Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Can Celebrities be Diplomats?

The world is changing and so is diplomacy. Globalisation has had a major impact on the way diplomacy is carried out, not least because there is now a whole range of non-state actors, who engage in “diplomatic” activities. Among these new actors are celebrities, some of whom have increasingly become active in promoting and raising awareness about humanitarian causes, as well as directly lobbying state leaders about policies.

Enthusiasts of “celebrity diplomacy” argue that this kind of activism holds great potential for drawing the world’s attention to issues that might otherwise go unnoticed. When George Clooney goes to a barely accessible Sudanese village to speak to people about their problems, CNN follows, and later on people will read about this village not in academic journals, but in the tabloids (Avlon, 2011[1]). When United Nations Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie can barely suppress her tears as she relates the story of a poor refugee boy from Iraq who will never be able to become a doctor unless we help him, it is powerfully moving (Clinton Foundation, 2007[2]).

A new level of celebrity diplomacy was reached by Bono, who has established personal relationships with global leaders and has been travelling to G8 summits and other high-level meetings lobbying for debt relief in Africa (Dieter & Kumar:260). Celebrities, like NGOs, are argued to fill a gap that is left by traditional institutions in that they enable people to identify with them and their causes through emotional attachments (Cooper, 2007a: 17).

Nonetheless, as ideal as this seems to be, there are critics who believe that taking celebrity activism seriously or even calling it “diplomacy” is dangerous (Cooper, 2007a:12). The reason is simple: Celebrities are not elected, but usually self-appointed and it is questionable where they derive their legitimacy from. Not only this, but it is never quite clear what their actual motives for action are – is it genuine concern or is it another way of promoting themselves? Furthermore, it is often held that celebrities are promoting a one-sided, oversimplified, possibly even “dumbed down” view of a particular situation, which can worsen it in the long-term. Thus, Bono’s efforts to increase Aid have been criticised as undermining the ability of people to learn to help themselves while reinforcing an unjust status quo (Dieter & Kumar, 2008:260-262; Cooper, 2007b[3]).

So: Should we view celebrities as a new “generation” of diplomats? Well, it is a difficult question to answer. We seem to take NGOs, who are equally unelected and self-appointed seriously when they lobby for a cause - so why not celebrities? They do have the enormous benefit of being unrestrained by any governmental or institutional rules and to attract the media’s attention easily. But do they actually know what they are talking about? Do they understand the depth of the issues they are campaigning for? Maybe not, but those celebrities who have shown great dedication and commitment to their causes, like Bono or Angelina Jolie, actually have specialist advisors around them and make no claims to expertise (Valley, 2009; Dieter & Kumar, 2008:261).

It seems difficult to draw the line between “advocacy” and “diplomacy” in the case of celebrities and it is surely valid to say that not every celebrity who engages in humanitarian work can be described as a “diplomat”. Nonetheless, if celebrities ensure that they are well-informed about the causes they are promoting, and are dedicated to this work, their activism carries with it enormous potential in terms of visibility and outreach and should not be brushed off. If “ordinary” people and NGOs can engage in diplomacy to lobby for policy changes – why can’t celebrities?

[1] http://www.newsweek.com/2011/02/20/a-21st-century-statesman.html#

[2] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H00apInuAjg&feature=player_embedded

[3] http://www.cigionline.org/articles/2007/12/celebrity-efforts-will-redefine-diplomacy


- Avlon, John (2007) “A 21st-Century Statesman”, Newsweek, 21st February, http://www.newsweek.com/2011/02/20/a-21st-century-statesman.html#, accessed: 26.3.2011, 23:23

- Clinton Foundation (2007) “Clinton Global Initiative 2007: Angelina Jolie Makes Impassioned Plea for Refugees“, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H00apInuAjg&feature=player_embedded, accessed: 29.3.2011, 17:08

- Cooper, Andrew F. (2007a) “Celebrity Diplomacy and the G8: Bono and Bob as Legitimate International Actors”, The Centre for International Governance Innovation, Working Paper No.29, September, http://www.cigionline.org/publications/2007/9/celebrity-diplomacy-and-g8-bono-and-bob-legitimate-international-actors, access: 27.3.2011, 22.20

- Cooper, Andrew F. (2007b) “Celebrity Efforts Will Redefine Diplomacy”, The Centre for International Governance Innovation, 3rd December, http://www.cigionline.org/articles/2007/12/celebrity-efforts-will-redefine-diplomacy, 27.3.2011, 22:31

- Dieter, Heribert and Kumar, Rajiv (2008) “The Downside of Celebrity Diplomacy: The Neglected Complexity of Development“, Global Governance, Vol.14, pp.250-264

- Valley, Paul (2009) “From A-lister to Aid Worker: Does Celebrity Diplomacy Really Work?”, The Independent, 17th January, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/from-alister-to-aid-worker-does-celebrity-diplomacy-really-work-1365946.html, accessed: 22.3.2011, 16:08


  1. Mi novia es muy chingona, que buena trabajo

  2. Celebrities can be diplomats - they just need careful training! I wrote this guide for celebrities some time ago! http://public-diplomacy.blogspot.com/2008/10/celebrity-guide-to-doing-good-in-world.html

  3. Thanks Caroline - I just read your guide and think it's brilliant. I agree that celebrities can be diplomats and that one should not condemn the whole idea from the outset. Just as citizens can become diplomats, so can celebrities - and they have the great advantage of having the media following them wherever they go, even if it is the remotest village somewhere where world attention normally does not turn to. But I agree that the fundamental aim has to be to actually promote the cause and not themselves by means of the former.
    When I was younger I actually thought that I should try to become famous just to be able to raise awareness via the media! Now maybe that is taking things a bit too far (and probably over-estimating my artistic talent), but being famous just makes spreading the word about issues so much easier - even in the age of the social network.

  4. May be celebrities can be diplomats, however as you said in your blog, we must be careful of a couple of things. What are their intentions? promoting themsevles and make money or rise awareness? I agree with Caroline that celebrities need proper training, however a well-trained celebrity does not exclude that it is promoting him/herself as a celebrity. Images speek louder than words and the image of a celebrity promoting aid immediately grasps the public attention, whether on the celebrity or on the real issue he/her is promoting is a matter of debate. People will remeber the issue for a little while, but the celebrity for longer.
    The second issue we should be aware of is infotainment, oversimplification and downgrading of diplomatic efforts to make this world a better one. I do not buy the image of a celebrity going to Africa with his smarter suit, nicely combed and with his stylish things, trying to promote aid and development. to me this seems advertisemnt not public diplomacy.

  5. I agree with your points and I think that celebrity diplomacy is certainly not something we should praise above anything. Nonetheless, I don't think we should completely discharge the whole thing as just another form of self-advertisement and aggrandisement. While some celebrities might see promoting causes and advocating "aid" as a means to such ends, other might genuinely care. I am not saying that all of them do, but I think we should leave the possibility for that. If citizens can be seen as engaging in diplomatic activities and we think that's a great thing, then why shouldn't a person who has the advantage of the media's attention do so? Should we label the whole idea as nonsense just because they are celebrities? Can we say that all celebrities are exclusively interested in promoting themselves?

  6. Thanks for your thoughts Lene, Caroline and Federica. Some very interesting points raised in response to an excellent post on the blog. Lene has given us some important things to think about and some references to follow up.

    We still haven't quite got to the heart of the matter of when a celebrity - or citizen for that matter - becomes a diplomat. Do you agree with Bruce Gregory that it is when they make consistent and sustained contributions to global governance that non-state actors can be thought of as diplomats? Or is global governance not sharp enough as a concept to be able to carve this distinction?

    Bruce Gregory, 'Public Diplomacy and Governance: Challenges for Scholars and Practitioners', in A F Cooper, B Hocking and W Maley (eds), Global Governance and Diplomacy: Worlds Apart? (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2008)