Foreign Policy Goes Glam

Stars shilling for political causes are everywhere these days. Are they actually making a difference? Gideon Rachman offers his take on the issue in the http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/7ebbdea0-8637-...

WHO WOULD you rather sit next to at your next Council on Foreign Relations roundtable: Henry Kissinger or Angelina Jolie? This is a question that citizens of the white-collared foreign-policy establishment thought they'd never be asked. The massive attention paid to Paris Hilton's prison ordeal, Lindsay Lohan's shame spiral and anything Britney Spears has done, said or exposed has distracted pop-culture mavens from celebrities that were making nobler headlines.

Increasingly, celebrities are taking an active interest in world politics. When media maven Tina Brown attends a Council on Foreign Relations session, you know something fundamental has changed in the relationship between the world of celebrity and world politics. What's even stranger is that these efforts to glamorize foreign policy are actually affecting what governments do and say. The power of soft news has given star entertainers additional leverage to advance their causes. Their ability to raise issues to the top of the global agenda is growing. This does not mean that celebrities can solve the problems that bedevil the world. And not all celebrity activists are equal in their effectiveness. Nevertheless, politically-engaged stars cannot be dismissed as merely an amusing curiosity in foreign policy.

Consider the most notable example of a celebrity attempting to move the global agenda: Angelina Jolie. Her image has come a long way since her marriage to Billy Bob Thornton. In February of this year she published an op-ed in The Washington Post about the crisis in Darfur, referencing her work as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. During the summer, her press junket to promote A Mighty Heart included interviews with Foreign Policy's website and a glowing profile in Newsweek, modestly titled "Angelina Jolie Wants to Save the World." In that story, former Secretary of State Colin Powell describes Jolie as "absolutely serious, absolutely informed. . . .She studies the issues." Esquire's July 2007 cover featured a sultry picture of Jolie-but the attached story suggested something even more provocative: "In post-9/11 America, Angelina Jolie is the best woman in the world because she is the most famous woman in the world-because she is not like you or me."

What in the name of Walter Scott's Personality Parade is going on? Why has international relations gone glam? Have stars like Jolie, Madonna, Bono, Sean Penn, Steven Spielberg, George Clooney and Sheryl Crow carved out a new way to become foreign-policy heavyweights? Policy cognoscenti might laugh off this question as absurd, but the career arc of Al Gore should give them pause. As a conventional politician, Gore made little headway in addressing the problem of global warming beyond negotiating a treaty that the United States never ratified. As a post-White House celebrity, Gore starred in An Inconvenient Truth, won an Oscar and a Nobel Peace Prize, promoted this past summer's Live Earth concert and reframed the American debate about global warming. Gore has been far more successful as a celebrity activist than he ever was as vice president. This is the kind of parable that could lead aspiring policy wonks to wonder if the best way to command policy influence is to attend Julliard instead of the Fletcher School.

Daniel W. Drezner is an associate professor of international politics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and the author of All Politics Is Global (Princeton University Press, 2007).

Editor's Note: The full version of this article will be available in the upcoming November/December issue of The National Interest. For an advance copy of this article, please contact Rebecca White at (202) 467-4884 or rwhite@nationalinterest.org.

Taking off from this theme with a look at Africa and its neighbors, J. Peter Pham reviews Paul Collier's Bottom Billion.