The Rolling Stones – Rebels without a Cause

The image of Bono taking centre stage once again at Davos on a panel about ‘Raising Healthy Children’ could easily open up another grueling debate about the merits of the U2 lead singer as a global celebrity activist. This is a subject I have commented on in the past, notably in the Global Governance journal. Although I take an extremely positive view of Bono’s efforts (to the point of suggesting that there is a dynamic that can be termed the Bono-ization of diplomacy!), the criticism of his role as a development campaigner has to be taken seriously. Such attacks include delving into his private financial affairs pertaining to the movement of some of his corporate profile for tax advantages.

Whatever readers think about the ethical motivations and application of such hard-edged practices a bigger question has to be asked. Should we target Bono for criticism because he combines, musical entertainment, business self interest and celebrity advocacy at the same time?  Can we let the older generation of rock stars off the hook for focusing on the first two activities without any sustained effort on the third?

My attention to this issue is influenced in part by my reading Keith Richards’s autobiography (Life) over the holidays. I came away with two very different thoughts. The first was a reaffirmation of the view that talents need to be cultivated if not by vigor of tiger moms and the 10,000 hours rule (the length of time that Malcolm Gladwell suggests it takes to become an expert in any field). What drives the success of the Rolling Stones is how much practice they put in.

More in tune with the theme of this blog, however, is that there has never been any focused move by the Rolling Stones to do anything that benefited the public good. They were quite explicitly rebels without a genuine cause. Above all self -indulgence trumped any sense of giving back.

To be sure, this attitude can be rationalized by a number of factors. The Stones were quite clearly ripped off by promoters and managers at the early stage of their career.  And in the pre-Thatcher era they had to pay massive amounts of tax, pushing them to live abroad. They even titled one of their biggest albums, Exiles on Main Street.

Yet opportunities were there for them to expand their horizons. Bianca Jagger became interested in a wide range of causes by the late 1970s but this triggered no similar commitment on Mick Jagger’s part (apart from some apparently low-key and much later project participation such as lending his voice to an education campaign in South Africa in early 2010 and work on a UN charity album in 2009).

Keith Richards was obviously impressed by Václav Havel the Czech intellectual president but there was no spillover effect after a concert in Prague. Even Eric Clapton, a well-known advocate of the view that rock stars should just ‘keep to the music’ has set up and continued to maintain a strong connection with a non-profit drug rehabilitation centre on the Caribbean island of Antigua (part of a region that Mick and Keith spent much time). Keeping to strict parameters about how rock stars should behave made the Rolling Stones immensely wealthy but in comparison to Bono the impression is one of restricted lives. It seems perverse then that the U2 singer comes under such criticism for stretching out in terms of celebrity engagement when the Rolling Stones are free of such criticism by downplaying social engagement.

The Lure of Bollywood – Another Celebrity Front

The global reach of Bollywood is increasing apparent. As just one illustration, Toronto Canada has been full of buzz this week due to the visit of Slumdog Millionaire star Anil Kapoor and the announcement that the City will host the International Indian Film Academy conference and awards this upcoming June.

The question is whether or not the power of Bollywood could (or even should) be mobilized as a component of celebrity diplomacy.

When I visited India in early 2008 after my book on Celebrity Diplomacy came out I considered this a good idea and wrote about it at the time.

Struck by the “soft power potential” of the Indian film industry across South Asia, West Asia and Africa, I suggested, “If [film stars] can go through some training by the government, they can be a huge asset for the country.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in June 2008 publically endorsed such an approach, noting India’s ‘soft power’, especially the film industry, can be put to use as “a very important instrument of foreign policy”.

Yet, what has been revealed by WikiLeaks is not a concerted effort by India to mobilize the influence of Bollywood star power. Rather the push came from the US as part of a wider campaign of public diplomacy with regard to two sensitive and interconnected domains.

On one front the US attempted to mobilize Bollywood film directors to fight militancy within the UK’s Muslim community. According to the reports from WikiLeaks the US sent two senior diplomats to London in October 2007 amid growing concern about the rise of radicalism among Muslim youths in Britain. The diplomats met Foreign Office officials, the International Development minister (the UK’s first Muslim MP), and a number of leading British Asian film-makers. The US diplomats reported that “Bollywood actors and executives agreed to work with the USG to promote anti-extremist messages through third party actors and were excited about the idea of possibly partnering with Hollywood as well.”

On another front WikiLeaks cables reveal that US diplomats made a proposal to India that it send Bollywood stars to tour Afghanistan to help international efforts to stabilize the country. In a confidential March 2007 cable a request was apparently made from Washington for “specific, concrete ideas for opportunities for India to use soft power in helping Afghanistan’s reconstruction”.

Although there is no apparent sign that either of these proposals were acted upon in a concerted fashion, such strategic thinking is indicative that state-based diplomats have an appreciation of the power of popular culture. At the same time, however, initiatives along these lines also showcase the need to debate not only the composition of the actors who animate celebrity diplomacy but the motivations for, and the focus of, those activities.

Banishing “Scary Images” and Behavior in the China-US relationship

I think it’s fair to conclude that the Hu Jintao State visit will be viewed in retrospect as a mild success.   Now in the context of the US-China relationship recently, that’s not bad.   The relationship didn’t go backwards and there was some sense that the two Leaders were working off the same page – building a comprehensive and closely coordinated bilateral relationship.

The key question is whether the two – through their speeches and actions –  helped to dispel each nation’s “Scary Image” of the other.

For the Chinese the true Scary Image is a US foreign policy that seeks to encircle and contain China.  In that regard of course there is the evident discussion of Taiwan – the continuing provision of Taiwan military with new weaponry – and the close-in approach of various US carrier flotillas in areas surrounding China, the tension over the South China Sea and of course the Korean Peninsula.

In this regard President Obama’s statement on the positive good that China’s rise can bring goes some way in assuring the Chinese people that the US is not focused on a containment strategy.  The following comment by President Obama was targeted directly at the containment view: “I absolutely believe China’s peaceful rise is good for the world, and it’s good for America.”  For good measure the President went on to declare that the United States wanted to sell all sorts of stuff to China – underscoring the need to broaden trade and increase American exports to China.

On the US side, the Scary Image of China is the new assertiveness of China being the product of American declinism.  In this scary image all the pessimism over the US economy and the growth of  China’s military leads China’s military in particular, or the leadership generally, to press the United States on various territorial and policy fronts in the belief that the US has been fundamentally weakened.  Such a view could give rise to miscalculations that might leave both sides unable to back down in a crisis.

But President Hu sought to counter this overly assertive China view.  As Jeffrey Bader, President Obama’s chief Asia adviser concluded in the NYT:

The message seems to be you don’t need to fear us, but you should also know that we can’t do do everything you want.

Again Bader concludes:

“The notion that they can challenge our supremacy in our lifetimes is not in the cards.  They can challenge us on certain technologies”, and militarily, “in areas close to their shores – but not globally, not for a long while.”

Now this won’t stop congressmen and those on the right from beating the drum of Chinese economic and military pressure, but the behavior and words of President Hu give no fodder to those who focus on “the China Threat”.

And that’s a positive outcome.

Is Yao Ming a sign of future possibilities for Rising State Celebrities?

This blog post introduces two very different themes about celebrity activism.

The first theme concerns the role (or arguably the non-role) of sports celebrities as pivotal activists. Although some sports celebrities do involve themselves in causes there is no sports equivalent to a Bono, Angelina or George Clooney.  Why don’t sports entertainers not rise to the top in celebrity activitism?  Is it because of the team dimension? Or is it because of some socialization process that puts the emphasis solely on commercial endorsements? The exceptions to this rule (quite a few from non-US backgrounds) we need to examine but the reasons for this material difference needs to be explored.

The second theme concerns the role of celebrity activity generally in the ‘Global South’ and specifically in the BRICSAM countries. Up to now we have looked exclusively at celebrity activism in the ‘Anglo-sphere’. However, as the BRICSAM countries ascend it is likely that celebrity activism will arise from/in those countries as well.

China is at the top of the list of BRICSAM countries in terms of the impact of its rise, a condition that will be showcased this week with the state visit of President Hu Jintao to the US.

Yet, when we look at Chinese celebrity activism few individuals have appeared to gain a global/universal reach. Readers may differ but I would suggest that action film superstar Jackie Chan (a UNICEF/UNAIDS goodwill ambassador) is the best known of the established celebrity activists – though he is from Hong Kong as opposed to the Mainland.

Although China has its unique political/cultural character, some of the constraints on sports figures are familiar to the western world. A search of the biography of Liu Xiang, the talented hurdler (whose injury in the Beijing Olympics was a major disappointment) gives an indication of the obstacles: a combination of major commercial endorsements and the massive time obligations for training.

Such constraints however may loosen up in the future. The profile of Yao Ming, the iconic Shanghai Sharks/NBA basketball star, signals some of the possibilities of a Chinese sports celebrity gaining a global/universal reach. While Yao has an impressive set of commercial endorsements, he has also become a leading sports figure in terms of charity activities. He donated a big component of time and resources ($2 million of his own money and major initiatives through the Yao Ming Foundation for rebuilding efforts) in the aftermath of the calamitous 2008 Sichuan earthquake. He has worked with a number of other engaged sportsmen (Dikembe Mutombo and Steve Nash) on events, including back-to-back charity basketball games in Beijing and Taipei on July 24/28 2010.

While most of his work highlights the value of constructive engagement, it is also worthwhile mentioning that Yao Ming is on some issues prepared to be associated with causes that contain some societal sensitivity. One that jumps out is Yao’s willingness to support Wild Aid’s campaign on endangered species (notably his public campaign to deter the consumption of shark fin soup). Although not as much on the radar as the efforts by western celebrities to cultivate a more healthy life-style (see for instance an interesting article by David Ritter in Global Policy on the efforts by celebrity chefs to highlight the crisis in the world’s fisheries> this alternative form of engagement showcases some future unanticipated possibilities of celebrity activism/diplomacy.

George Clooney – the Out-in-Front Networked Celebrity

[This is another in a series of Celebrity Blogger posts on celebrities and global affairs. Clooney has been very involved South Sudan and you can find information on the Referendum at the Munk School Portal – The Blog Master]

Celebrity activists are commonly criticized for being enthusiastic amateurs. Indeed in some cases personalities from the entertainment world do embrace issues that they know very little about. There is a tendency among these individuals to use their star power as free-lancers with little regard to either advisory or networked support.

In the top category of celebrity activist however the opposite tendency occurs. As addressed in my previous blogs (see previous guest blogger posts) the premier cluster of celebrity activists are rigorous about seeking advice from professionals. This is true of Bono and many others who have been influenced by Bono. It is also true of Angelina Jolie.

Arguably George Clooney is the most diversified celebrity activist in terms of his layers of connection. In a similar fashion to a number of other celebrity activists Clooney has a UN affiliation, albeit not as an ambassador for a UN special agency but as a Messenger of Peace.  I [Celebrity Blogger] was in India in January 2008, when Clooney showed how serious he was about this role. Although he was up for a number of Oscar nominations for ‘Michael Clayton’ Clooney was preoccupied with the issue of peacekeeping, coming to India with the UN Assistant Secretary for Peacekeeping Operations to discuss India’s contribution to this UN activity.

Akin to the most savvy of the celebrity activists Clooney uses his star power and official designation to lever access with key state officials. Foreshadowing his later success in the US (including face time with both President Obama and Vice-President Biden in October 2010), Clooney gained personal meetings with key officials on his trip to India – the Defence Secretary, officials at the foreign ministry (who even hosted a party for Clooney at the Taj Mahal hotel) and a regional Army Command Headquarters at Jaipur.

If Clooney expressed a willingness to listen the targeted focus of this and other trips has been on ending the conflict in Sudan/Darfur. He has combined with Don Cheadle in campaigning via the advocacy group Not on Our Watch. He has traveled to the crisis on frequent occasions – with among others his father (an experienced newsman) and Nicholas Kristof (the New York Times columnist who has reported experienced on Darfur/Sudan). Behind Clooney’s work stands again John Prendergast, the co-founder of the Enough Project and a former director of African affairs at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.

Under Prendergast’s guidance Clooney has constantly ratcheted up the level of his networking. His latest move – well worth tracking as a form of innovative cyber – diplomacy is the launch of the Satellite Sentinel Project, an initiative that with the support of Not On Our Watch, Prendergast’s Enough Project, the UN Operational Satellite Applications Program (UNOSAT), the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Google, and Internet firm Trellon, will monitor the border between North and South Sudan in the context of this week’s pivotal referendum about self-determination for the South.

We will have to wait to see whether this initiative, combining the collection of satellite imagery, the design of a Web platform that will publicly share the images and data, the contribution of on-the-ground reports to provide context to the satellite imagery, and field reports and policy analysis to ensure that continued attention is paid, works in practice.

But one thing is already clear. Far from displaying the character of enthusiastic amateurism, this form of network power with Clooney as the star front man reveals the will and skill of a sophisticated enterprise.

Waiting for Godot

As is always the case, it has been extremely interesting to travel around China  and to talk to colleagues at various research centres and think tanks.  My discussions have focused on global governance and the G20.  And in the current context, of course, there have been large dollops of discussion on the impending Hu Jintao state visit to Washington.

Let me focus on that just a bit.  I have acknowledged in a recent blog post the growing commentary in the US characterizing and then analyzing  the US-China relationship – “Defining the Key Relationship“.  In this post I comment on the Zbigniew Brzezinski op-ed from the NYT.  Brzezinski argued that the leaders should work to produce a declaration to set out the basic principles and practices that should govern the US-China relationship.  I must say I was rather critical of this approach and argued for pragmatic and meaningful steps to advance US-China collaboration.

I am less puzzled now by Brzezinski’s deliverable.  For at stop after stop I got an earful from my colleagues about US policy being unilateral and potentially harmful for other G20 and a wider circle of countries. Colleagues raised the spillover impact of current US policy most notably quantitative easing or QE2.  Though indirectly acknowledging China’s unilateral and hurtful efforts  – mainly fixed exchange – China experts, chose to attack current US efforts.

It would appear that neither country comes away with clean hands and each threatens to impact the G20 countries with policies  carrying significant spillover implications.

Defining the Key Relationship

With the state visit by Hu Jintao to the United States scheduled for this month, experts ad former officials are ‘coming out of the woodwork’ to give their evaluation of the US-China relationship and to declare what is necessary from the meeting of the leaders of these two key powers.

One of those experts and former officials is Zbigniew Brzezinski – formerly a national security adviser in the Carter administration.  In an op-ed in the NYT on Monday, Brzezinski in “How to Stay Friends with China” sets out his perspective.  What Brzezinski wants is a “joint charter”.  What he hopes this will lead to is to:

… set in motion a process for defining common political, economic and social goals.  It should acknowledge frankly the reality of some disagreements as well as register a shared determination to seek ways of narrowing the ranges of such disagreements.  It should also take note of potential threats to security in areas of mutual concern, and commit both sides to enhanced consultations and collaboration in coping with them.

For him the hope is that this joint declaration will:

… provide the framework not only for avoiding what under some circumstances could become a hostile rivalry but also for expanding a realistic collaboration between the United States and China.

It is an odd request – or maybe I’m just too far from diplomacy. But why spend effort on setting a broad declarative statement.  I t would seem to me that making some progress on key issues – bilateral to be sure – but also likely to have clear implications for multilateral policy – seems to me to be a far more useful effort and far less likely to be condemned for rhetorical overkill.

As I’ve expressed in earlier blogs starting with “Jumping to Conclusions“,  is that US-China relations swings from being a fried to being a foe.  What will advance global governance is for the US and China to take steps in global economic imbalances or climate change which points the way to a more collaborative policy that can foundation for collaborative multilateral policy.

Such steps move the yardsticks in global governance. Declarations are little more than rhetoric – and potentially wrong.

Who Advises Celebrity Activists?

One of the least recognized subjects of celebrity activism relates to who advises these celebrities.

The traditional answer focuses on institutions. When we look back to early celebrity activists the UN acted as the core mentor organization. UNICEF stands out for the efforts of such pioneers as Danny Kaye and Audrey Hepburn.

This approach continues to operate. There is a wide and impressive breadth of operation  – albeit there still are issues of quality control. This route is still the first option for many stars when they want to get involved. A good indication of this attraction is the choice of UNHCR by Angelina Jolie for refugee issues.

What is fascinating, however, is that over the last few years there has been a growing fragmentation of the advisory role. The UN, for instance, no longer has a monopoly. Major celebrity activists have been influenced by advisors with backgrounds in other forms of organizations notably NGOs. The relationship of Jamie Drummond, the Executive Director of ONE, and Bono jumps out because of their prior involvement with the Jubilee 2000 – ‘drop the debt’ campaign.

But the phenomenon that bears more scrutiny is what can be termed free-lance advisors. Some of these are extremely well connected Hollywood insiders. A prime example is

Donna Bojarsky, a political consultant close to the Obama administration, who runs an influential Foreign Policy Round Table, encouraging the entertainment industry’s leaders to be engaged with international affairs and the US’s role in the world.

Another strand comes from experienced foreign policy experts who straddle a number of advisory roles. A good illustration of this type of person is Morton Halperin. Long associated with a set of leading Washington DC-based think tanks, such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Brookings Institution, Halperin acts also as a consultant to George Soros’ Open Society Institute and as a board member of ONE.

Some other consultants focus on specific issues. John Prendergast is arguably the best known of this type of advisor, coaching and navigating a number of celebrities (including Don Cheadle, George Clooney, Javier Bardem and Ryan Gosling) through the complexities of dealing with African issues such as Darfur.

And finally I return to Trevor Neilson.  I mentioned him in my last blog post on Richard Holbrooke who mentored a large cluster of stars.  In fact Trevor has a roster that includes Ashton Kutchner and Demi Moore in the campaign against child sex-trade trafficking.

Neilson’s work links back up to the theme of mentor organizations. The difference is that unlike the UN or NGOs, Neilson’s firm (Global Philanthropy Group) is explicitly commercially oriented with a fee for service.

This diversification does point to widening prospects for recent graduates in international public policy programs to take up this form of advising. Instead of having to wait to move up the ranks of more formal organizations, or work towards becoming a go-to expert, the rise of firms such as GPG offer a different and ‘quicker’ type of attractive opportunity – a hybrid apprenticeship linking the worlds of wonks and celebrities.

Get you job applications ready – you IR graduates!