The Evolution of Celebrity Diplomacy

When George Clooney appeared on the White House lawn for a press conference following his meeting with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden last month, two things stood out.

The press corps gathered there didn’t question his credentials to talk about the Darfur region of Sudan, and Clooney actually broke news.

The president, he said, was prepared to send a “full-time, high-level” special envoy to Sudan — and the event was notable because he, not the administration, delivered that detail.

The fact that the president met with Clooney so early in his term, before his team completed a policy review in Darfur, reflects not just a level of acceptance of celebrity-driven diplomatic efforts but a growing level of sophistication of such figures in international affairs.

Celebrity diplomacy is nothing new, but it tends to be exceedingly apolitical, such as Audrey Hepburn’s humanitarian work with UNICEF — or just the opposite, as with Richard Gere’s strident advocacy for human rights in Tibet. With a template set by celebrities such as Bono, the latest kind of worldly activism draws as much on access to world leaders as it does on international fame, and Clooney added a new element to the equation: timing.

His White House visit was set to generate the maximum amount of attention following his own visit to refugee camps in eastern Chad, where he was accompanied by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and an NBC News crew. But it also came as Darfur activists worried that the crisis could fall “off the radar,” in Clooney’s words, as a critical point in the crisis approached: On March 4, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. As many expected, al-Bashir expelled critically needed humanitarian aid groups.

Clooney “went to the region, so he grounded himself in the realities of people’s lives, and he came back to meet with the president and vice president with a specific message, which was that the president needed to send a special envoy immediately to help end this crisis,” said John Prendergast, who is co-founder of the anti-genocide group the Enough Project and has advised the actor.

Obama had been planning such a move and announced on March 18 that retired Air Force Gen. Scott Gration would be named special envoy.

Prendergast, who himself was mentioned as a candidate for the post, said Clooney “made an assessment that by stating what the intention of the administration was publicly, he would help accelerate that process, and he was right.”

 “In the White House, given all of the competing priorities, I think this jump-started the president’s actions on this issue,” he said.

Hollywood figures traditionally have been deployed in forays to foreign lands as a way of drawing attention to issues and causes lost in the media din. Darfur is no exception, and a long list of celebrities — including Clooney, Maria Bello, Don Cheadle and Angelina Jolie — have helped activist groups give the region a focus that transcends the world news pages.

But celebrities have expanded their activity beyond established peace organizations and even activist groups, deploying multipronged approaches that draw on networks of organizations and access to world leaders.

Clooney is not only a United Nations messenger of peace; he is also involved in the Darfur issue via a number of organizations. In coordination with Save Darfur, another activist group, Clooney brought to the White House some 250,000 postcards from around the country calling for action in the region. His own group, Not on Our Watch, which he founded along with Cheadle, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, producer Jerry Weintraub and activist David Pressman, is dedicated to ending mass atrocities around the globe.

There is a natural wariness that comes with celebrities getting involved in international issues — that it is merely reacting to a fashionable cause rather than making an actual commitment. Andrew F. Cooper, author of the book “Celebrity Diplomacy” and visiting professor at USC’s Center on Public Diplomacy, points to the case of Geri Halliwell, aka Ginger Spice, whose foray as a U.N. goodwill ambassador “did not stand the test of even a small amount of time.” After one high-profile trip to the Philippines to promote contraception and AIDS awareness, she “fell off the radar.”

For Clooney’s cause, the worst thing that could have happened would have been his walking out of the White House meetings with nothing to say.

“This would be the death of celebrity diplomacy, if they just went in and talked about Darfur in a generic fashion,” Cooper said. “It would be seen as a wasted opportunity. ... In that perspective, he used the time very well. He nudged the Obama administration and used the bully pulpit to make sure there was no backtracking.”

Ted Johnson is managing editor of Variety and author of the blog Wilshire & Washington.

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