Foreign Policy Goes Glam

November 1, 2007 Topic: Society Tags: Diplomacy

Foreign Policy Goes Glam

Mini Teaser: Stars shilling for political causes are everywhere these days. But are they actually making a difference? This weekend's New York Times Magazine also tackled the topic. Drezner offered his 

by Author(s): Daniel W. Drezner

The growth of soft news gives celebrity activists enormous leverage. The famous and the fabulous are the bread and butter of entertainment programs. Covering celebrity do-gooders provides content that balances out, say, tabloid coverage of Nicole Richie's personal and legal troubles. ESPN can cover both Michael Vick's travails and Dikembe Mutombo's efforts to improve health care in sub-Saharan Africa. MTV will cover Amy Winehouse's on-stage meltdowns, but they will also follow Angelina Jolie in her trips to Africa. They covered Live Earth for both the music and the message.

The power of soft news is not limited to television. Vanity Fair let Bono guest-edit a special issue about Africa, knowing that cover photos of Madonna and George Clooney would attract readers and buzz. Without intending to, those perusing the pages might form opinions about sending aid to sub-Saharan Africa in the process. Similarly, celebrity blogs can garner higher amounts of traffic. We may only speculate why Internet users flock to Pamela Anderson's website-but we know that while they are there, they can learn about Anderson's stance against animal testing.

Indeed, celebrities actually have an advantage over other policy activists and experts because hard-news outlets have an incentive to cover them too. Celebrities mean greater attention, and hard-news outlets are not above stunts designed to attract readers or ratings. Consider this question: If The Washington Post is deciding between running an op-ed by Angelina Jolie and an op-ed by a lesser-known expert on Sudan, which author do you think they are most likely to choose?


Do Celebrity Do-Gooders Do Any Good?

THERE IS no doubt that celebrities have the ability to raise the profile of issues near and dear to their hearts. Highlighting a problem is not the same thing as solving it, however-and the celebrity track record at affecting policy outcomes could best be characterized as mixed. Star activism has been reasonably successful at forcing powerful states to pledge action to assist the least-developed countries. It has been less successful at getting states to honor these pledges and not successful at all in affecting other global policy problems.

There have been some significant achievements, though. In the 1990s, Princess Diana embraced a ban on the use of land mines. Her death became a rallying point that led to Great Britain's ratification of the 1997 Ottawa Convention to ban the devices.2 The Jubilee 2000 campaign, which Bono championed, should also count as a success.3 According to the Center for Global Development, the movement to assist highly indebted poor countries resulted in "the most successful industrial-country movement aimed at combating world poverty for many years, perhaps in all recorded history." Celebrity activism also helped fuel the pledge at the 2005 Gleneagles G-8 summit to double aid to developing countries. Bob Geldof, who organized Live Aid a generation ago, arranged the Live 8 concerts to coincide with the summit. Bono, George Clooney, Claudia Schiffer and Nelson Mandela all appeared on stage.

To be clear, celebrities were not the only reason that the Ottawa Convention was signed or the G-7 launched the Highly Indebted Poor Countries initiative. In each of these cases, celebrities were buttressing organized, grassroots campaigns to change the status quo. At a minimum, however, star activists raised the media profile, spurring politicians to act sooner than they otherwise might have.

But there have been failures, too. While Bono provided an invaluable assist in promoting debt relief, he has not been as successful in his (Product) Red campaign. The idea was for consumers to do good through consumption-by buying iconic products colored red, a portion of the price would go to the UN Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The campaign was launched in January 2006 to great fanfare at Davos. According to Advertising Age, however, it has been a bust: After an estimated $100 million in marketing expenditures, the campaign netted only $18 million. (Product) Red has challenged the validity of these numbers, but the story invited media critiques of the campaign's strategy, denting its momentum and cachet.

Celebrity campaigns are also not always considered a greater good. Development expert William Easterly has argued that the celebrity focus on Africa's problems has been misguided. By focusing exclusively on the diseases of sub-Saharan Africa, celebrities have unwittingly tarnished an entire continent: "[Africans are] not helpless wards waiting for actors and rock stars to rescue them." Many African officials and activists share this sentiment, even heckling Bono at a development conference.

Though celebrities have a mixed record in promoting development aid to Africa, the record on other issues is even worse. The Live Earth concerts generated mixed reviews because of their disorganization. Promoters had to cancel the Istanbul venue because of a lack of local sponsorship, and the other concerts were less than sellouts. More significantly, some celebrity activists questioned whether the extravaganza even had a clear purpose. Bob Geldof told an interviewer, "Live Earth doesn't have a final goal. . . .So it's just an enormous pop concert or the umpteenth time that, say, Madonna or Coldplay get up on stage." Roger Daltrey of The Who concurred: "The last thing the planet needs is a rock concert."

Steven Spielberg came up for criticism in a Wall Street Journal article co-authored by actress Mia Farrow. The article warned that Spielberg, as an "artistic advisor" to the 2008 Summer Olympics in China, would become "the Leni Riefenstahl of the Beijing Games" if he did not speak out. The chastised producer later sent a letter to Chinese Premier Hu Jintao because he felt compelled to "add my voice to those who ask that China change its policy towards Sudan." Regardless of the reasons, Beijing has begun to pressure Sudan's government into cooperating with the United Nations on Darfur.

Richard Gere has devoted decades to the cause of Tibetan independence to little avail. Yet with one onstage kiss of Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty, he did manage to get himself burned in effigy across India-the reverse celebrity problem. On the whole, celebrities have made little headway in bringing peace to the world's trouble spots.

Even if celebrities are judicious and focused in promoting their causes, there are diminishing marginal returns to activism. A celebrity who repeatedly harps on a particular cause risks generating compassion fatigue with the general public. As Bono recently told CNN, "Look, I'm Bono and I'm sick of Bono. And I fully understand. . . .I look forward to a time when I'm not such a pest and a self-righteous rock-star. Who needs one?" Clearly, there is a fine line to walk between sustained focus and righteous indignation.


Hindered Hollywood

IT IS TRUE that star activism can influence the global policy agenda. But as we've seen, when it comes to concrete achievements, celebrities have a spotty track record. They face a number of constraints on their ability to affect policy. Most obviously, celebrities might not be the most grounded community of individuals. While some celebrities have mastered the activist game, others seem out of their depth. Hip-hop singer and Live Earth performer Akon admitted to reporters that he didn't know what it meant to be "green" until the day of the concert. Sean Penn's recent fact-finding trip to visit Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez served little purpose beyond a story in The New York Times that gently mocked both men. Then there's Peter Gabriel's idea for "The Elders", a group which includes Nobel Laureates Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu that tries to "use their unique collective skills to catalyze peaceful resolutions to long-standing conflicts"-something that seems more at home in a Matrix sequel than in the here and now. For every Bono or Angelina Jolie, there are other celebrities who are less well-versed in their cause du jour. The problem for the savvy stars is that when other entertainers act foolishly, it becomes easier to summarily dismiss all celebrity activism.

Another problem is that some celebrity causes are more controversial than others-and controversy can still threaten a star's bankability. Tom Cruise's sofa pitch for Scientology (and against psychiatry) likely played a role in Paramount's 2006 decision to sever its business relationship with him. When the Dixie Chicks blasted George W. Bush on stage at a 2004 London concert, radio stations pulled their chart-topping single from playlists, affecting the record's sales.

None of these episodes ended a career, but they did sting. These cautionary tales reveal a clear constraint on celebrity activism: Most stars will be reluctant to risk their professional careers to take a controversial political stance. When Michael Jordan was asked to endorse a Democratic senatorial candidate during his playing career, he demurred with a famous reply: "Republicans buy sneakers too." There are certainly those who present exceptions to this rule, such as Robert Redford, Michael Moore and Susan Sarandon-but they are not the rule.

A deeper problem celebrities face is that the implicit theory of politics that guides their activism does not necessarily apply to all facets of international relations. The goal of most social activism is to bring greater attention to a problem. The assumption is that once people become aware of the problem, there will be a groundswell of support for direct action. This is not how politics necessarily works, particularly in the global realm. Any solution to a problem like global warming, for example, involves significant costs. As people become more aware of the policy problem, it is far from guaranteed that a consensus will emerge about the best way to solve it. It is therefore not surprising that celebs have had their greatest successes in touting humanitarian causes and almost no effect on ending militarized conflicts.

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