Innocents Abroad

When celebrities do diplomacy.

By , a researcher at Foreign Policy in 2013.

Dennis Rodman’s recent visit with Kim Jong Un set a pretty high bar for weirdness, even by North Korean standards. It’s rare enough for a U.S. citizen to get a sit-down with a North Korean leader, let alone a flamboyant former NBA star known as “the Worm” accompanied by an entourage consisting of the Harlem Globetrotters and the staff of a Brooklyn hipster magazine.

But Rodman’s just the latest in a long tradition of unlikely Americans making forays into diplomacy. Here are some of the most interesting:

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Jane Fonda in Vietnam

During a 1972 trip to Vietnam — with the U.S. war still raging — “Hanoi Jane,” as she came to be known, was photographed sitting on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft battery. The Barbarella star and heir to one of Hollywood’s legendary acting families was surrounded by opposition troops who serenaded her with a song about the day “Uncle Ho” declared the country’s independence. She returned the favor by struggling through a rendition of “Day Ma Di,” a song written by anti-war South Vietnamese students that she had memorized before the trip.

Fonda was harshly criticized for the photo, which she now says she will “regret to my dying day.” She was surrounded by North Vietnamese photographers as soon as she got to the site, and now believes that they invited her as a propaganda stunt.

She may not have meant to pose for the photo, but her comments are harder to defend. Fonda was angered by the U.S. government painting what she thought was a distorted picture of how the North Vietnamese abused U.S. prisoners of war, and lashed out in one of her 10 Radio Hanoi broadcasts by calling those POWs “liars, hypocrites and pawns.” She claims that the Nixon administration sought to charge her with treason, but could find no evidence.

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Shirley Temple in Ghana and Czechoslovakia

The former child star was a rare celebrity who became an official ambassador. Temple retired from films when she was just 22 years old and, 17 years later, jumped into the world of politics by running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as a California Republican. She lost the bid, but was appointed five years later by President Gerald R. Ford to be the U.S. ambassador to Ghana, which she called “the best job I ever had.”

She served from December 1974 through mid-1976 and 13 years later was named U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia, where she watched the Velvet Revolution begin from Wenceslas Square in Prague.


Muhammad Ali in Iraq

Ali had been making international headlines for activities unrelated to boxing since 1966, when he said he would refuse to serve in the Vietnam War. An outspoken political activist, Ali converted to Islam in 1967, winning millions of fans in the Muslim world.

His global following came in handy in 1990, just before the first Iraq war, when Ali traveled to Iraq in an attempt to negotiate the release of 15 American hostages who had been seized by the Iraqi government as an insurance policy against the impending U.S. invasion.

At first, then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was unwilling to meet with Ali, so the three-time world heavyweight champion walked the streets of Baghdad followed by scores of fans. Eventually, Hussein took notice of those crowds and sat down with Ali, who walked out of the meeting with a deal to release the Americans.

Camera crews captured grateful hostages thanking the star after their release, though he demurely told them, “I don’t need publicity for helping people. Then it’s no longer sincere.”

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Sean Penn in Venezuela

Sean Penn has supported the now ailing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez since he was first elected in 1999, earning him the description of “communist a–hole” from one of his co-stars and the ire of more than a few Americans.

Chávez may have called former president George W. Bush “the devil” and claimed that the United States gave him cancer, but that didn’t stop Penn from recently describing him as “one of the most important forces we’ve had on this planet.” The actor has said that anyone who calls Chávez a dictator should be thrown in jail, and declared that the only reason Americans view him as such is because they have been “hypnotized” by the mainstream media. Before the Venezuelan president was hospitalized again, Penn could be found fist-bumping his friend at a campaign rally last August.

The Hollywood icon has made waves elsewhere in Latin America as well. He recently jumped into the contentious debate between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands, known locally as the Malvinas. He accused Britain of having a “ludicrous and archaic commitment to colonialist ideology” during a meeting with Argentinean President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, then promptly said that “true dialogue” was the only way the two countries could solve the problem.

But Penn’s international work hasn’t always involved stepping on someone’s toes. He is also “ambassador at large” in Haiti, where he founded the J/P Haitian Relief Organization after the earthquake there in 2010. The charity does everything from remove rubble to supply Haitians with medical supplies.

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Nicolas Cage in Uganda and Kenya

When Cage was appointed as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the organization’s Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa demonstrated a knowledge of the eccentric star’s oeuvre, saying, “The Lord of War has become a messenger for peace, the Bad Lieutenant has turned into a good cop, and the inmate from Con Air has become a champion of prison reform.”

The actor visited Uganda for eight days in November 2009 to highlight human-trafficking problems that help spread HIV, and learned about how child soldiers there are recruited. He also stopped in Kenya, where he visited a prison full of dancing Somali pirates.

Nearly a year later, at a United Nations conference against organized crime in Vienna, Austria, Cage said, “Through working with UNODC, I’ve come to understand who the world’s real heroes are. I’ve seen the brave souls working on the frontlines, operating under the most difficult circumstances and with very limited resources.”

Cage now knows a little more about limited resources. Around the same time he was in Uganda and Kenya, the world discovered he had bankrupted himself during a spending spree that included 15 homes and a fleet of Rolls Royces.

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images Entertainment

Mike Tyson in China

In December 2010, Iron Mike visited Tianjin to promote the World Boxing Organization and the Tianjin International Boxing Exhibition — only, he didn’t really know much about what he was promoting, or why he was doing it. About a month prior to the visit, Tyson had already called himself a U.S. ambassador, but the trip had no real agenda. When a reporter asked him what the itinerary looked like, he said, “Yeah, tell me. I’m pretty interested.”

He didn’t seem to know much about the job parameters of his self-appointed position, either. “I didn’t even know what an ambassador really was,” he said at the time. “When I think of ambassadors I think of living off government money and jet-setting with girlfriends.”

That comment wasn’t the best start to his term as unofficial ambassador, but Tyson gave it another swing. “Didn’t you guys have an altercation with the Japanese people at one time?” he asked Gary Yang, an executive with Tianjin International Sports Development. “Here’s what you do: You go looking for a Chinese fighter who will beat the evil Japanese guy and get revenge. That will sell.”

Yang hoped Tyson could bring even greater popularity to amateur boxing in China, where Yang says the former heavyweight title-holder is “above Muhammad Ali.”

Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

Colin Daileda was a researcher at Foreign Policy in 2013.

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