Worm Rodman is more effective than John the Horse Kerry and Hillary Benghazi Clinton combined

Harvard graduates seem no match for Dennis the Worm.

Yvonmoua
Yvonmoua

Dennis is a bravely man. He can go to the HELL with out any scary, hahahaha.

PerryWhite1
PerryWhite1

"We're cutting the military."


We are? Down to what -- only what the next nine nations are spending altogether instead of the next 10?

bobcn
bobcn

The Upside to Dennis Rodman’s Bizarre North Korea Visits:  He's not here.


duwainpowell
duwainpowell

Recognition of a common humanity through engagement is the root of liberty. The basic principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

-- imperfectly applied, became the model of human rights for the world. Without those principles, government rights (our constitution, laws, treaties) become arbitrary tools of oppression and coercion. The spirit of laws give way to legal rationalizations for things like torture, dehumanization and a new American zeitgeist. Hubris and ignorance don't carrying the flag of real patriotism.

Dennis Rodman is on the right track for progress. It is not mankind that is evil, but structured power systems that deny humanity.

History has shown hegonomy can't be saved through militarism.

Rickyrick
Rickyrick

Doesn't Kim Jung Un realize Rodman is actually working undercover for the CIA, to provide the CIA with information on Jung Un's internal security? Everybody else knows that! 

PatriciaHayden
PatriciaHayden

first of all you called Dennis Rodman a washed up NBA star...but to me and millions he is more viable than you are..never heard of you dude.,,then you wondered if our country is in decline, I've been to countries in decline..we are doing quite well, even the poor here have flat screens and playstations galore..Yes, that's the standard. Even if China overtakes us, we will not decline..They are merely escalating. Then you asked if the reader knows any Chinese Pop Stars...I do, I listen to Kpop, JRock, my favorite song now is Ringa Linga by Taeyang, You should really check that song out, it's fantastic..It's Korean..But music and the economy is not what I wanted to discuss.  I wanted to read this story to hear what Dennis Rodman was doing in N Korea..You are way too scattered to write the news. Maybe you should just blog, start a thread and allow ppl that are more knowledgeable and focused keep it going. 


ThisAngryAmerican
ThisAngryAmerican

My favourite bit: Crickets chirping. LOL.


The problem with china is, everything coming out of there is suspect at best, likely to kill you in worse case scenario (remember tainted milk that kill babies in china, deadly dog and cat foods?) 

jcole
jcole

"Whose your favorite Chinese pop star?"  Should be "Who's".

NormaniumEldred
NormaniumEldred

So the US should be proud that Rodman is playing court jester to North Koreas delusional but very dangerous and cruel dictator. How can Rodman look any former or current North Korean in the eyes is beyond me.

alansky
alansky

"A burning question for America today is whether we’re in a state of decline..."


Only a profound state of denial could prompt anyone with half a brain to believe that there is any question whatsoever about the reality of America's decline.

alansky
alansky

"A burning question for America today is whether we’re in a state of decline..."


Only a profound state of denial could prompt anyone with half a brain to believe that there is any question whatsoever about the reality of America's decline.

Cactus
Cactus

Nickelback is a Canadian band...

WalterZiobro
WalterZiobro

"And what does China offer the outside world, apart from cheap goods often designed by others and assembled in its factories? Precious little"

A society of minions cannot rule the world. 

featherknife
featherknife

@Rickyrick Don't you realize that you have signed Rodmans death warrant, letting Kim in on the secret every American is aware of? R.I.P. Dennis. Kilt by an exploding basketball.

duwainpowell
duwainpowell

@PatriciaHayden  Dead-on here: "Maybe you should just blog, start a thread and allow ppl that are more knowledgeable and focused keep it going. " Suckered in to reading a Time article. Clever trivia remarks betray the very concept of foreign policy. And that suckered me into registration and comment to try frame the story in a meaningful way. 

Mercurus
Mercurus

@alansky Nice ad hominem. If there were any more potent evidence of a decline, your pathetic excuse for an argument would it. However, its only evidence of your own mental shortcomings, not evidence of a general decline in society.


Try again.

macfrog
macfrog

@WalterZiobro I'd say that is quite a bit. They've made their one party system work in the global market system, and they've over taken the US as the largest economy. Your right they produce and sell a lot of products to the US and the world. And sadly, they produce billions and billions of products for American company's that are sold back to American consumers.  


But China has done its homework when it comes to American business and government. They own a large chunk of our debt - treasury bonds and the alike. There are many Chinese millionaire business owners that own or have major investments stakes in our own American company's. AMC theaters; Lenovo took over IBMs PC division; they own stakes in several US energy company's; and I think they bought Volvo from Ford.


So I think I'd re-think the notion that they do precious little. They may have a poor working class country that makes far under what the ruling party and elite earn, but frankly what's the difference between China's poor and US poor. Both work for less than minimum wage for the corporations that make billions.


And lastly, they just landed a space ship on the moon. Something this country once upon a time took a lot of pride in - space exploration. Now we are left to travel in space riding piggy pack and spending millions to the Russians. Seems we are falling farther and farther behind the world in everything.