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.