Main Site         

From A-lister to Aid worker: Does celebrity diplomacy really work?

2009 January 17
by Paul Vallely


“Rock stars,” asked Homer Simpson, with his customary sagacity, “is there anything they don’t know?” Only these days, of course, it’s not just rockers but movie stars and businessmen – and indeed anyone with an above-average public profile – who, for one reason or another, are intent on telling the rest of us how the world should be changed for the better.

Or at least, that’s how it seems. So much so that a conference of eminent professors of international relations assembled recently in The Hague to explore the modern phenomenon of what they call “celebrity diplomacy”, amid fears that it has reached the point where superstar lobbyists are damaging the traditional workings of international diplomacy and global politics.

“Who could say ‘No’ to Nicole Kidman?” asked one of the greybeards with heavy academic irony. But the way the two days of discussion proceeded it became pretty clear that none of them would. And similarly, very few of the world’s leading politicians feel unable to refuse an audience with the most insistent of the new campaigners, the Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, who has, in recent years, transformed herself from merely “the most beautiful woman in the world” to a fierce campaigner for the rights of refugees.

It’s easy enough to make cheap-shot jibes about all this, of course. Jolie herself discovered that when she first offered herself as a “goodwill ambassador” for the United Nations’ refugee organisation UNHCR, staff had bets as to how much luggage she would bring and whether she would turn up in the field wearing high heels. (If they’d studied Lara Croft they’d have known she’s not entirely averse to wearing hefty boots below her hotpants.)

Even so, is there anything more to their interventions than self-important dabbling? Andrew F Cooper thinks so. He is Professor of Political Science at Canada’s University of Waterloo and a fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. He’s also the man who looked at the work of a disparate group of celebs – from Jolie and George Clooney to Bono and Bob Geldof, encompassing Bill Gates and George Soros, and including the singer and percussionist Youssou N’Dour and the rapper Wyclef Jean – and came up with the notion of “celebrity diplomacy”, which he suggests is drastically changing global politics.

But is that true, or is Professor Cooper just a man with a book to sell?

Certainly there has been some significant change since the early days of the phenomenon, when Danny Kaye and Audrey Hepburn became the first famous “goodwill ambassadors” for the UN children’s agency, Unicef. Hepburn, one of Hollywood’s most celebrated leading ladies of the 1950s and 60s, took on the role when her acting career was over; she dedicated the remainder of her life to helping impoverished children in the poorest nations, continuing her field visits even after she had begun to suffer seriously with the cancer that killed her in 1993.

But the period of service of some of her successors was less fruitful, and there were inevitable problems of perception. Sophia Loren turned up for a UN appointment in a brown Rolls-Royce that matched her fur coat. Geri Halliwell, aka Ginger Spice, made just one relatively high-profile trip to the Philippines to promote contraception and Aids awareness before she fell off the radar, with UN officials opining privately that she was “not up to the job”. Paul McCartney and Heather Mills’ work for Adopt-a-Minefield suffered a major setback when the charity’s two patrons decided to get divorced. The footballer George Weah, who was Fifa’s World Player of the Year in 1995, visited his native land, Liberia, as a Unicef goodwill ambassador but later suspended his work to run as his country’s president.

The common factor in all that is what Professor Cooper calls “entrapment”, by which he means that the celebrities placed their fame at the service of a charity or institution, which then shaped the nature of their activism. Few struck off on their own as independents. And the exceptions who did begin to function autonomously were not always successful. Jane Fonda has, in many circles in American society, never shaken off the sobriquet “Hanoi Jane” after her campaigning against the Vietnam War in the 1970s. Similarly, Harry Belafonte, who had been a Unicef goodwill ambassador since 1987 without great incident, went too far in 2006 when he went to Venezuela and appeared with its leftist president Hugo Chavez and called President Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world”. Unicef issued a prompt statement announcing that he had spoken “as a private citizen and was not speaking … in an official capacity on behalf of the organisation”.

“Celebrities are either entrapped, or they cross a line and are seen as just a flake,” Professor Cooper told me over coffee between sessions in The Hague. But a few do succeed. Mia Farrow’s campaign to get Steven Spielberg to pull out of China’s “genocide Olympics” carried such weight that Beijing decided to mobilise its own celebrity as a political counterweight, enlisting the martial-arts star Jackie Chan. And Richard Gere has used his celebrity to publicise the plight of his fellow Buddhists in Tibet.

But what is now different, according to Professor Cooper, is the rise of a new breed of autonomous celebrity who is not attached to the coat-tails of some established body. His exemplars for this new phenomenon are Bob Geldof and Bono. “Their ability to gain extended face-time with prominent national leaders is unprecedented,” he argued. “The largely untrained background, and mega-personality of celebrity diplomats, at first sight appears incompatible with traditional diplomacy, and yet it is validating it and bringing it into the modern age. The attraction is two-way: in celebrities, world leaders find a populist recognition and legitimacy they are unable to cultivate on their own; while celebrities find access to the world’s powers helps advance their activist agendas.”

The Geldof/Bono model has been consciously studied by the celebrities who followed them, with Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and George Clooney going to the Irish rockers for advice on activist techniques. The Haitian-born rapper Wyclef Jean has even set up his own NGO in emulation of the one set up by Bono and Geldof, who in 2002 established DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade in Africa) to build on the success of the Jubilee 2000 Drop the Debt campaign.

The phenomenon is not without its critics. Some come from within the entertainment industry. Eric Clapton has mused openly about the ability of Bono and Geldof to perform a role outside their professional competence; “they’re only musicians,” he has observed, rather dryly. And Bianca Jagger memorably accused Bono and Geldof of “sleeping with the enemy”, adding that she felt “betrayed by their moral ambiguity and sound-bite propaganda, which has obscured and watered down the real issues”.

But mostly the censure has been from political quarters. Interestingly this comes from different directions on different sides of the Atlantic. “In the United States, celebrity diplomacy is attacked from the right as part of a liberal-socialist Hollywood agenda,” Professor Cooper observed. “In Europe, it is attacked from the left because celebs, being results-orientated, tend to crowd out the public intellectuals of the left who are more analytically critical.” Celebs are unelected, the left says, so what gives them the right to impose their own views?

here is criticism, too, from those protective of traditional diplomacy. “We can be too easily seduced by the efforts of Geldof and Bono,” Professor Jack Spence told the conference in The Hague. Professor Spence teaches courses on International Diplomacy in the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London. “I’m not disputing they’ve done a lot on debt and raised issues around aid. But they’re not diplomats. They’re lobbyists.

“Diplomacy is about exploring an overlapping common interest; it’s about civility and compromise. They’re not involved in that. What they do is a kind of brow-beating: ‘Give us the fucking money!’ But there is the kind of language that can alienate people involved in orthodox conventional negotiation over a host of technical issues on agreements, conventions and treaties, relating to all manner of things from air space to postal services.”

It may explain why celebrity campaigners have had successes over easily defined achievables – like debt relief – but very little success in areas like fairer trade. “On trade, prime ministers are at the mercy of their technicians over issues that are extraordinarily complex in both economic and political terms,” said Professor Spence. “I’m not cynical about politicians but they are so heavily constrained and have problems breaking through in an extraordinarily difficult and complex globalised world.”

Others are not so sure, however, and believe the old rules are changing. “The boundaries of diplomacy are blurring in a way which is characteristic of the modern age,” said Raymond Cohen, Professor of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “There is a crisis of legitimacy and in an odd way celebrities have become democratised – they speak for the common man. What they do is more than advocacy and they need some of the skills of a diplomat; they have the sang-froid, the poise and are good at personal interaction.” Often, too, they combine the assertive individualism characteristic of the West with an appreciation of universal or cosmopolitan values.

That is part of a wider change, according to Geoffrey Wiseman, who was for 15 years a diplomat in the Australian Foreign Service before working for the UN on the non-proliferation and disarmament of weapons of mass destruction. In his view, international relations are now affected by a range of non-traditional pressures, from think-tanks to philanthropic institutions and NGOs. In the past, lines of influence were distinct: diplomats’ power came from the state, rich people’s from their money and celebs’ from their charisma. This allowed some stars to become politicians, as Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and, in the UK, Glenda Jackson did.

But now something else is happening, argues Professor Wiseman, who currently teaches diplomacy and security in the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. On one level, the rich and famous have, like Bill Gates, gone beyond philanthropy into new areas, including policy. “When he set up the Gates Foundation people said it was a gimmick to divert attention from Microsoft’s row with the US government,” Wiseman said. “But that kind of talk has gone now. The Foundation is more important than the World Health Organisation in some areas of policy.”

In the case of Bono and Geldof, he believes, “they have a degree of legitimacy which grows primarily from the cause they espouse and the transparency of what they do – they are accountable because they go to the media and are interviewed about it. They also clearly have expertise.”

And they have literally “institutionalised” their celebrity by establishing an institution to underpin their work. DATA – which last year merged with the One campaign, a grassroots US organisation with two million members dedicated to improving the effectiveness of America’s aid programmes – is now one of the most authoritative and professional lobbying organisations in the development world. “Through it,” said Professor Cooper, “Bono shifted the core of his attention to lobbying the state at the heart of the global system, the United States. In doing so, he further blurred the traditional boundary between diplomacy and policy-making. He has professionalised it to the degree that it will one day become a career choice to work for Bono.”

It already is. The opening address at the conference was given by Oliver Buston, the European director of DATA, who spoke strongly in defence of celebrity diplomacy. “In a perfect world we would have a democracy in which everyone is perfectly informed, everyone’s voice is heard and public policy reflected the collective best interest,” he told the assembly. “But the world isn’t like that. It is a world of media moguls, corporate lobbyists and powerful interest groups like the National Rifle Association – which has a $200m annual budget – all of which have a disproportionate influence. More than that, the rich nations are over-represented at the IMF, World Bank, the G8, the UN Security Council and other global institutions. Our democratic institutions don’t deliver. What we’re trying to do is redress the balance.”

Buston is well aware that celebs like Geldof and Bono can claim no more legitimacy than anyone else. But his defence is pragmatic. “They produce results,” he argued to the conference academics.

In the United States, he said, Bono argued Senator Jesse Helms, who was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, out of his view that Aids was God’s judgement on homosexuals, drug-takers and prostitutes. Drawing on their common Christian background, the Irishman prompted the influential arch-Conservative into a U-turn on his previous position. “Helms publicly repented,” said Buston, “something it is unusual for a politician to do.” Helms was then pivotal in legislative changes. “Bono built a bi-partisan coalition between the Democrat Congress and a Republican White House.” The Bush administration increased US programmes to combat Aids five-fold.

In the UK, Geldof’s work with the Commission for Africa set the blueprint for the G8’s 2005 Gleneagles deal. And though the world’s top politicians have yet to deliver on all the promises they made at the summit in Scotland, what they have already coughed up constitutes 400 times more than Geldof raised through the original Live Aid. “He was instrumental,” said Buston, “in getting the government finally to commit to the UN target to give 0.7 per cent of national income to global aid.”

In Germany, a campaign by DATA pushed Europe’s leading power to keep Africa on the G8 agenda and forced delivery of yet more Gleneagles promises. On the eve of the 2007 German G8 at Heiligendamm, Geldof guest-edited the German tabloid Bild. “Bob neutralised Bild as an opponent of aid to Africa. Instead Bild, the third-biggest-selling paper in the world, became a bit of a champion of our cause.”

Most recently, Bono, through an internet campaign with One’s two million US members, targeted Barack Obama during his presidential election campaign and secured from the incoming US President a raft of commitments to increase US funding on global aid to combat Aids, TB and malaria, build African health services, provide more clean water and sanitation, leverage funding on Education For All, improve aid for small businesses and agriculture and give poor countries grants rather than loans.

“The fact is that it works,” Buston adjudges. “George Bush wouldn’t meet the heads of aid agencies, but he will see Bono and Bob and when he does the media cover what is said. Just doing this for 25 years, and refusing to go away, has given them legitimacy – and the more top politicians they meet adds to that. Angela Merkel wants to know from Bono what Nicolas Sarkozy really thinks. Because celebs don’t have national interests to represent they are seen to represent the voice of the public, and they amplify it.”

The way they do this, according to Professor Cooper – the inventor of the concept of celebrity diplomacy – is by Bono and Geldof playing a hard-guy/soft-guy routine. “Bono is the quintessential fixer,” he argues. “He’s the ultimate networker, charming and persuasive. Geldof is more of an anti-diplomat, a provocateur. Geldof has been at his best when he played the bad cop to Bono’s good cop.”

But Geldof, the organiser of massive international spectacles, is too much of a maverick to be successful as a diplomat, Professor Cooper believes. He sees Geldof as a kind of global shock-jock who is “in over his head” and who confines himself to embarrassing and cajoling politicians leaving the “serious and sustained enterprise” to Bono. That is why, he argues, Geldof fell out with other activists during Live8, by insisting on having the eight global concerts on the same day – 2 July 2005 – as the 450 organisations which made up the Make Poverty History coalition had scheduled what was supposed to be the largest-ever demonstration against global poverty.

“Geldof’s personal agenda was paramount,” Professor Cooper suggests. According to him, that explains why Geldof arrogantly put only his old mates on the main Live8 stages, omitting African artists. It was also, he argues, why Geldof fell out of step with other lobbyists, saying “Blair and Brown have been incredibly brave and incredibly radical” when the more extreme aid activists denounced Gleneagles as “a disaster for the world’s poor”.

cademics are paid to have big thoughts about things they have mostly read about in the papers. But my own experience suggests something rather different. I had been invited to address the conference because I have worked with Geldof on African issues for more than two decades since Live Aid and spent the best part of a year working closely with him on Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa. I was also close to both Geldof and Bono during Live8 and the lobbying of the G8 at Gleneagles which followed. And all of that told me that Professor Cooper is some way off the mark here.

In my view, he misunderstands the depth of Geldof’s intellectual sophistication, and the sheer range of experience he has on global poverty issues, after spending at least two days a week, year in, year out, on behind-the-scenes campaigning for the past 25 years. The world’s most senior politicians, who meet him privately, have enormous respect for that. Professor Cooper also misreads Geldof’s decisions over Live8; his choice of date and his selection of acts was aimed at maximising the audiences for the broadcasts and was therefore governed primarily by how many records the artists had sold (and African acts are not big international sellers); and the day of the march was the date that broadcasters advised most people would watch.

Moreover, I would argue that Professor Cooper misconstrues the nature of the relationship between the two rock stars, for the younger man sees Geldof as an emotional and intellectual godfather whose analysis he solicits before making any major move in international politics. The two men consult each other regularly.

To my mind, Professor Jack Spence is nearer the mark in his analysis of the contradictions between lobbying and diplomacy. Geldof was for two decades the quintessential campaigner. But with the Commission for Africa he stepped out of that role and for a year committed himself full-time to nitty-gritty analysis and policy-making on a blueprint for reform. When the G8 at Gleneagles promised action which would go a long way to fulfilling the prescription the Commission had set out, Geldof saw that as a validation of his past 12 months of detailed political negotiation. To the outside activists, he had ceased to ask for the ideal and settled for the politically possible.

Even Professor Cooper acknowledges that. “Having branded himself as a provocative anti-diplomat since the 1980s, buying into a more orthodox script contained dangers,” he said. “Echoes of support for official diplomacy came at a cost. Other campaigners said that Geldof had become too close to the decision-makers to make an objective view of what has been achieved at this summit.”

Perhaps Geldof realised this too. For after his strenuous defence of the politicians at Gleneagles – and a deal which most aid agencies later came to accept as the benchmark for the next round of progress in Africa – he went back on the offensive in 2007 at the G8 meeting in Heiligendamm. There, revealingly, African artists were heavily included in the eve-of-summit rock concert at Rostock. And next time Geldof and Bono went to see the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, they took the Francophone Youssou N’Dour with them, though Geldof speaks French tolerably well.

There is another complication. Certainly Bono is a bit of a charmer with politicians. At the opening of Bill Clinton’s memorial library in Arkansas in 2004 – attended by George Bush senior, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George Bush junior – Bono went out of his way to speak of something positive that each of them had done for Africa, before serenading them, unplugged and in the pouring rain, with U2’s “The Hands That Built America”. You could see the collective presidency preening itself.

But Bono, too, is capable of wielding a big stick. As Professor Cooper acknowledges, after heaping accolades on the Canadian prime minister Paul Martin through the 1990s for his “vision and willingness to stick his neck out [in taking] a moral stance”, Bono turned on the politician when he failed to embrace the UN’s 0.7 per cent aid target after Gleneagles. Within months Martin was out of office.

Geldof is entirely sanguine about the compromises that have to be made to get things done. “We inhabit this bizarre thin space between the pieties of the NGOs and the politics of government,” he once said. “We weave in and out.”

Even so, the criticism continues from both right and left. “Campaigners like Bob and Bono give people the false impression that aid is the solution to everything,” the conference was told by Heribert Dieter of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “But aid is bad for Africa,” he said. “It undermines Africans efforts to solve their own problems and build civil society.” Dieter also inveighed against Bono’s recent decision to move U2’s own business empire – with its investments diversified via real estate, its own private-equity firm and a network of companies and trusts designed to minimise tax – from Ireland to the Netherlands to further avoid tax. “Celebrities need integrity. They must walk the talk.”

From the other end of the spectrum Renate Bloem, the former president of the body which liaises between the world’s NGOs and the UN, voices frustration with celebrity diplomacy. “It embodies a very Northern perspective,” she told the conference. “Civil society in the global South has other concerns. Celebrities are heard at the expense of alternative voices from the South and also the anti-globalisation or social justice movements in the North.

“Some in the South are happy; they say the celebrities are enlarging our voice at places like the G8. But the loud voice of the celebrity doesn’t go to the depth of the issues, like whether the G8 is a legitimate forum for addressing the problems of the whole world. Celebrities don’t raise the more philosophical questions.” Rather, some critics on the left suggest, they defuse, drain or stifle more radical forms of protest and political mobilisation – though ironically the political groups and NGOs which raise these questions of legitimacy must answer similar questions themselves.

There are clearly limits to what celebrities can achieve. Progress on a global trade deal has proved less susceptible to superstar pressure than other areas. Apart from calling for consumer boycotts of Nestlé or Nike, celebs are less able to exert pressure on the private sector which clearly has a major impact on the pace of development in places like Africa. (Bono’s Product Red is an attempt to address this though there are obvious limitations to what can be achieved by a strategy of Shopping For a Better World.) And celebrities do not have much leverage on governments outside the West; African leaders are not so subject to their pressure, as Sudan’s indifference to George Clooney’s unsuccessful campaigning on Darfur has shown.

Nor was it very likely that there would be much in the way of success for perhaps the most unlikely participation at the conference at The Hague. Nato, which has just hired a former Coca-Cola executive as its communications specialist in an effort to polish its image, had sent someone along to see if it could pick up tips on where they might find a celeb to front a “Nato changed my life” campaign. The Nato rep, one suspects, went back not much the wiser.

But what is clear is that the phenomenon of celebrity diplomacy will continue to rise using the precedents set by Geldof and Bono as an exemplar. Angelina Jolie now has a full-time adviser on international affairs. “Celebrities have a responsibility to know what they’re talking about and be in it for the long run,” she said recently at Davos. She has done field visits to refugees in Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Pakistan, Thailand, Ecuador, Kosovo, Kenya, Namibia, Sri Lanka, Russia, Jordan, Egypt, Chad, Lebanon, Haiti, Costa Rica and India, donating millions of dollars – as well as her time – to helping refugees.

More controversially she has visited refugees in Iraq. And in Arizona, she has sought out detained asylum-seekers from Mexico, paying $m from her own pocket to set up a National Centre for Refugee and Immigrant Children to provide free legal aid to asylum-seeking children. “She’s not just a pretty face,” said Professor Cooper. “She’s moved into this in a highly professional way. She knows she’s not formally educated and acknowledges that she needs advice. She didn’t speak for six months, she researched silently and took professional advice.

“The fact that she is willing to address aspects of the issue which are politically sensitive in the US – speaking about refugees from Mexico, visiting Iraqi refugees when no one else would – buys her credibility. It shows there’s an integrity to her vision; she’s not just picking easy causes.”

There is talk now, he said, of Oprah Winfrey being appointed by Obama as the next US ambassador to the UK. “Professional diplomats are increasingly worried about all this. But we have to take these celebrities seriously. Some of them do diplomacy better than professional diplomats – and they are at the top of their game.”.

Comments are closed.