The New Celebrity Diplomat

Do style and substance mix in official diplomatic circles?

As I have mentioned in an earlier blog post, Richard Holbrooke a unique US foreign policy advisor to many administrations was a rather rare diplomat in combing substance and style in his statecraft.

Holbrooke was a prominent US trouble-shooter in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. However he combined this aspect of his professional profile with an outsized personality and a fabulous network worthy of any A-list celebrity from the world of business or entertainment.  And of course still going strong is the status Henry Kissinger brings to statecraft and celebrity.  Kissinger is arguably the most elevated American celebrity/diplomat since Benjamin Franklin.

What happens however when celebrity style and the diplomatic substance contradict each other?

Kissinger’s celebrity status does not mean that he operated like celebrity diplomats such as Bono, Angelina and George – with media fanfare and the pursuit of public goods and global governance.  On the contrary he mixed a desire for media attention with a sensitivity to the requirements of statecraft – seeking publicity for his societal flair but strenuously avoiding it when undertaking secret diplomatic shuttle diplomacy in the national interest. His major work whether judged for good or for ill was conducted far from any journalistic or public scrutiny.

Although far less experienced than Kissinger we may be seeing a similar cultured gap between celebrity style and diplomatic substance in the forays of Pakistan’s new foreign minister.  Hina Rabbani Khar recently made a stylistic splash on the diplomatic stage– using her uniqueness (a young female diplomat markedly different from the old boys club’s standard diplomatic image).

One interpretation is that style is substance, with the choice of such a different choice of foreign minister representing an authentic effort in re-branding, especially with regard to relations with India to which Hina Rabbani Khar gained far more positive attention in her first official visit at the end of July.  Another interpretation comes from Foreign Policy however.  This interpretation suggests that the real salience of the appointment of Pakistan’s first female foreign minister is a cover-up of substance with style.  How blurred this picture becomes is reinforced by Hina Rabbani Khar’s meeting with Hurriyat/Kashmiri separatist leaders in the Pakistan High Commission during her visit to New Delhi.

For those who interpreted her activities as a distinct break from the past, this meeting was constructive and totally transparent to the Indian media.  For those with a more negative impression, though, the meeting revealed that Hina Rabbani Khar’s appointment represented the same old reality –with a glamorous face subordinated to a dangerous state apparatus.

The Sports Celebrity in the Face of Crisis

Sports and sports players are far from immunized from the realities of the wider social or political life.

In some cases this has a beneficial effects on international relations. One instance has been recently marked with celebrations this month of the 40th anniversary of the initiation of the famous Ping-Pong diplomacy.  After a Chinese and American player established a friendship at a 1971 tournament in Japan, Chairman Mao recognized the importance of this personal US-China relationship and invited the US team to play in Beijing.  This tourney in turn facilitated the ‘the week that changed the world’ with the 1972 visit of President Nixon to China.

The harsher impact on international relations of such sports events stands out in Munich massacre during the 1972 Summer Olympics. In this instance, members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and ultimately killed by members of Black September.

The highly different consequences for sports participants – some celebrities and others not –was on display this week because of two very different events.

The first of these received very little attention: the difficulties imposed on athletes from the Philippines in training for the Southeast Asian Games later this year in Jakarta, Indonesia.  Because of the ongoing Spratly Island dispute between the two countries, an MOA between the Chinese Sports Ministry and the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) remains unsigned.  Consequently, athletes from the Philippines – in fencing, weightlifting, wushu, diving, table tennis and shooting – have been unable to train at world-class Chinese facilities alongside some of China’s top-rate athletes.

The second story unfortunately grabbed the bulk of the attention  the tragic killings in Norway.  Such a massive shock puts activities such as sports events in perspective. Do the athletes from a country such as Norway continue in the course of their sporting events – do they continue training?

Obviously, with killings as in Munich taking place at the site of the Olympic games, this question about continuing to participate or not was hugely controversial.

On the surface the argument for Norwegian athletes continuing to participate – whether in the last legs of the Tour de France or the swimming world championship – seems much stronger!  After all the killings in Norway were far removed from the actual sporting events. Moreover, an argument could be made that it is best to maintain a sense of normalcy and keep going. Yet, as witnessed by the reaction of the Norwegian cyclist who said he just hoped for the Tour de France ‘to be over’ even elite athletes are not immune from the generalized trauma of such a national shock

Although Celebrity Blogger is about celebrities, a few points of interconnection with geo-politics merit attention.

Out of the limelight athletes of a small vulnerable country such as the Philippines must struggle to react to circumstances (perhaps with a new forms of Ping-Pong diplomacy!) to deal with the policy linkages imposing restrictions on them.

In the limelight a country such as Norway with not only a host of sporting celebrities but a positive brand of diplomatic activism – its mediation efforts in a number of arena, including most famously the Oslo process aimed at bringing peace to the Middle East – has a much great range of agency.

Even with all these resources, however, Norway will now require renewed efforts to craft its global brand due to the actions of one individual- the antithesis of a celebrity.

Public domain This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States Federal Government under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code  U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 2nd Class Shawn Burns. (RELEASED) 021126-N-1777B-001.jpg


The Hunter Becomes the Hunted

All of us – including your faithful Celebrity blogger – love a good celebrity scandal.

Who can fail to feel some base satisfaction or schadenfreude when a star is ‘outed’ for nefarious activity and behavior? Think, Tiger Woods as prime example! Or Ryan Giggs of Manchester United! Or for that matter Paris Hilton – on many – too many – occasions!

Yet, as the ongoing News Corp/News of the World saga demonstrates there are dangers when media is allowed to investigate without restraint the private lives of these celebs.  And in this case the Murdoch Empire has become the ‘Celeb’ and the scandal concerns this media giant.

The techniques of illegal hacking of voicemails/messages and buying stories came to light after the Murdoch Empire targeted politicians, soldiers killed in Afghanistan, victims of the 7/7 2005 terrorist attacks in London, and at least one murdered schoolgirl.  The  techniques used were initiated and perfected with respect to traditional celebrities.  They were extended to a variety of individuals and situations and now those who targeted celebs have become both the Celebs and the scandal.

Some of the celebrities whose phones were hacked were part of a central preoccupation of the Murdoch media – celebrities including most likely Princess Diana, her personal assistant and a lawyer connected to her.

But the range of celebrities who were followed not by old-fashioned private investigative tactics but allegedly illegal techniques of scrutiny stretched across the entire spectrum of celebrities from Sienna Miller to Hugh Grant. And this leaves aside undercover sting operations such as the one that implicated Sarah Ferguson in the well-known cash for royal access scandal.

To be sure, some of these behind these operations were caught and punished as witnessed by the jailing of the Murdoch’s royal editor and (well-paid) private investigator in 2006. But these actions failed to retrain the Murdoch media and prevent the escalation of illegal activities. The Murdoch papers were allowed to argue that the culprits were rogues disconnected from the overall Murdoch media culture.

And confirming the impression that sensationalism sells, the public continued to favor the results of this sort of investigation in connection to private wrongs over other sorts of scandal – such as those involving deficiencies in governance.

Instead of being ring-fenced, the success that the Murdoch papers and other media had in naming and shaming celebrities wetted the appetite of the Murdoch media for other targets – targets that were looked upon with far greater public sympathy.

Celebrities with some justification are often viewed as being exceptional. With the (now happily defunct) News of the World this unique quality seems to have justified an open season on a wide range of individuals and permitted the Murdoch media to target these people in the news. These nefarious actions led to a serious drop of ethical standards that eventually swallowed the Murdoch media itself.  The hunter became the hunted.

Where Have the Sports Stars Gone?

The reluctance of sports stars to get involved in celebrity activism in any sustained fashion has been a recurring theme of this blogger’s Celebrity posts. I have mentioned this issue in the past with reference to team stars: despite some notable exceptions this category – sports figures – have seldom been engaged in celebrity activism in comparison to personalities located in the world of movies and music.

But when examined against stars in individual sports such as tennis and golf – sports with high profile through Wimbledon and the US and British Opens – team players in fact do quite well.  At least in team sports we have clear exceptions, some of which we have profiled (Yao Ming, and the Barcelona football team) and others which deserve attention.

As this is a large topic I will isolate and examine independently the individual sports – tennis and golf – with tennis leading off, as we are in the midst right now of Wimbledon.

One name that represents major commitment is Maria Sharapova, who joined National Basketball Association icon LeBron James in 2007 to “Team Up Against Poverty” on a new UN Development Program advertisement.  The UNDP initiative was to raise support for achieving the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Well-known photographer Patrick Demarchelier photographed both stars in a striking series of UNDP campaign ads.

Given her embrace of a glamorous consumer-oriented life style her commitment to this UNDP initiative might seem surprising. Yet Sharapova’s role in this campaign is not as surprising as it might appear given her very poor origins.  In fact she was born in in Siberia, after her family fled the town of Gomel – now part of Belarus – in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl accident.  Moreover, although living the American dream in Manhattan Beach (with a mega engagement ring from another NBA player, Sasha Vujacic) Sharapova’s commitment to her place of origin – at the center of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster seems completely genuine. Not only did she provide a UNDP video marking the 25th anniversary of the accident but she has donated money from her own personal foundation and made a UNDP sponsored trip in June 2010.

Sharapova, however, is an exception, largely, who stands out at among women players. But there is also Justine Henin, the now retired player from Belgium, who is a UNESCO Champion of Sport. And there are several others who are UNICEF National Ambassadors.

A similar situation exists among male tennis players, as the only star that jumps out (albeit at the top of the all time greats list) is Roger Federer, who became a UNICEF goodwill ambassador in 2006. In a welcome message the Swiss legend said: “It is our responsibility to connect with the real world beyond our sport, to use our fortune to make a difference in the lives of those who most need it.”

Cynics of course can say that Sharapova and Federer are in a position to take on these responsibilities, as they can balance this work with enormous commercial endorsements including those for luxury items (Tiffany among other things for Sharapova, Rolex for Federer). They also have the management teams to facilitate their celebrity matters.

Yet, whatever the motivations and support, Sharapova and Federer remain the exceptions that prove the rule. This exceptionalism is further emphasized by the fact that all of the athletes mentioned as celebrity activists (besides LeBron, who himself needs further attention) have been born outside of the United States.

As golf further attests, US distinctiveness highlights a decided lack of enthusiasm by individual sports celebrities getting involved in celebrity activism. I will scrutinize this in upcoming blog posts.