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From Bismarck to Jamie Oliver: Celebrity Chefs and Resource Diplomacy

David Ritter - 13th January 2011

It is a safe assumption that neither Bismarck nor Metternich anticipated Jamie Oliver.

Yet in the post-modern world of the current era of globalization, celebrity norm entrepreneurs stride the world stage, creating discursive complications - and opportunities - for state actors. As Andrew F. Cooper of the Canadian Centre for International Governance Innovation, author of Celebrity Diplomacy has written:

The buzz that celebrity diplomacy provides certainly cannot be discounted. While traditional statecraft is usually opaque to the uninitiated, celebrities mesh international problem solving with the world of entertainment. But some components of this phenomenon provide not just a different sort of excitement, they offer some prospect of hope that issues too long neglected can be ratcheted up on the global agenda.

In Europe this week, the politics of fisheries and aquaculture has been shaken up by the Fish Fight Season, broadcast on the United Kingdom’s Channel Four. The ‘season’ consists of a number of television programs featuring celebrity chefs including Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal, all – in their own idiosyncratic and charismatic ways – drawing attention to the crisis of the world’s fisheries.

Chefs, of course, are more than mere celebrities to the extent that they constitute an (albeit stylized) element of the (high) end users in a chain of production. As iconic craftsmen, the Channel Four chefs are making a statement about the values which they see as inherent in the way they practice their skills.

In the case of Fearnley-Whittingstall, a journalist, author, chef, campaigner and all round heavy-weight public figure in the UK, the targets have included farmed salmon and elements of the global tinned tuna industry. But Fearnley-Whittingstall’s largest focus has been on the debacle of Europe’s Common Fisheries Policy. Fearnley-Whittingstall is calling for radical reform in the way that Europe administers fishing in its oceans. In particular the aim of Hugh’s Fish Fight is to seek an end to discarding; that is the practice of throwing away perfectly good fish that have been caught, because of either regulatory obligations or market pressures.

Celebrity diplomats now commonly grace the current affairs pages of serious newspapers and online services, and ‘celebrity diplomacy’ is established as a recognized sub-field of study.  Fearnley-Whittingstall is being explicitly norm entrepreneurial within the field of transnational politics, seeking to shift the way in which fish and fishing are regarded by sections of the European public in order to agitate for political change.

According to Cooper, the classic image of diplomacy and international relations is challenged by celebrities as a new type of non-state actor particularly adept at public communications. To watch Fearnley-Whittingstall dance around various industry lobbyists and diplomats at a Common Fisheries Policy meeting is to see the flexibility and charisma of the former in contrast to the stilted unease of the latter. In terms of appearances, the professionals simply don’t stand a chance.

 Ultimately if Fearnley-Whittingstall’s campaign is to succeed, it is still the sovereign states that comprise the EU that will have to agree on the necessary measures prior to the conclusion of the mandated CFP reform process at the end of 2012.  Normative contexts condition decision making in national capitals and multilateral institutions, but state power politics does not go away.