Public diplomacy is a very flexible concept that encourages many analysts and practitioners (especially politicians) to come up with new categories whenever it seems convenient and beneficial. And there should be nothing wrong about it, maybe except for the fact that it is harder and harder to navigate in this messy world of international relations.
Together with launching this blog on Jan 3rd I launched also a series on the alphabet of diplomacy. In its first episode, you could learn about 5 kinds of diplomacy, starting with letters “a” and “b”. Today I present the special part of the alphabet, with just one concept starting with “c”. There are many diplomatic notions and ideas starting with “c”, but celebrity diplomacy, as I could see during my lectures, deserves special attention and a separate category.
Disclaimer No1: One of my readers sent me an idea about Q, but what about Z? I still don’t have z… diplomacy in this working dictionary. Any suggestions, tips and hints before the series gets there?
Disclaimer No2: Some (most?) definitions may not suit the Oxford-style, rigorous dictionaries. Some concepts may not fit professional dictionaries of diplomacy. This is exactly why they are published in the form of a blog post J
Celebrity diplomacy is my students’ favourite kind of diplomacy and the topic they wrote many interesting essays on. These appeared to be fans of, first and foremost, Leonardo DiCaprio, who is known for his environment protection campaigns. There were many fans of Angelina Jolie, underlining her UNICEF campaigns, in my group, too. The third choice among my students was George Clooney, engaged for years in raising awareness about and supplying aid for Darfur. There were also other examples, including Bono’s various campaigns on, for instance, countering HIV/AIDS, Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, Emma Watson’s focus on women empowerment and equal rights for all, Priyanka Chopra’s devotion to the access to education and healthcare for girls around the world. They are all global stars with a global reach.
Celebrity diplomacy is a “glamour” example of a broader phenomenon of citizen diplomacy/track two diplomacy that will be tackled in further parts of the Alphabet. In short, these broad concepts reflect a megatrend of non-state actors engaging in international relations, following democratisation and communications revolution. The latter, at least since the 24/7 CNN broadcast from The Gulf War in 1990-1991, through the broad media coverage of the war in Yugoslavia, the manslaughter in Rwanda and many others, up to the constant internet coverage of the war in Syria, means that almost every person in almost every corner of the world can learn about international crises and call for action of their government. Citizens see more, understand more and expect more. This megatrend means that diplomacy has to become more agile, inclusive and open towards new actors and stakeholders that can fulfil diplomatic tasks, too.
It may be said that celebrities are rather activists than diplomats and there is a lot of truth in it. On the other hand, Kofi Annan once famously said that the contemporary world does not face state-sized problems, but rather “problems without passports”. Therefore, contemporary diplomats should focus not only on traditional state-to-state relations, but should seek solutions to transnational, regional and global challenges.
This applies to both professional and non-professional diplomats. Issues like environment protection, human trafficking, refugee issues and humanitarian crises – they all are diplomatic in the 21st century. And this is where celebrities get engaged, most often together with the United Nations. George Clooney has been a UN Messenger of Peace, Angelina Jolie – a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and Leonardo DiCaprio – a UN representative on climate change, Emma Watson – UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and Priyanka Chopra – UN UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.
Celebrities obviously attract a lot of media attention. Thanks to that, their raise awareness of certain issues and may be helpful in, for instance, raising aid when humanitarian crises take place (like Bob Geldof’s campaign mentioned in „audio diplomacy” in Part I) and building pressure on governments to act when it is needed. „Mainstream celebrity diplomats are most valuable when they are building momentum, building enthusiasm for issues”.
And if they have good contacts or are friends with certain politicians, like Bono’s friendship with George W. Bush or George Clooney’s with Barack Obama, their deeds may be even more successful. This is why, for instance, stars like Cate Blanchett (UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador), Elton John (EJ AIDS Foundation), Shah Rukh Khan (awarded by UNESCO for his silent charity activities), or will.i.am (with his i.am.angel Foundation focused on STEM education for all) will participate in this year’s edition of the major business/politics assembly – the World Economic Forum in Davos.
However we call it – celebrity activism, celebrity politics, celebrity humanitarianism or celebrity diplomacy – this phenomenon deserves acknowledgement from IR and public diplomacy analysts.
Why do celebrities act as activists and diplomats? Usually their interest in a cause is genuine, but it helps building their image, too. Also, the majority of the above-mentioned celebrities are personalities with an established reputation. They are treated with respect in their field (movies, music, sports) and want to spread this image to new areas. Through their connection to causes they build their legacy, too. The world remembers the one and only Audrey Hepburn equally well as Holly Golightly and as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, fighting children starvation in Africa. She was authentic, genuine and very persistent in her charity deeds.
It takes a lot of time and engagement. Unsurprisingly, even though the world has thousands celebrities, only a very small majority of them engages in activities larger than happenings or hashtag campaigns. The major book on the issue, “Celebrity Diplomacy” written by Andrew F. Cooper was published in 2008 and tackled the majority of celebrity diplomats. Frankly speaking, there are not too many new diplomats of this kind a decade later. An offline, in-the-field engagement is often difficult, unpleasant and leaves people unease. It is also addictive – there are many celebrities who have been diplomatically engaged already for decades.
What does this all mean for diplomats? As celebrities are famous for their creativity, professional diplomats, if only they want to, may expect new ideas, new projects, and new energy in their daily works.
Hollywood is for sure magnetic. But there are also other examples of celebrities engaging in international relations, diplomacy and political activism that do not necessarily fit the (often glamorous) pattern of Hollywood and that may seem controversial. For instance, Dennis Rodman is engaged in US-North Korea affairs with his “basketball diplomacy” (why haven’t I mentioned it in Part I of the alphabet…? Maybe he will fit sports diplomacy, despite all the extravaganza of The Worm). Gerard Depardieu and Steven Seagal with their support for and friendship with Vladimir Putin are also an interesting case study. I can’t wait to listen what my students are going to say about these examples. What a good idea for homework essays, don’t you think? 🙂