Take Action Now: The Legitimacy of Celebrity Power in International Relations.

Author:Partzsch, Lena
Position:Essay
 
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THE POLITICAL POWER OF CELEBRITIES IS GROWING IN INTERNATIONAL RELAtions, and many of them are committed to environmental causes. They often mobilize a wide range of people and address governments to take action in fields such as climate politics. In his 2016 Oscar acceptance speech for his role in The Revenant, US actor Leonardo DiCaprio urged his international audience to work collectively together and stop procrastinating on action against climate change. (1) Another example is US actress Daryl Hannah. Shortly before the 2015 climate summit in Paris, President Barack Obama announced his administration's rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, against which Hannah had campaigned for years. (2) This article discusses whether such celebrity power is legitimate or not and how celebrities may increase or hollow legitimate decisionmaking beyond the nation-state.

One of the most intricate political tasks ahead is extending democracy to the global realm. Although far from democratic, the United Nations offers the international order that comes closest to democratic norms with the principle of one country, one vote. Political interventions of nonstate actors, such as nonelected celebrities, are considered legitimate in this order only if these actors are authorized by states or intergovernmental organizations. This applies to UN goodwill ambassadors, such as DiCaprio, but most celebrities lack a formal authorization such as Hannah. We may argue that celebrities are individual citizens who speak and act only on their own behalf in international relations--they may even represent the cosmopolitan ideal of "world citizen." (3) As (world) citizens, celebrities can base their actions on the constitutionally warranted freedom of expression. However, celebrities are no ordinary citizens. The increase of celebrity power is embedded in new forms of governance and the growing relevance of private authority in global politics. (4)

Since celebrities generally have a significant impact in international relations, at least in some cases, (5) we need to ask questions about the legitimacy of celebrity power. By celebrity power, I mean their "capability... to determine the actions and even the thoughts of others." (6) In this article, I first outline the power of celebrities in international relations and introduce my two illustrative cases of DiCaprio and Hannah in more detail. This leads to the next section where I derive three criteria for evaluating the legitimacy of celebrity power from the literature on nonstate actors' legitimacy in global governance: (1) legitimacy through political impact; (2) legitimacy through broad participation of the deme (total of potential citizens and affected people); and (3) legitimacy through control and accountability. These criteria reflect different dimensions of democratic decisionmaking, which are interrelated. I explain these interrelations when introducing the criteria. Using the three criteria, I then discuss the legitimacy of the two cases of DiCaprio and Hannah. Methodologically, I used the three criteria as codes with several questions as subcodes, spelled out in Table 1, to analyze a total of ninety documents. These documents are articles on, interviews with, and speeches of the two celebrities over the past decade (April 2006-March 2016). I found the documents through Internet searches, excluding all news items with less than five sentences.

I argue that, as long as celebrities' claims are vague and do not go father than UN consensus, celebrity power can be considered legitimate through their political impact. DiCaprio and Hannah contribute civil society perspectives to the international agenda while, however, not necessarily voicing the most marginalized positions. Therefore, their democratic legitimacy in terms of broader participation of the deme in international relations is ambivalent. By urging governments to comply to international agreements, as DiCaprio does, he holds governments accountable on behalf of the public. However, both DiCaprio and Hannah claim to speak on behalf of affected people who cannot hold the celebrities themselves accountable for their political actions. This lack of control is problematic if celebrities convey more radical positions that are not generally endorsed by the international community, as Hannah does when protesting against Keystone XL and promoting biofuels. Whether such a problematic commitment helps to address environmental problems and combat climate change more effectively is a different matter.

The Power of Celebrities in International Relations

Celebrities are persons who have a prominent above-average public profile. Their involvement in international relations usually happens through classic means of political advocacy. Their popularity allows them to access international diplomacy. Andrew F. Cooper identifies them as "celebrity diplomats" (7) (a diplomat is an official representing a state to conduct diplomacy with another state or international organization). The UN has been using celebrities to attract public attention to its campaigns since the 1950s. When Kofi Annan was UN Secretary-General, however, he began to involve celebrities more intensively in UN campaigns. (8) In this way, the presence of celebrities in international relations has risen dramatically over the past decade and a half. (9) A broader portion of the public has become aware of celebrities' commitment to causes, such as climate change, and there is international reception of their advocacy work.

In July 2016, the Look to the Stars website listed 837 celebrities committed to the cause of the environment. (10) The first on the list is DiCaprio, who founded the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation in 1998 and played in several films to educate the public about environmental issues, including Blood Diamond (2006), 11th Hour (2007), and The Revenant (2015). (11) In 2014, DiCaprio became the official UN messenger of peace on climate change, and his speech at the UN climate summit meeting in New York in September 2014 has already made more headlines than any talk given by a head of state. (12) On the Forbes annual list of the world's 100 most powerful celebrities, based on their income from entertainment as well as on their visibility in the media, DiCaprio is number 89, with an annual income of $89 million. (13) Since DiCaprio appears on both lists--looktothestars.org and Forbes--I selected him as an illustrative case study.

My second case study is the first woman on the list of looktothestars.org (14) : Daryl Hannah (number 4 under the cause of the environment, after Edward Norton and Jack Johnson). She is known for her performances in films such as Blade Runner (1982), Wall Street (1987), and Kill Bill (2003). Hannah has been arrested several times for her activism, in particular for fighting the Keystone XL pipeline that TransCanada Corporation was trying to build between the Alberta oil sands in Canada and Texas refineries in the United States. (15) Furthermore, Hannah runs an online store for ecoproducts that range from kids' toys to a biodiesel vehicle. (16) She also cofounded the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance "to promote sustainable biodiesel practices and facilitate communication for a sustainable energy future that benefits all sectors of society." (17)

DiCaprio and Hannah illustrate well how celebrities' environmentalism blurs boundaries between their professional and private lives. By strategically linking entertainment, business, and commitment to good causes, celebrities can maximize their publicity. (18) Several studies have evaluated the personal motivation and impact of celebrities in international relations. (19) For example, Alison Andersen evaluated the impact of celebrities' participation in the Greenpeace activities around the Rio+20 conference in 2012. She found that, on the one hand, the organization successfully increased media attention for environmental causes by employing celebrities. On the other hand, Andersen warns that Greenpeace risks watering down and blurring its actual messages. (20) By masking the social and environmental relations of trade and production that underpin poverty, inequality, and environmental devastation, celebrities are likely to increase, rather than to solve, actual problems. (21)

In terms of political impact, it is important to see that celebrities are usually nonelected individuals who are more influential if they participate in wider transnational networks. They primarily try to impact political processes through advocacy; however, they also call on the public to buy certain products and to boycott others. For example, Hannah demands that the US government reject petroleum pipeline expansions and, at the same time, she asks consumers to buy biomass-based fuels instead of petroleum. (22) When we are presented with cases of celebrity advocacy, their activities are usually portrayed as serving universal objectives. (23) In this view, celebrities are do-gooders who act in favor of the common good; global issues such as climate change and animal welfare are seen as relevant and important issues that need to be urgently addressed, and are thus well accepted. Celebrities such as DiCaprio and Hannah are considered catalysts for supporting projects and bringing people together from different backgrounds, such as international businesses and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Addressing climate change and the rejection of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would have carried carbon-heavy petroleum with respective emissions contributing to global warming, tend to serve the common welfare.

Celebrities contribute pushing particular ideas against other alternatives. They exercise power not only with others in a cooperative manner but also against and over others in the sense of coercion and manipulation. (24) Celebrities determine public agencias and divert attention away from competing issues. (25)...

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