The Role of the ‘Celebrity Diplomat’

When thinking about diplomacy, one might cast their mind to a nation’s head of state shaking hands with their foreign equivalent, or to public servants in suits, conducting tense negotiations sitting across a table. However, since the conclusion of the Second World War and the rise of entertainment news through the end of the 20th century, a new type of transnational diplomacy emerged, that which is influenced by ‘celebrity’. Indeed, it was the United Nations in the 1950s that began to ‘pioneer’ this concept, and in 1962 established the position of the “good-will ambassador” (a role which has since been filled by the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Angelina Jolie).

 Image Credit: UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Audrey Hepburn greets children and women at a UNICEF-assisted feeding centre in Mogadishu (Somalia, 1992: © UNICEF/NYHQ1992-1192/Press)

‘Celebrity diplomacy’ is a form of ‘public diplomacy’. That is to say, it seeks to influence the public’s thinking so as to subsequently influence the thinking of politicians. ‘Celebrity diplomacy’ is therefore very different to the usual way States or international organizations engage with one another. For one, it is inherently populist, relying on the individual’s star power to carry a message, rather than any political authority, formal diplomatic training, or qualifications. Moreover, the ‘site’ of a celebrity diplomat’s work is unconventional. Rather than working in an embassy or sending official communications, they may travel with cameras to a disaffected community or give an interview on the news or even a late-night talk show.

The US Department of State (the executive department responsible for US foreign policy and relations) formally recognizes the role of ‘high-profile celebrities’ when it comes to raising the attention of international concerns and causes. The US has sent American actors, artists, poets, and even chefs around the world, to develop relationships with foreign countries, break down cultural barriers and ‘build an appreciation for America’s rich artistic heritage’. In the mid-2000s, a US foreign policy priority was resolving the crisis in Darfur. Actor George Clooney was credited with putting the conflict to the attention of the world stage and his advocacy resulted in far more international support than could have been achieved through traditional channels.

 

However, advocacy by a celebrity is not always orchestrated by a State or an international organisation. A particularly interesting case is that of former NBA star Dennis Rodman, and his friendship with North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. Over the years, Rodman has developed an interesting relationship with the leader – they ‘sing karaoke together’, ‘ride horses’, ‘go skiing’ and whilst in North Korea, enjoy watching basketball together. Through this friendship and the publicity, it garnered, Rodman managed to gain the early release of a South Korean-born American prisoner, Kenneth Bae. Bae had been convicted in North Korea on charges of planning to overthrow the government and was sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment. In May of 2013, after reading about Bae in the news, Rodman tweeted to his ‘friend’: “I’m calling on the Supreme Leader of North Korea or as I call him “Kim”, to do me a solid and cut Kenneth Bae loose”.

Though Rodman would later suggest that Bae may have deserved the imprisonment, the tweet and his subsequent media on the issue gained widespread publicity for Bae’s ordeal. Bae was released the following year and subsequently thanked Rodman for ‘being a catalyst for my release’.

9 March 2024 | Authored by Connor Andreatidis, Consultant, Precision Public Affairs

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