When stirred, this stew of tubers, hats and a tattooed former NBA player produced nothing of substance. There was no peace agreement in Syria, where civil war has killed more than 100,000, and no thawing of North Korea’s engrained distrust of outsiders, especially the United States.
We admit, it’s a convoluted mess. But for those interested in America’s role as a global mediator, this January tale is worth examination.
In Beijing, the quirky Rodman deplaned after his latest trip to Pyongyang, where, intentionally or not, he became embroiled in the saga of missionary Kenneth Bae, an American who remains detained after more than a year for what North Korea describes as crimes against the state.
Clearly, Rodman is neither a member of the U.S. government nor an emissary of the State Department. But his highly publicized trip of basketball diplomacy to the communist North landed him awkwardly in a position few in Washington have recently had.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry I couldn’t do anything,” Rodman said at the Beijing airport. “It’s not my fault. I’m sorry. I just want to do some good stuff, that’s all I want to do.”
In Paris, meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met to discuss possible paths to peace in Syria. But photographs of a smiling Kerry handing Lavrov two potatoes at the start of a formal negotiating session overshadowed what happened next — which was nothing of substance.
As the story goes, Lavrov had mentioned Idaho potatoes to Kerry during a previous conversation. Kerry brought him two tubers. They shared a few laughs. The Russian delegation in Paris presented two of Kerry’s associates with ushankas, the traditional Russian hats. One of them, the Associated Press reported, was given to a Kerry press aide. It was pink.
Odd, yes, but don’t consider these developments as indictments of non-traditional international diplomatic efforts. At the time, Ping-Pong Diplomacy — the U.S. table-tennis team’s 1971 trip to China — was both unusual and successful. Never before had paddles and little white balls held such global importance. One year later, President Nixon made his historic trip to Beijing.
Rodman is hardly a statesman. Kenneth Bae, an American due freedom, deserves better. Likewise, we would expect that the next time diplomats from world powers discuss the civil war in Syria, potatoes and ushankas will not be on the agenda.