Academic journal article Global Governance

Beyond One Image Fits All: Bono and the Complexity of Celebrity Diplomacy

Academic journal article Global Governance

Beyond One Image Fits All: Bono and the Complexity of Celebrity Diplomacy

Article excerpt

The previous article, by Heribert Dieter and Rajiv Kumar, raises a number of issues about the role of celebrities in global governance. Although the performance of this self-selected cast of performers remains highly contentious, it must be accepted that this activity is one more signal that the traditional script of international relations is changing. This shift is exciting but also bewildering. Views on what to make of this phenomenon are sharply divided.

For sympathizers, this form of public engagement by celebrities represents an inexorable force tied in with the onward rush of globalization with all its attendant elements of mass technology in global communications. It also reflects the wider crisis of credibility and efficiency that currently effects international organizations, whether international financial institutions (IFIs), the World Trade Organization (WTO), or the G8. For the resisters, the challenge is cast as part of a spillover from the wider gauge of celebrity culture, with the global sphere providing an inviting stage for opportunistic self-indulgence.

To more fully understand the nature and impact of this phenomenon, with respect to both its positive and its negative connotations, the level of analysis must be extended beyond these parameters. In other words, at play here is a different set of "simplicity traps," which need to be avoided. Attempts to trivialize celebrity engagement, reducing it to feel-good activity, may paradoxically feed an image that discounts a bigger set of difficulties with the enterprise of global governance. Attempts to caricature this type of agency, lumping stars together without differentiating their distinctive attributes and projects, can have similar effect. Dieter and Kumar's analysis of Jeffrey Sachs and Bono is a significant example of this dilemma. In many ways, the article itself is a testament to the authentic importance of celebrity agency--a step in the right direction--since the phenomenon is being accorded a fairly serious treatment. However, the analysis fails to truly escape those simplicity traps. Instead of a one-image-fits-all perspective, a more nuanced perspective is needed. Otherwise, the complexity of this phenomenon is missed.

If it is clear then that my view concerning the engagement of celebrities in international relations is more positive than that of Dieter and Kumar, I should note that I do not see these actors as a deus ex machina. Indeed, I fault the article not only for misrepresenting the nature of celebrity activism--or what I prefer to call celebrity diplomacy (1)--but also for distorting the weight of celebrities as agenda setters, especially in the context of Africa. While individual agency outside the usual orthodox sources matters in a manner that would have been unanticipated at the end of the Cold War, the hold of structural forces as determinants of policy outcomes cannot be neglected. This is true of the weight of colonialism as well, reinforced by the inequalities imposed on African states by the international trade system. That being said, it is misleading to imply that Africa is just one big continent-wide zone of failure. Instead of embracing a one-image-fits-all perspective, opportunities (as well as constraints) need to be factored into any analysis.

Rather than getting into an overextended debate--in an already crowded field (2)--about Africa and development, I prefer to concentrate on the deficiencies of conflating very different types of celebrities into one single image. It is indicative of this problem that Dieter and Kumar chose to contrast the role of celebrities on opposite ends of the definitional spectrum: Jeffrey Sachs and Bono.

Jeffrey Sachs has built his fame (or, as the authors would have it, his notoriety) through his achieved status. (3) As a high-profile professor of economics at Harvard and Columbia, and a robust public intellectual cum policy entrepreneur, Sachs is not treated as a product of the media the way that celebrity diplomats from the entertainment world are. …

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