Diplomacy has long been the domain of an educated, stuffy and privileged group of elites, but the rules of the game are changing. Today, celebrities are transforming how issues of poverty, the environment and human rights are addressed on the international stage. Most prominent are Bono and Angelina Jolie, but the cast is expanding.
One indication of this trend has been actress Mia Farrow's recent campaign for international action on the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Her March 28 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, penned with her son, has been credited with igniting a firestorm of activity, leading to Sudan's formal acceptance of UN peacekeepers in the conflict-riven province.
Pulling no punches, Ms. Farrow has taken aim at Sudan's biggest defender-China-striking at its sensitivities and vanities concerning the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Indicting its tacit and explicit defences of the government in Khartoum, Ms. Farrow's approach is one few state diplomats would dare to try. However bold, it is a sophisticated and calculated campaign that belies the image of celebrities as enthusiastic amateurs. Rather than directing her attack at Sudan, Ms. Farrow endeavoured to weaken the position of its guardian, on an issue to which she knew China would respond.
And how did she get to the Chinese? Through another celebrity, of course. Those who spend most of their lives in the public sphere understand how sensitive others in the same position are to very open criticism. Ms. Farrow called out director Steven Spielberg, who through his involvement with the 2008 games has developed links with top Chinese officials, for sponsoring a government which has perpetuated the atrocities in Darfur. She went so far as to liken Mr. Spielberg to Nazi propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Ms. Farrow knew it would evoke a response from the Schindler's List director-and the approach got results.
Compelled to act, Mr. Spielberg wrote a letter directly to Chinese President Hu Jintao. One can only guess what was contained within the letter, but it is safe to assume it was a passionate appeal from the man who has devoted much of his life documenting the history and personal narratives of the Holocaust with his Shoah Foundation. Through his spokesman, Mr. Spielberg said that he only recently became aware of China's involvement in Sudan and that without action, his role in the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics would be withdrawn.
China has many interests in a strong, central Sudanese authority, having developed a large commercial relationship that spans from oil exports to the weapons trade. Siphoning off roughly two-thirds of Sudanese oil exports, China needs a stable Sudan to fuel its enormous economic rise. Further, the New York Times has reported that the government in Khartoum has used nearly 70 per cent of oil revenues for military procurements-China being a major supplier.
However, sensitivities run deep over the Beijing Games, which has been built up to mark China's formal ascendance as a world power. There is great anticipation within the country on its importance. Applying pressure in the right areas has changed their thinking, as it did not take long for the Chinese to respond to Mr. Spielberg's plea. President Hu quickly dispatched one of his senior officials, Zhai Jun, who pushed Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir to finally accept UN peacekeepers in Darfur after months of posturing. This marked a new direction for China, which has repeatedly used its veto power at the UN Security Council to block or weaken resolutions directed at the issue.
Acclaim has largely been given to Ms. Farrow for her tactful dealings. She shares the diplomatic traits of a cast of other activist celebrities. Like Bob Geldof, the foul-mouthed musician turned brash advocate for African issues, she is not afraid to name and shame. Mr. Geldof's famous cry from the LiveAid stage, "give us the f**king money," represents his passionate delivery. In similar style, Ms. Farrow dubs the Beijing Games the "Genocide Olympics." But Ms. Farrow's calculated strategy is more characteristic of the style pioneered by Bono, the rock star/debt relief advocate. Rather than playing to human sympathies on Darfur, as actor George Clooney had previously done on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Ms. Farrow used the network she's familiar with to gain access to a network of influence-like Bono has done to put pressure on G8 leaders.
Her credibility on Sudan comes from her posting as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador (an affiliation she left off her Wall Street Journal commentary) and repeated travels to Darfur and the surrounding region. As a celebrity, Ms. Farrow has a different comfort zone than diplomats. This event played out almost entirely through the media, an outlet that state officials often avoid until there is something to announce.
Although much formal diplomacy is needed before celebrities can have influence, they bring energy and direction to issues in ways that traditional diplomats are unable. Diplomacy is often thought to be done best quietly. Ms. Farrow's approach to China and Darfur certainly challenges that assumption.