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Acclaim or Negation for George Clooney's Role in South Sudan's Independence?

Posted: 07/19/11 01:16 PM ET

Who deserves credit for bringing the Republic of South Sudan into existence as the 193rd country in the United Nations?

One strong candidate for acclaim is the phenomenon of celebrity activism led by Hollywood's paramount leading man, George Clooney.

In a cover story back in January, at the time of the ultimately successful referendum in South Sudan, Newsweek magazine elevated Clooney's status to that of the quintessential 21st-century statesman.

Not only did the article showcase Clooney's pivotal role in achieving this decisive result after many decades of fighting, it implied that these activities served as a catalyst for the so-called Arab Spring.

But not everybody has been convinced.

As might be expected, there continue to be ripples of outright dismissal of Clooney's efforts from the usual suspects.

Some professional skeptics, such as NYU economics professor William Easterly, have been dismissive of any celebrity efforts of an issue-specific nature -- whether on Sudan or development.

Conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh have continually torn into Clooney, targeting him as a classic liberal grandstanding star over his head in a dangerous neighbourhood.

What is new is the negation of Clooney's efforts not only by some armchair critics, but by committed activists with long experience in the region, who complain that the attention devoted to Clooney hides the complexity and the span of time of the struggle.

This resentment is far from surprising, and echoes the disapproving sentiments among civil society and humanitarian workers, who feel their day-to-day efforts have been upstaged by celebrity interventions.

Yet, despite these signs of backlash, this sort of 21st-century diplomacy is not just simply about a big individual grabbing the spotlight, but about extended networks that can deliver results.

Clooney uses his star power to animate collective action through an improvised script: selective forms of access to key decision makers (including face time with both President Obama and Vice President Biden), protracted cross-partisan and cross-cultural/religious lobbying, a sophisticated knowledge of both traditional and non-traditional media, and repeated personal visits to the region.

All of this work is flavoured by a marked display of flexibility, highlighted by Clooney's pragmatic but controversial shift in focus of activity from Darfur to the cause of South Sudan.

In style as well as substance, Clooney displayed considerable caution, relying heavily on mentors both in terms of general strategy (using many of the techniques pioneered by Bono and his ONE organization on development) and tactics. Behind Clooney's work stands John Prendergast, the co-founder of the Enough Project and a former director of African affairs at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.

Clooney embraced an innovative form of cyber-diplomacy through the launch of the Satellite Sentinel Project, an initiative with a host of partners, including the UN Operational Satellite Applications Programme, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Google and the Internet firm Trellon. The project monitored the border between North and South Sudan.

Such techniques allowed -- among other things -- physical evidence of atrocities occurring on the ground to be located.

If not the repertoire of an enthusiastic amateur, it does raise the bar of expectations.

Unlike traditional state-based diplomacy, this approach does not operate at its best in the shadows of secrecy. Any misstep by commission or omission attracts commentary.

Certainly, this high-profile but informal mode of public diplomacy takes attention away from front line workers -- and indeed the incoming government of South Sudan, led by Salva Kiir. It does so, however, without building a rigid and competitive sense of hierarchy and institutionalized status.

The danger for Clooney is a sense of overexposure at a time of triumph.

Wisely, instead of grabbing the spotlight at the independence ceremonies for South Sudan (or, for that matter, the flag raising at the UN in New York), Clooney choose to stay away.

Even 21st-century diplomats need to demonstrate tact and discretion, allowing other actors to share quite rightly the spotlight.

Andrew Cooper is a CIGI Distinguished Fellow and author of Celebrity Diplomacy.