Ukraine’s Unique Approach to Celebrity Diplomacy

Celebrity diplomacy is not a new phenomenon. For many decades, multilateral institutions such as UNICEF (United Nations International Emergency Children’s Fund) have relied on celebrities to increase awareness to important causes and raise funds. Other times celebrities join NGOs to promote specific causes ranging from alleviating poverty in Africa to helping child soldiers rejoin society. Bono, Angelia Jolie, Michael Douglas, and Emma Watson are but a few celebrities who have shared their star power with diplomatic actors.

In recent weeks, the U24 Twitter channel, dubbed “the main venue for collecting charitable donations in support of Ukraine”, has integrated several celebrities into its digital crowdfunding efforts. According to the U24 channel, it has already raised a staggering 250 million dollars in donations from individuals and groups around the world.

The roster of celebrities that have joined Ukraine’s crowdfunding effort is diverse and includes pop culture icons such as Mark Hamill; musical icons such as Barbara Streisand; television actors such as Liev Schreiber; US Astronaut Scott Kelly and intellectuals such as Timothy Snyder. For the Ukrainian government the inclusion of celebrities in its digital messaging may play two crucial roles. First, ensuring that digital publics do not grow weary of war-related information and begin to show interest in other events. Second, ensuring that the media does not move onto a new story. Ukraine is fighting two wars of attrition: one opposite the Russian army and the second opposite the short attention span of digital publics and digital news outlets, who are always eager to scroll onto a new sensation.  

Importantly, Ukraine has been using its celebrities to crowdfund different resources. Barbara Streisand helped raise funds for much needed medical aid while television actor Liev Schreiber has helped raise many for hospitals in need of generators following brutal Russian attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure. In this sense, Ukraine’s practice of celebrity is not entirely different then that practiced by UNICEF or NGOs. Ukraine uses star power to attract attention to a cause and raise funds to address that cause.

What is perhaps unique about Ukraine’s approach is the diversity of celebrities it has recruited. This diversity may serve a strategic purpose. Indeed, it’s fair to assume that Barbara Streisand attracts a different online following when compared to historian and philosopher Timothy Snyder, while Snyder’s follower base probably differs from that of the Astronaut Scott Kelly. By using celebrities from diverse fields Ukraine may be able to reach larger and more diverse digital publics, allowing it to maintain the interest and financial support of the social media users.

However, there is one way in which Ukraine’s approach to celebrity diplomacy differs from that of UNICEF and NGOs who enlist celebrities to help promote positive causes. Emma Watson helped the UN raise attention to gender equality, Princess Diana helped NGOs remove landmines. In many instances celebrities are enlisted once the war has ended, the dust has settled, and nations face the awesome task of rebuilding societies, villages, and cities. This is not the case with Ukraine whose Celebrity Ambassadors crowdfunding military equipment.  

Mark Hamill, known to billions as Luke Skywalker, is helping Ukraine raise funds for reconnaissance drones. These may not be purely offensive weapons, but they could help the Ukrainian military in tracking, identifying, and attacking Russian soldiers. According to websites, these drones are perfect for mapping enemy locations without exposing soldiers to any danger. The drones could also be used to map and identify targets located 25 kilometers inside Russia. In other words, thanks to these drones, Ukraine could attack Russian soldiers before they have even crossed the border into Ukraine. Hamill related tweets are all linked to his pop culture status. In one tweet, shown below, Hamill’s picture is set against the words “these are the drones you’re looking for”, a play on the Star Wars line, “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for”.

Hamill’s case is relatively unique in the annals of modern celebrity diplomacy. His star power is not being used to end wars or rebuild after wars but to wage a war. What is most distressing is the role that popular culture plays in this campaign. Devout Star Wars fans may jump at the opportunity to aid their hero, Luke Skywalker, or follow their hero’s behavior in donating to the Ukrainian war effort. Not to mention the fact that the use of Star Wars to raise funds for weapons of war invariably makes war “cool”.

History has also shown that diplomats and governments often mimic one another’s digital behavior. We may thus expect that in future wars and conflicts, nations and non-state actors will use celebrities to crowdfund war efforts, transforming wars into an acceptable and normal solution to challenges rather than a regrettable last resort. Other nations may also use star power to acquire sophisticated and dangerous offensive weapons that can cause much more damage than the Ukrainian drones.   

Ukraine is fighting for its life and using any means at its disposal.  One cannot fault Ukraine for that. Yet scholars must consider the long-term effects of Ukraine’s digital efforts, especially those that may ultimately harm societies and make wars more prevalent.

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