A 21st-Century Statesman

Article excerpt

Byline: John Avlon

In the age of Twitter-shortened attention spans, fame is an increasingly powerful weapon of diplomacy. How George Clooney is helping to bring change--and a hefty dose of hope--to Sudan.

As Hollywood scrambles through the final days of jockeying for Oscars, George Clooney's attention is far away--9,000 miles away, to be exact. The veteran Academy Awards campaigner plans to walk the red carpet and crack open an envelope at Sunday's ceremonies, but he has no movie in contention. A different drama is on his mind.

In January, Clooney was back in South Sudan, directing his star power toward helping its people peacefully achieve independence from the northern government of Khartoum after two decades of civil war. With five years' involvement in Sudan, Clooney has begun to define a new role for himself: 21st-century celebrity statesman.

It's an ambitious avocation: Clooney has been leveraging his celebrity to get people to care about something more important than celebrity. South Sudan's January referendum for independence was quickly followed by uprisings that toppled North African and Arab dictatorships, with power moving away from centralized political bureaucracies and toward broader popular engagement. In this new environment--fueled by social networking--fame is a potent commodity that can have more influence on public debate than many elected officials and even some nation-states.

"It's harder for authoritarian regimes to survive, because we can circumvent old structures with cell phones and the Internet," says Clooney. "Celebrity can help focus news media where they have abdicated their responsibility. We can't make policy, but we can 'encourage' politicians more than ever before." Which was why, a few weeks ago, Clooney was being driven in a white pickup down a red dirt road under the watchful eyes of teenage soldiers armed with AK-47s. L.A. was half a world away, but the paparazzi were not far from his mind. "If they're going to follow me anyway," he was saying, "I want them to follow me here."

Clooney had traveled to the oil-rich contested region of Abyei on the eve of South Sudan's historic referendum. When the polls closed seven days later, Africa's largest nation would be divided into two separate countries by electoral mandate. After witnessing more than 2 million people murdered--including the first genocide of the 21st century, in Darfur--South Sudan would finally be on the path to independence. It was an outcome that even three months earlier appeared unlikely. And Clooney, according to many observers, played a pivotal role.

No one in Abyei has seen a George Clooney movie. His credibility here comes from the multiple trips to Africa, many of them with John Prendergast, cofounder of the Enough Project. Amid the factions, Clooney is seen as a man unconstrained by bureaucracy, with access to power and the ability to amplify a village's voice onto the world stage.

Celebrity statesmen function like freelance diplomats, adopting issue experts and studying policy. More pragmatic than stars turned social activists in the past, they use the levers of power to solve problems. Clooney has Sudanese rebel leaders on speed dial. He's had AK-47s shoved in his chest. And when he's on movie sets, he gets daily Sudan briefings via email.

Now he's gone one step further--George Clooney has a satellite. Privately funded and publicly accessible (SatSentinel.org), this eye in the sky monitors military movements on the north-south border--the powder keg in a region the U.S. director of national intelligence described a year ago as the place on earth where "a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur." "I'm not tied to the U.N. or the U.S. government, and so I don't have the same constraints. I'm a guy with a camera from 480 miles up," Clooney says. "I'm the anti-genocide paparazzi."

Clooney's high-wattage visits draw unwelcome attention to the head of the north's Islamist government in Khartoum, Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. …