Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Celebrities and foreign policy

FT columnist Gideon Rachman writes: "Celebrities tend to see things in the stark and simple terms favoured in Hollywood movies, rock songs and the speeches of US president George W. Bush. It is always black versus white; good against evil."

The aid crusade and Bono’s brigade

By Gideon Rachman
Published: October 29 2007 18: 06

Here is a selection of recent newspaper headlines: “Redford slams Bush over Iraq”; “Bono takes IMF to task over Liberia”; “Jolie blasts US military spending”; “Clooney’s foreign policy – sexiest man has a plan to save Darfur”.

You do not have to buy supermarket tabloids to read this stuff. The Bono headline was in the Financial Times; the Clooney story was in the Chicago Tribune. The news editors of these high-brow publications have not gone mad (as far as I can tell). They are simply reflecting the fact that film stars and rock musicians shape public opinion – and therefore public policy. Daniel Drezner, an academic, argues in a forthcoming article for National Interest – “Foreign Policy Goes Glam” – that the growth of “celebrity activism” reflects the decline of traditional media and the rising power of star-struck “soft news” outlets.

Something about this mix of glitter and public policy makes me uncomfortable – and apparently I am not alone. When I suggested recently on my FT blog that Bono was a “grandstanding poseur”, I was astonished by the gleeful vitriol I unleashed in response. One commenter called the Irish anti-poverty campaigner a “preening narcissist”; another castigated “the absurd legal case he brought to reclaim a hat”; others pointed to the use of Dutch tax shelters by his band, U2; another accused him of being “a yobbo teaching PhDs how to do their jobs”.

After a while, I became a little alarmed – even ashamed. Bono and other celebrity campaigners may be irritating, but are they really that bad? Would it actually be better if they devoted themselves to more traditional rock-star pastimes such as smashing up hotel rooms and choking on their own vomit? As one of Bono’s sidekicks pointed out to me, in a pained e-mail, the star has “helped bring about debt cancellation of $70bn for African countries” and raised money for antimalarial bed-nets and drugs to combat HIV.

All of this prompted me to try to be more precise. It seems to me there are three problems with mixing stars and foreign policy. The first is aesthetic; the second is to do with legitimacy; and the third is about the kind of policies that appeal to celebrities.

To get a sense of the aesthetic problem, take a look at the July issue of Vanity Fair – guest edited by Bono and concentrating on African poverty and luxury-goods advertising. Graydon Carter, the magazine’s full-time editor, records how he first met Bono “at a small dinner given by Robert De Niro”. (God forbid that it should have been a large dinner.) He records that “Bono was a difficult man not to like”. Bono reciprocates. “Graydon,” he writes, is a “true rock star”. As for “our corporate partners – American Express, Apple, Emporio Armani. . . ” – they are “heroic”.

Let Bono into your life and you can be sure to be garlanded with gush. Ignore him and he can turn nasty. At the most recent Group of Eight leading industrialised nations summit, the rock star secured meetings with the US president, the German chancellor and the French president. But when Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister, said he was too busy to meet him, Bono snarled that it was Mr Harper who had “blocked progress” on aid for Africa. A chastened prime minister promised to find time in his diary for a meeting.

There is something unedifying about an unelected celebrity intimidating politicians. But if Bono and pals really are saving lives, then surely it is all for the best? To their fans, there is little doubt. By raising money and awareness – and by pressurising politicians to “do the right thing” – the stars are making the world a better place.

The trouble is that celebrities tend to see things in the stark and simple terms favoured in Hollywood movies, rock songs and the speeches of US president George W. Bush. It is always black versus white; good against evil.

So George Clooney has been quoted as saying of the war in Darfur: “It is not a political issue. There is only right or wrong.” Anguish over Darfur is appropriate. But no political issues? Try telling that to the people who tried and failed to persuade rebel groups to attend peace talks last weekend.

African poverty – still the stars’ favourite cause – is particularly vulnerable to stark over-simplification. The rock-star analysis was most pithily expressed during the Live Aid concert in 1985, when Bob Geldof implored a television audience to: “Just give us the fockin’ money.”

Twenty years on, more “fockin’ money” is still the musicians’ basic prescription for Africa. Bono’s crusade centres around foreign aid and debt relief. There are experts who agree with him. Jeffrey Sachs, the stars’ favourite economist, favours an aid-driven approach to African poverty – and, according to Angelina Jolie, he is “one of the smartest people in the world”.

But the Sachs-Bono-Jolie prescription for Africa is hardly uncontested. There are experts who believe that aid to Africa is often counter-productive. Even some of those who agree that aid and debt relief are important see them as only a small part of the solution. In a much-praised book on global poverty, The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier argues that many of the problems of Africa are essentially political. He laments the fact that at the G8: “We have had leadership without an adequate agenda, because to date the agenda has been dominated by aid.”

And who is setting the agenda? Look no further than an Irish musician in wrap-around shades – perfect for those hot African days.

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