Home The Washington Diplomat March 2008

Flash or Substance: Experts Ponder Effectiveness of Celebrity Diplomacy

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Madonna did it as she walked through the slums of Mumbai. Mia Farrow did it in the war-torn Darfur region of western Sudan. Sean Penn did it just before the Iraq war and rock star Bono has done it at the United Nations, in Washington, D.C., and countless other places. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt do it all the time.

These celebrities are among the growing number of wealthy, well-known private citizens engaged in what has become known as “celebrity diplomacy.”

The latest advocate of this brand of diplomacy is actor George Clooney, who’s been designated by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as a “United Nations Messenger of Peace” to raise awareness of the world body’s peacekeeping efforts. Having just returned from a visit to Darfur, Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in late January, the award-winning actor urged countries to provide peacekeepers in Sudan with the necessary resources such as helicopters and trucks to do their job—“or have the decency to just bring them all home.”

Clooney—who played a CIA operative in “Syriana” and a convict in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”—is clearly not alone in using his fame to champion a cause. The actor joins a star-studded list of U.N. messengers of peace, which includes: Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein of Jordan (focusing on Millennium Development Goals and hunger); conductor Daniel Barenboim (peace and tolerance); author Paulo Coelho (intercultural dialogue); actor Michael Douglas (disarmament and peace and security); primatologist Jane Goodall (the environment); violinist Midori Goto (Millennium Development Goals and youth); cellist Yo-Yo Ma (youth); and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel (human rights and the Holocaust).

There are plenty more examples of celebrities shining a spotlight on various causes, especially at the United Nations: Actress Daryl Hannah recently joined Sir Richard Branson of the Virgin Group to call for a concerted global effort against climate change in New York, while actresses Catherine Deneuve and Hilary Swank have lent their names to the U.N. Development Fund for Women to eliminate violence against women.

And remember Geri Halliwell of the Spice Girls? After leaving the all-girls pop group, “Ginger Spice” became a representative for the U.N. Population Fund, touring the Philippines as a goodwill ambassador.

Andrew Cooper, author of the 2007 book “Celebrity Diplomacy,” says there has been an increase in this ad hoc type of diplomacy during the last few years and predicts it will increase in the future.

“Right now it’s mainly a U.S. phenomenon, but there are other celebrities around the world who I think will tap into this. The future is wide open,” he said.

Activist Norman Solomon—author of “Made Love, Got War,” founder of the Institute for Public Accuracy and a contributor with Sean Penn to the documentary “War Made Easy”—said celebrities, particularly those from the United States, have stepped into the international diplomacy arena to fill a vacuum that they perceive has been left by the U.S. government and its dismal diplomatic record.

“There is that perception,” Cooper agreed. “And it is based in fact. The U.S. has lagged in diplomatic efforts since 9/11, but has begun recently to pick up its game.”

Solomon explained that people who engage in this sort of “citizen diplomacy,” as he described the trend, tend to be the first ones to ask, “Where’s the real leaders?”

Penn traveled with Solomon to Iraq just prior to the war, and in “War Made Easy,” his narration outlines the reasons for his involvement in international issues.

“Since World War II, we have seen a dramatic escalation in United States military actions around the globe, ranging from missile strikes and rapid troop deployments, to all-out wars and occupations,” Penn said, arguing that the United States has abandoned traditional methods of diplomacy, leaving a void that celebrities and other high-profile activists have sought to fill.

Ahmed Salkini, a spokesman for the Syrian Embassy, said celebrities have made some great strides in very specific humanitarian efforts. “They can have an impact,” he told The Washington Diplomat. “I think their fame allows them to catapult these issues into the mainstream media and it reminds people of these issues. That’s good.”

Cooper agrees. “I think they can be effective in two different ways. First, in the short term they do bring light to an issue. For example, Darfur with Mia Farrow—we get the sense of urgency brought on by her presence. But secondly, the long-term effect is something to consider. Celebrities can bring, with their money and sometimes their organizational efforts, a long-term, long-lasting diplomatic effect.”

That’s certainly how Clooney sees it. Asked about his status as a celebrity messenger of peace, Clooney argued that it was becoming increasingly difficult to get “things that are truly important to us” on the news or the international radar. “It seems as if at times celebrity can bring that focus. It can’t make the policies; it can’t change people’s minds really. But you can bring a camera where you go because they’ll follow you and you can shine a light on it. That seems to be my job in this.”

Still, not everyone is convinced that celebrity involvement is something worth embracing.

“To get involved in some issues, like the Arab-Israeli issue, well you have to know a lot,” Salkini cautioned. “We have full-time diplomats who have put forward good-faith efforts for decades and are unable to completely solve these issues. It takes someone with a lot of knowledge of the specific issues to deal with them.”

But sometimes, celebrities take up a cause specifically because of the involvement of a full-time diplomat—particularly when the diplomat “blows it,” as one analyst describes it.

For instance, Penn’s involvement in the Iraq war came about after then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell visited the United Nations to make a case for the U.S.-led invasion, which would ultimately be based on faulty evidence—a moment that stands as one of the more compelling highlights in “War Made Easy.”

“That’s the high-impact moment in the film,” Solomon said. “Right down to the moment where he’s blowing a kiss across the room. It’s kind of a pantomime. I think it’s a symbol of a narcissism, a jingo narcissism. It’s a devastating sequence because at the time he was perceived as a straight shooter telling the truth. Now it’s like watching a Shakespearian tragedy because we know the ending. It’s disingenuous, this diplomatic presentation.”

Most people agree that diplomatic double-speak is the one thing celebrities don’t bring to the table. Whether they’re embraced or turned away by the diplomatic community, the efforts of a celebrity are usually viewed as being genuine.

“On a personal level, it’s very respectable and it’s always good to see people with such fame being involved in humanitarian issues,” Salkini of the Syrian Embassy said. “There’s no question they can bring the cameras to the table,” he added. “They can put the issues on the front pages of the newspapers and that’s always good.”

Bono in particular has been widely praised for his genuine compassion and intricate understanding of global poverty issues. Cooper—who is also associate director at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, a Canadian think tank—says he began monitoring celebrity involvement in international affairs during the 2005 G8 Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, where Bono was one of the main attractions.

“I realized Bono and [fellow activist] Bob Geldof were getting more attention than some of the leaders,” Cooper recalled. “Everyone, even [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, wanted to have their picture taken with Bono. But these celebrities aren’t frivolously involved—and they are taken seriously. You can criticize the details, but people have a good image of celebrities, and it shows there are individuals who use their names and images who aren’t afraid of building bridges.”

Cooper pointed out that some of these famous activists, particularly Bono of the rock band U2 as well as globe-trotting actress Angelina Jolie, have even hired staff advisers who keep them up to date on the issues in which they are involved.

“Bono is probably an example of the best of them,” Cooper said. “He is committed and works hard at the issues he cares about.”

Cooper also singled out actresses Farrow and Jolie as well as Microsoft founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates as being among the elite who’ve used their star power for the most good.

But there is a downside to all this goodwill. Constant involvement can bring about fatigue—both from the celebrity and on the part of the public, which can get bored with seeing a celebrity “constantly out there for a cause,” Cooper said, again citing Bono as among those who falls into that category.

But private diplomacy can also create headaches for governments, and in some cases, Cooper said it could actually have the unintended effect of subverting government efforts.

There are also cases where celebrities are “out of their realm,” according to Cooper, who pointed to Ginger Spice and actor Richard Gere, who generated controversy when he kissed a Bollywood star in India. “Definitely he broke a cultural taboo there,” Cooper noted.

Then there are some celebrities Cooper labels “anti-diplomats,” who do raise the profile of an issue but aren’t really seen as influencing policy—nor are they people who cater to the norms of culture and diplomatic wording. He lists Geldof, Penn and even singer Harry Belafonte as “anti-diplomats.”

“That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just they are a little more acrimonious and edgy in a way that sometimes alienates the leaders and public at large.”

But Cooper remains a fan of Bono—at least in his diplomatic work. The man who sang “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is, according to Cooper, “one who knows how to charm leaders and get access.”

For those who undertake celebrity diplomacy, each one finds their own reason to step forward, but Penn and Solomon say it’s because of an overwhelming need to connect.

Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., Solomon and Penn say there is an underlying mission for celebrities. It isn’t often spoken about, but perhaps King hit it best when he said: “Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in a time of war…. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”

About the Author

Brian J. Karem is a freelance writer in Gaithersburg, Md.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999