James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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More Celebrities and Foreign Policy

by James M. Lindsay
December 7, 2010

Yesterday I blogged on an article in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine about John Prendergast’s efforts to enlist celebrities to help bring attention to humanitarian disasters in Africa.  A sharp-eyed TWE reader immediately emailed to point out a related article in the Style section of the Sunday New York Times on Trevor Neilson, philanthropic adviser to the stars.

Neilson, along with his wife Maggie and their friend Ann Kelly, runs a company called Global Philanthropy Group.  The firm advises its 20 clients on how to make a difference on issues they care about.  Clients include Ashton Kutcher, Shakira, Ben Stiller, Olivia Wilde, John Legend, and Tory Burch.  (Yes, to the horror of my four teenage children I had to google a few of those names.)  Another firm, the Endeavor Group, provides similar services.

Before you scoff at these efforts, consider the following observation by Neilson on Bono’s good works:

For some reason, cynicism is cool.  But in my view any dollar that can be brought into an issue, any visibility that can be brought, is something that wasn’t there before.  Bono didn’t start off as Bono.  He was just this Irish rock dude who went to Ethiopia, experienced the famine, and became who he is today.

It’s hard to kvetch about people wanting to make a difference.

In all, the article is a fascinating read. Because the domestic determinants of American foreign policy is one of my primary intellectual interests and because I suspect that celebrity activism is here to stay, I hope some graduate student out there is writing a dissertation on the topic. (It sure would beat yet another study of pork barreling in Congress or of “regime” formation in international relations.)  When does celebrity advocacy succeed?  How do governments deflect, co-opt, or respond to celebrity activism?  Does celebrity activism actually hurt sensible foreign policy by encouraging the simplistic and the symbolic over the sensible as some critics in the developing world as well as the developed world argue?  A dissertation that tackled those questions is one I would like to read.

(Photo: Neilson at far right, pictured with Richard Holbrooke, far left, Angelina Jolie, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Clinton in September 2005.  Ho New / courtesy Reuters).

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Asch Harwood

    I enjoyed your blog post today.

    On your question, “Does celebrity activism actually hurt sensible foreign policy by encouraging the simplistic and the symbolic over the sensible as some critics in the developing world as well as the developed world argue?,” in the blogosphere at least there is considerable argument that it does (although I’m not totally convinced). Chris Blattman addresses it here (http://chrisblattman.com/2010/07/26/should-you-support-the-conflict-minerals-movement/) and Wronging Rights touches on this here (http://wrongingrights.blogspot.com/2010/07/o-rly.html).

    There’s tons more where that came from.

    On the “It’s hard to kvetch about people wanting to make a difference,” there was a pretty amazing blogosphere reaction (http://bit.ly/amFPhH) to a group’s plan to donate used t-shirts to Africa. This appeared, at least to me, to be a case of how the blogosphere’s outcry basically put a stop to the plan.

    Anyways, I’ve been enjoying.

  • Posted by James M. Lindsay

    Thanks for the links, Asch. I don’t doubt that celebrity activists may at times get behind an idea that looks less than appealing upon reflection. But to be fair, highly credentialed foreign policy experts have done likewise.

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