Hard Rock, Soft Diplomacy
Some months ago I was fortunate to be invited by
Hungarian ambassador Andrea Simonyi to a small dinner at
his official residence in Washington. It was a Hopkins
connection that gained me this coveted invitation, in this
case through a Peabody student whose grandfather is a
prominent Hungarian-American and a long-term member of
Ambassador Simonyi is a dynamic and engaging person
with a few surprises up his sleeve. During our dinner
conversation, I learned that he has a deep interest in rock
music. In fact, the ambassador plays electric guitar in a
Washington, D.C., rock band called Coalition of the
Willing. The band — which plays covers ranging from
the Beatles to a Hungarian version of Wild Thing — is
composed of some friends who live and work in the
Washington area. Ambassador Simonyi is the front man,
playing the guitar and singing most of the songs.
Naturally I wondered — and you may, too —
just how did a senior diplomat from a former Eastern bloc
country become a rock 'n' roller?
"It's really quite simple, Bill," he told me. "When I
was growing up in communist Hungary, the conditions were
very bleak, and we had little in the way of life's
necessities, and no personal freedom. However, through
contraband material and banned radio broadcasts, we were
able to hear the Western music of the '50s and '60s. It
was, in no small way, our lifeline, giving us a sense of
hope and freedom, and connection to the values of the
Western world. Without that, I don't know how we would have
People call this soft diplomacy, and in a world of
line-in-the-sand confrontation and war, I think it is a
highly underrated approach. Our own SAIS faculty member
Azar Nafisi — the former Iranian English professor
who wrote the best-selling book Reading Lolita in
Tehran — has expressed this concept so eloquently
when I have heard her speak. "Literature," she says, "is
about hope, about the freedom to think and dream."
Unfortunately, these are values generally not permitted to
women in the Islamic regime of Iran. After the revolution,
Nafisi, no longer able to teach English at the university
where she held a faculty appointment, went underground and
met surreptitiously in her home with a small group of
Iranian women for weekly tutorials in English literature.
It was an act of bravery — and of hope.
Since Sept. 11, our language and, I fear, our mind-set
have become increasingly militaristic — the "war on
terror" says it all. Yet, Ambassador Simonyi reminded me,
as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi so eloquently
demonstrated, real power lies not in weapons of mass
destruction but in the persuasiveness of words and
"Bill," he said, "never underestimate the power of
American culture to change the world."
I've been thinking about that. Imagine if we had taken
just a fraction of the money we are now spending in the
Iraq war and used it instead to start Western secular
schools in the Middle East, paying poor families to send
their children to places that provide a high-quality
education and promote values of freedom, peace, diversity
and tolerance. An impossible dream, perhaps. But one that
may have fared no worse than an onslaught of armies. Ideas
have a way of slipping into places that tanks cannot go.
Ever since my dinner with Ambassador Simonyi, I have been
remembering that it is our ideals, not our armaments, that
truly make us strong.
William R. Brody is president
of The Johns Hopkins University.